The 5 Simple Traits of Great Leaders

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

As it turns out, there are five traits that the leaders we most admire practice consistently. 

Based on the research of James Kouzes and Barry Posner, these top five traits are universal principles: They’re traits that every culture responds to in the same way. And in this lesson, Adamchik talked about each of these traits —honesty, forward-looking, inspiring, competent, and fair-minded — and how they can have a big impact on the way you lead.


Honesty tops this list of top five leadership traits, and for good reason. It’s the root of all relationships. It’s about integrity, and it’s about trust. 

You either trust someone, or you don’t.

Think about it from a leadership perspective: If I don’t trust you, I will not follow you. It’s as basic as that. As Adamchik put it, “I may come to work because I like my paycheck. But I’m not going to bust my ass for you.”

And honesty in this sense isn’t about being a liar. It’s about living up to your commitments. “If you’re a liar, you’re a liar, and I’ll find that out pretty darn quick,” Adamchik pointed out. “But if I come to you with a pay issue and you tell me you’ll look into it and get back to me, and then you don’t? You just took a hit on the integrity side.”

As a leader, you have to exude honesty and create trust in your relationships. If you don’t? “Just quit, because you’ve got nothing,” Adamchik said.


Do you have a plan? Because that’s the key to being forward-looking.

If you’re wondering what this looks like at the crew level, Adamchik gave this example: “I met a contractor a few years back,” he said, “who told me about their ‘two-two-two’ philosophy. They have their foreman looking out two days, their superintendent looking out two weeks, and their project manager looking out two months.”

And on the executive level, this might mean looking two years out on the horizon. That’s what forward-looking is. And here’s what it means for your people, the ones down in the hole doing their thing. “If you’re my boss and you’re forward-looking, it gives me hope,” Adamchik said. “Hope that you’re taking care of the company, and hope that I’ll still be employed two years from now.”


Adamchik doesn’t like the word, but “inspiring” is one that keeps coming up in the research. 

“Some of you are introverts,” he said. “Some of you are data people. So you’re not going to be inspirational in that rah rah rah kind of way. Which, by the way, is pretty annoying. So let’s go for another word. Rather than ‘inspirational’ or ‘inspiring’, let’s go with ‘passionate’.”

Here’s what being passionate means, from a leadership perspective. Ask yourself, do you care about the work? When you come in in the mornings, are you bright-eyed, leaning in, energetic? 

“If you’re coming in most mornings going, God, this sucks, well, guess what?” Adamchik said. “If it sucks to you, it’s going to suck to me. But if you care about the work, then there’s a better chance I’ll be right there, caring about the work with you.”

That passion comes across no matter what role you're in, and ultimately, it'll help you get to the right place of leadership


When people say they want their leaders to be competent, they’re talking about proficiency in all the things that are related to their work. “If I work in accounting, I want my leader to be competent when it comes to all that money stuff, the debits and the credits, the accounts payable and the accounts receivable,” Adamchik explained. “And if I work in the field, I want you to be competent with dirt, with safety, with the machines.”

First, it’s about empathy. Because if you’ve never been down in the hole, how can you have empathy for someone who’s working in the hole? “Let’s face it, it can be pretty rough out there,” Adamchik said. “It can be hot, cold, wet. Day, night. And if you don’t know what that’s like, you’re not going to have any empathy for me.”

It’s also about your ability to help your people do their job better. People look to their leaders for guidance and instruction. They want someone who can coach them to get better. And if you don’t have the competence to do the things they’re doing, you can’t coach them to do those things better. 

Fair minded.

The final trait on the top five list is fair-mindedness. It means a leader who treats everyone fairly. “Notice, I didn’t say equally,” Adamchik pointed out. “People are smart. They don’t expect equal treatment.”

Let’s say you let Susan leave two hours early to go to her daughter’s soccer game. What if Bob then asks to come into work a few hours late, because he has a doctor’s appointment? Would you tell Bob, no, you can’t come in late, but I’ll let you leave a few hours early, because that’s what I let Susan do, and we treat everyone equally here?

It’s an absurd example, but it illustrates the difference between fair treatment and equal treatment. Fairness, of course, would be to let Bob come in late, just like we let Susan leave early.

Adamchik gave another example: “Who always gets the good jobs? Who always gets the crap jobs? Look, we all have favorites, but if you’re fair-minded, your favorites aren’t always getting the easy work. Or always the challenging work, for that matter, just because they can handle it. Being fair-minded is about treating your crew fairly and equitably. Not equally. There’s a big difference.”


Want to start practicing these top five leadership traits? Here’s what Adamchik recommended. As you go through your day, put yourself through the following checklist of questions: 

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

By asking yourself these questions from time to time, they’ll stay top-of-mind. Keep grading yourself on all five of these characteristics. It will help you become the effective leader you want to be.