What Does a Leader Look Like? Identifying Real Leadership Qualities

Last updated: Jan 17, 2023

If you’re reading this post about leadership qualities, you already possess one of the key traits of a leader, which is introspection. Your curiosity about the topic indicates a self-awareness to reflect on your personality, choices, and motivations, and compare them to the ideal. But that’s just one essential characteristic. What are the others? What does a leader look like? Identifying real leadership qualities is more complex than compiling a simple Top 10 list; it’s a subtle but balanced interweaving of hard and soft power traits, meshed with technical skills flexible enough to meet the demands of the marketplace of the future.

An office leader talks with her team as they stand together in a circle

A Modern Leader Needs Hard and Soft Skills

In 2018, Deloitte partnered with The Female Quotient to survey 5,075 workers to examine how they felt leadership styles should evolve to meet the needs of today’s workforce. The resulting study revealed that 72 percent of employees want a redefinition of leadership to be more “human,” balancing hard power traits and softer, more emotional qualities.

Does this mean leadership must shift its priorities? It looks that way. When asked which values are most important for a good leader, study respondents’ top five traits included three soft power skills and just two hard power skills.

Soft Skills                                           Hard Skills

Communicative                                   Hardworking

Flexible                                               Confident


And it’s not just employees who seek a shift. In a considerably larger survey, consultants asked 300,000 business leaders to rank the top 10 competencies from a list of 16 key leadership skills. This large cohort of leaders identified a mix of hard and soft traits similar to the employee survey. Among the top choices, they selected three soft power skills (inspiring, trustworthy, communicative) and two hard (analytical and driven).


Hard Power Traits

In decades past, the emphasis in leadership was on dominance and power, on top-down, traditional, hard power traits. While hard skills are still important, smart executives know leadership is more than the confidence to issue commands or make decisions quickly. Soft skills and mastery of the technical aspects of your industry offer a modern balance to any leader’s “harder” characteristics.

Have you honed (or toned down) these hard power traits in your own career?

Ambitious                             Hardworking                         Rational

Assertive                              Proud                                    Resilient

Authoritative                        Innovative                             Straightforward          

Confident                              Proud                                    Strategic  


Soft Power Traits

If you do not understand human behavior, you will likely struggle to lead in any workplace, so it pays to foster soft power traits. These are the skills that encourage, connect, empower, and allow you to empathize with your colleagues, employees and customers.

Have you refined (or redefined) your own soft power qualities?

Authentic                          Flexible                                Passionate     

Civil                                  Honest                                 Patient

Collaborative                    Humble                                Selfless 

Communicative                Introspective                        Tactful

Deliberative                      Intuitive                               Transparent

Empathetic                       Loyal

As the elevation of soft skills suggests, a more diverse and inclusive workforce is changing the framework of leadership. To embrace that shift, you’d be wise to rev up your hard and soft powers with this one: Fostering a workplace that promotes the leadership of women, LGBTQ employees, and other undervalued groups. Much has changed in the marketplace, but character does still count.


Find out how the Birkman Method can help you understand your personality and sharpen your soft power traits.

The It Factor

Traits like trustworthiness and introspection may sound like innate qualities that you either have or you don’t (and some might say the same of hard power traits), but leadership skills can be nurtured and practiced. Even the undeniable It Factor, or leadership presence — Gen. James Mattis has it; so does Lady Gaga — is something you can learn. Study pop stars and secretaries of defense, mentors and bosses from your own career. Emulate what’s working for them.   


Do You Look Like a Leader?

Much has been made about dressing for the job you want, not the job you have. But if tech CEOs in their hoodies and visionary iconoclasts like Steve Jobs in his black turtleneck have taught us anything about the appearance of leadership, it’s that leadership is not always what it appears. True leadership requires no costume. Wear the power suit if it suits you, but not if it’s a prop to make up for a gap in skills or true authority.

An Asian woman stands at the head of a conference room table leading a meeting

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USF’s office of Corporate Training and Professional Education can help you lead a high-performance corporate culture and develop and certify your key leadership qualities.

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If you have questions about leadership or the application process for any of our courses, please contact us at the Office of Corporate Training and Professional Education.