The 5 Simple Traits of Great Leaders


When you think about the leaders you admire the most, what characteristics come to mind? 

James Kouzes and Barry Posner, authors of The Leadership Challenge, wanted to answer that question. So they did a ton of research, and they found that the top five traits of good leaders are universal principles. 

Leadership expert Wally Adamchik defines universal principles as traits that every culture responds to in the same way. Just like joy and fear look the same all over the world, so does a good leader.

Those universal traits are:

  1.     Honest 
  2.     Forward-looking 
  3.     Inspiring 
  4.     Competent 
  5.     Fair-minded 


Honesty is the number one trait of a good leader, no matter where you go in the world—and for good reason. Our DNA is wired to respond to honesty.

“It’s the root of all relationships. It’s the currency of all relationships. Either you trust someone, or you don’t,” Wally says.

Winning that trust from the people you lead is crucial. “If I don’t trust you, I will not follow you. I may come to work because I like my paycheck, but I am not going to bust my a** for you,” Wally says. 

Honesty isn’t just about truth and lies, either. It’s about making every effort to live up to your commitments.  

“If you're a liar, I'll find that out pretty darn quick,” Wally points out. But he says, “when I come to you with a pay issue and you say, ‘Well, I'll look into it, then I’ll get back to you’ and then you don't get back to me, that's a little hit on the integrity side.”

He adds that sometimes mistakes do happen: “When I say, ‘Hey I'll call you next Tuesday at two,’ and I don't, am I a liar? Nah . . . we still miss some calls from time to time. I did it the other day. [But] I don't make that mistake very often.” 

When an honest leader does make a mistake, they acknowledge it and make it right because they’ve developed the confidence and humility to do so. 

And if that’s not you? Wally says, “Do not pass go. If you do not have honesty, if you do not exude that, if you do not create that in your relationship with your people, just quit. You’ve got nothing.”


Do you have a plan? Are you setting direction for your people? Are you casting a vision?

Those are the keys to being a forward-looking leader.

To illustrate what that looks like, Wally recalls meeting a contractor on a jobsite. They told him, “Wally, we have a two-two-two philosophy. Our foreman is looking out two days, our superintendent’s looking out two weeks, and our project manager is looking out two months.” 

You could add to that and say the executives are looking out two years. Or you could choose different numbers if you want. 

The point is that if you've got leaders at all levels looking to the horizon, you’ll eliminate a lot of problems. You’ll always have the right labor, materials, and equipment to do the job. And your people will always have hope.

 “If you (my boss) are looking further out while I'm looking down in the hole doing the thing, it gives me hope—hope that the job is still going to be here, hope that you're going to be taking care of the company, hope that I'm still going to be employed two years from now,” Wally says.

What’s more, your people expect you to look to the future, because you’re not paying them to do it. 


Wally doesn’t like the word inspiring, but it comes up in research over and over. 

He’s quick to point out that not all people are inspirational—and that inspiration isn’t just about saying, “Rah, rah! Go team!” That would be pretty annoying. 

Instead, Wally likes to think of being inspiring as being passionate. 

He asks, “Are you passionate about the work? Do you care about the work? When you come to work, are you bright-eyed, leaning in, energetic—or are you coming in in the morning like, This sucks?” 

However you approach your job will determine how your people approach theirs.

If you’re energetic and you care, your people will be energized and they will care. But if you're a blackhole of negativity, they’ll get sucked in with you. 

Wally encourages leaders to think about how you show up every day. Passion comes across no matter what role you're in, and ultimately, it'll help you get to the level of leadership you want to be at



Competency is technical proficiency. This includes knowing how to do your own job and having a basic grasp of what your people do. 

“If I work in accounting, I want my leader to be competent in all the things related to debits and credits and AP and AR and all that money stuff. If I work in the field, I want my leader to be competent with dirt, safety, machines, pipe, those kinds of things,” Wally explains. 

Now you may be thinking, It’s impossible to know everything about what every single one of my people does. 

You’re right. You can’t know everything about everything. But you should know the basics.

First of all, knowing what your people do builds empathy. “If you've never been in the hole, how can you have empathy for somebody who is in the hole? Hot, cold, wet, dry, day, night—let's face it, it can be pretty rough out there,” Wally says. 

Competency is also key because when you know what people do, you can help them do their jobs better. 

Wally continues, “One of the things I want from my leader is help, guidance, instruction, training. [I want them] to look down and go, ‘Hey try using your left hand instead of your right hand’ or ‘Try doing this’ . . . to coach me, to help me get better. If you don't have competence at the thing, how can you help me get better at it?” 

Just as important, you can advocate for your people. When you know what your people need, you can make sure other leaders in other areas of the business don’t overlook them. You can speak up for your people to make sure they’re taken care of.


Being fair-minded means you treat everyone on your crew or in your company fairly. 

“Notice I didn't say equally,” Wally says. That’s because equal treatment is absurd. He uses this illustration to show why: 

Let’s say Susan comes to you and says, “Hey, can I leave two hours early tomorrow? My daughter has a soccer game I'd like to go see.” 

You say, “Absolutely, Susan. Not a problem.” 

Then Bob comes to you and he says, “Hey, I’ve got a doctor's appointment. Can I come to work three hours late tomorrow?” 

And you say, “No, you can leave two hours early.” 

That’s equal treatment, because Bob and Susan get the same thing. But you can see the stupidity. Bob doesn’t need to leave early; he needs to arrive late. 

According to Wally, “Fairness says, ‘Hey Susan, you leave two hours early. Hey Bob, you come in three hours late. Do what you’ve got to do. I'll take care of you.” 

You can also think about fairness in terms of how you assign tasks. Who always gets the good job, and who always gets the crappy job? 

You may very well have favorite people on your team—Wally does. That’s natural. But if your favorites always get the cushy jobs, that’s not fair. 

It’s also not fair if your favorites always get the crummy jobs. “Sometimes we take our best people and we put them on the worst jobs time after time because they can handle it. Then you burn them out,” Wally says. 

When you’re fair-minded, you give somebody else an opportunity to step up and take on that tough job so your best person gets a break now and then. 

You treat everyone fairly, not equally. There’s a really big difference between those two.


When you wake up in the morning, you're not probably putting yourself through this checklist of:

  • Am I honest?
  • Am I forward-looking?
  • Am I inspiring? 
  • Am I competent?
  • Am I fair-minded?

But your people are. 

Sure, they’re not putting the words to it. But they are looking to see whether you have the universal character traits of a good leader. If you don’t, then they’re looking for a leader who does. 

So Wally’s last piece of advice? 

“This is probably something you want to visit from time to time. So the next time you look in the mirror or before you get on the jobsite, grade yourself on all five of those characteristics . . . You will not regret spending time getting better at those five things.”

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