image of Mt RushmoreWith the presidential primaries and election looming in 2020, there will be plenty of pundits, analysts and writers talking about the candidates, and debating which ones will most likely make the best leaders.

According to a well-known study of presidential character, some common leadership qualities that successful U.S. presidents appear to have in common are the following:

  • A strong vision for the country’s future
  • An ability to put their own times in the perspective of history
  • Effective communication skills
  • The courage to make unpopular decisions
  • Crisis management skills
  • Character and integrity
  • Wise appointments
  • An ability to work with Congress

The lists have varied over the years, and historians hesitate to include recent presidents because, well, they’re historians and want them to have more of a track record to go by. But those who consistently rate at the top are Abraham Lincoln, George Washington, and Franklin Roosevelt. Others who consistently rank high include Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson, Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, and Harry Truman.

The question is, do these same presidential qualities translate to effective business leadership? They do. Sort of. Granted, most corporate executives and managers will never work with Congress or negotiate with foreign governments, but many of their responsibilities and goals are similar.

Although my client list hasn’t yet included a U.S. president or presidential candidate, I have worked with hundreds of successful executives and managers with varied backgrounds and levels of experience. Based on my experience, here are nine abilities and skills that great leaders have in common, regardless of title or position.

9 Things Great Presidents and Leaders Have In Common

1. They provide clarity.

Being clear about what needs to be done – and concisely expressing business visions and goals – is vital for effective leadership. Employees need to know where the organization is headed and what the expectations are for getting there, both from an individual and team perspective.

2. They listen and allow others to be heard.

Good leaders listen closely with the goals of understanding others and being understood. Effective listeners gain access to a diversity of ideas and potential solutions that otherwise would not have been generated. They also strengthen relationships, build trust, improve teamwork and show employees that they care.

3. They value conversations.

Effective communication is important, but it requires more than just a basic oral or written transaction between two people. Good leaders facilitate genuine conversations – meaningful human-to-human connections – and bring people together to work and gain agreement in order to achieve goals. 

4. They model desired behaviors.

Quite simply, strong leaders walk the walk and talk the talk. In other words, they model the same behavior they expect from their teams. You can have inspirational quotes and company values framed on the wall all you want, but modeled behavior will always be more effective.

5. They encourage healthy conflict.

Healthy conflict is good for relationships and organizations because it challenges assumptions and creates great results. Powerful leaders allow different views to be presented and shared, and know that disagreements can open pathways to innovation and higher-performing teams. 

6. They create an environment of emotional safety.

Successful organizations consist of employees who are invested in their work, which means there will be moments of joy, frustration, confusion, exhaustion, and a host of other feelings. Emotions, both positive and negative, are a fundamental part of who we are, and ignoring or suppressing them is harmful. Good leaders know the importance of fostering a healthy cognitive and emotional culture, in which individuals feel safe in saying how they feel and expressing their views, without stigma or shame. 

7. They have high levels of self-awareness.

It’s important for leaders to be aware of their own strengths, weaknesses, tendencies, preferences and other personality traits, because these characteristics have a significant impact on how they behave and interact with others. Leaders with high levels of self-awareness can consciously influence situations and positively affect their teams. Leaders that are not self-aware make decisions and behave in ways that can lead to undesirable or negative consequences.

8. They empower others.

Successful business leaders are confident in their own hiring decisions, and give employees the freedom they need to come up with innovative ideas, initiatives or processes on their own. Those who micromanage only serve to limit creativity and potential, which demoralizes employees and contributes to a frustrated and low-functioning workforce.  

9. They welcome feedback.

Giving and receiving feedback can feel uncomfortable, but failing to do so could seriously hurt the company or organization. Unchecked inefficiencies and practices will hamper growth. Learning to embrace honest feedback with an open mind and the willingness to improve where necessary will make individuals, teams and the business stronger. Additionally, when leaders routinely expose themselves to candid feedback, it makes it easier for employees to do the same. 


What do you look for in great leaders?

We’re going to be hearing a lot about leadership in the news over the next year, and I’m curious. What traits do you think are necessary in strong leaders, regardless of rank, role or title? What characteristics have you seen within the leaders of your own company or organization that are effective? Which ones are not? Please share your comments or stories below.

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