Common qualities found in exceptional leaders

Written by Jonathan Ross
19 Nov 2023

Over my career I have had the privilege to both work with and alongside many remarkable leaders.

These are individuals that have the ‘magical’ ability to inspire and motivate others. Reflecting back on my interactions with these exceptional individuals over the years, I’ve observed they share several attributes that set them apart from the thankfully, only one or two, that have been narcissistic, indecisive and unimpressive:

They trust you to do the job you’ve been recruited to do.

Leaders are, by definition, leaders. They give direction and provide support and then get out of your way and let you do the job they recruited you to do.

They seek your advice and input.

Exceptional leaders know they rely on the experience and insight that only you can offer. That’s why they seek your advice and input. They may not always agree with you, but they ask what you think, and consider it as an important piece of input into their decision-making process.

They recognise your contributions.

Leaders usually have a wide span of authority, encompassing a large number of direct reports. Yet the exceptional ones take the time to recognise your contributions through informal channels like coffee chats and, especially, through formal channels such as performance evaluations.

They are storytellers.

I have yet to know an exceptional leader who isn’t also an exceptional storyteller. The ability to convey ideas and facts in a way that makes sense, and which inspires others is a gift all exceptional leaders share.

Exceptional leaders say, “Thank you,” and they say it publicly, and they say it often.

They challenge you to do bigger and better things.

Leaders are leaders because they lead, and that means pushing themselves to take risks and do things they may have never done before. But they also encourage you to take on bigger challenges that expand your skills and give you a platform to have impact beyond your role.

They express appreciation.

Exceptional leaders say, “Thank you,” and they say it publicly, and they say it often.

They are responsive.

Exceptional leaders respond to calls, emails, and other forms of communication in a timely way. If not immediately, they usually abide by a set period of time within which they respond, whether it’s 24, 48, or 72 hours, but they do respond.

They know when to apologise.

Exceptional leaders know when to apologise, even for seemingly small things like showing up five or ten minutes late for a meeting. They are also not afraid to own up to their mistakes. 

They give credit where credit is due.

One of the worst things a leader can do is to take credit for work you’ve done or acknowledge someone else. Exceptional leaders let others know, publicly,  the extent of your contributions.

They care.

The exceptional leaders I’ve known are the ones who show a genuine interest in and concern for others. They ask; “How are you?” or “How’s your family?”  Then they listen, and express genuine interest.