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What Makes a True Leader?

Professors Mike Crant and Peter DeLisle take a look at how characteristics such as honesty and trustworthiness help set the best business leaders apart from their peers.

By Bisk
What Makes a True Leader?

Society is replete with leaders – athletes who lead a team, politicians who lead constituents, bosses who lead a company – but do they truly embody the spirit of the word?

True leaders, according to websites such as Mind Tools (, help both themselves and those around them to do the right thing. They chart a course by inspiring others with a shared vision and, in turn, create something new out of the familiar.

Leadership is, at its core, the ability to map out the best route to success. It can be with a team or a company, but it is always dynamic, inspiring and designed to excite others into action.

Businesses need a proper vision to realize the end goal of what can be achieved in the future. With the right vision comes direction, priorities and benchmarks to measure success along the way.

Leaders take their vision and essentially sell it to their people in a compelling manner that employees can understand and visualize. Some use stories that are relatable. Others paint a visual picture with words.

The goal is to motivate, inspire and galvanize individuals, whether colleagues or subordinates, so that the vision becomes reality. Leaders understand that with any goal there will be hurdles. Leaders should be able to maintain enthusiasm, even if changes to the original vision occur, by individualizing the experience as needed to meet the specific aspirations of their people.

Dr. Mike Crant, the Mary Jo and Richard M. Kovacevich Professor of Excellence in Leadership Instruction at the University of Notre Dame's Mendoza College of Business, points to The Leadership Challenge, a book by James Kouzes and Barry Posner. It includes a survey of 20,000 people who were asked to describe the characteristics of a leader they admired.

Nearly 18,000 participants said the most important characteristic in a leader was honesty. Crant says this isn’t surprising, nor is it confined strictly to the United States. Honesty is globally important to people when they think of leadership. Business managers, specifically, should lead with honesty and integrity, which is a bedrock of Notre Dame’s business education.

“It seems that the extent to which you are viewed as an honest person who manages with ethics and integrity strongly influences the way people perceive of you,” Crant says. “They believe you are a more effective leader if they trust you.”

In 2013, Forbes magazine compiled a list of 15 things that the most successful leaders do every day without thinking. Some are no-brainers, such as making decisions and communicating expectations. But others show how great leaders advocate for the qualities they exemplify:

  • Make others feel it is safe to speak up
  • Challenge people to think
  • Be accountable to others
  • Lead by example
  • Provide continuous feedback
  • Properly allocate and deploy talent
  • Ask questions, seek counsel
  • Avoid procrastination
  • Invest in relationships.

Peter DeLisle, the Leslie B. Crane Chair of Leadership Studies and Director of The Posey Leadership Institute at Austin College, refers to interpersonal skills when discussing great leaders. Interpersonal skills can refer to making hard decisions or being courageous, but chief among those skills is the ability of a leader to influence someone else to gain their trust.

“Trust is something that’s given to us by other people,” DeLisle says. “And, in fact, it’s the critical skill of leadership.”

Leaders are true to their character. They’re committed to doing the right thing at the right time for the right reason. When people know wholeheartedly that the person leading them will always do what they say, they in turn will work tirelessly to help the leader achieve a goal.

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Category: Leadership and Management