3 Traits That Separate the Best Leaders from Average Ones

The best leaders seem to possess an elusive mix of qualities that resist precise categorization.

It feels like every week there’s a new study or book discussing what the best leaders do and don’t do, but what if there was a more data-driven approach to identifying pivotal indicators of successful leadership?

New data from Russell Reynolds Associates and Hogan Assessment Systems sheds some light on what separates the best leaders from average ones. By analyzing interviews, resumes, and multiple personality assessment questionnaires, researchers constructed in-depth psychometric profiles of 200 CEOs from around the world. They then validated the trends in an additional sample of 700 CEOs from Hogan’s global database.

The final results, published in Harvard Business Review, reveal three major indicators of successful CEOs. Although there is no single perfect profile of a successful leader, the following qualities are usually associated with high-performing chief executives. Check them out below to see where you stand. 

3 Successful Leadership Indicators
1) They have a strong sense of purpose, passion, and urgency.

The worst thing a CEO can do, according to a related study on CEO transitions by McKinsey & Company, is “sit on their hands.” The best CEOs move swiftly and decisively towards their personal and professional goals, never losing sight of their organization’s core purpose or wavering in their desire for change. 

Let’s break these specific qualities down to examine each individually:


Think of purpose like an internal compass, guiding a leader’s actions and keeping them focused on the big picture objectives that impact their organization’s bottom line. The best leaders have an innate ability to understand how different components of their organizations contribute to long term goals, and they’re comfortable taking ownership of those larger missions. 

See also  17 of the Best Tools to Find and Interview Remote Candidates


How do you measure passion? It’s tricky, but researchers found that leaders who worked towards their organizational goals with intensity and genuine excitement were more successful overall.

Passion keeps leaders personally invested in the success of their organizations. It helps foster a profound sense of ownership over the changes they initiate, and motivates them to nurture those initiatives with enthusiasm and conviction. 


Researchers found that urgency often manifested in successful CEOs as impatience and a consistent eagerness to drive progress. Most quality leaders are experts at mobilizing their teams, but the very best leaders are driven by a constant and deeply personal need to move things forward and seek new developments.

They aren’t satisfied with moving slowly or with too much caution — they understand the importance of staying nimble and pushing their organizations towards transformative change. It’s important to note, however, that the best leaders don’t just make unreasonably impulsive decisions — they take measured risks to move their organizations into the future and keep ahead of the competition. 

2) They know how to sift through information and find the most important parts.

Leaders are responsible for managing potentially overwhelming amounts of information on a daily basis. Their responsibilities are broad and widely varied, requiring them to simultaneously oversee a number of initiatives and projects without losing focus on their organization’s core objectives.

With so many moving parts to keep track of, leaders need to make tough decisions about what to prioritize. And this requires an innate ability to sift through information and make firm, confident choices about how to move their organizations forward.

See also  Watch Out for Malicious Images in Google My Business Listings by @MattGSouthern

The most successful leaders have an elevated capacity to “separate the signal from the noise,” as the Russell Reynolds Associates study summarized it. “Great CEOs have a ‘nose’ for what are the most significant issues, challenges, threats, and opportunities facing an organization,” Dean Stamoulis, the leader of Russell Reynolds Associates, wrote in Harvard Business Review.

While it might seem like it sometimes, successful leaders don’t exactly have a psychic power that enables them to make the best decisions — but they do know how to examine many different sources of information and make clear, largely independent decisions they can proudly stand behind. The best leaders navigate the complex demands of their roles with a heightened decisiveness that sets them apart from the pack.

3) They are humble, always learning, and master collaborators.

This might conflict with the conventional view of the chief executive as an extroverted and wildly independent commander, but the Russell Reynolds Associates study found that these leadership qualities were related to favorable organizational results.

The best leaders are more than capable of acting independently, but they are self-aware enough to know that they can’t possibly know or do everything. To compensate for the gaps in their knowledge, they aren’t afraid to turn to advisors and employees to seek new ideas and points of view. They are constantly in pursuit of the best new ideas, and they don’t care if those ideas come from themselves or from someone else.

Coupled with this open mindedness is a desire to always be absorbing new information, honing new skills, and bettering their own abilities through constant learning. The best leaders are not content to operate solely on what they currently know — they recognize that the demands of their position are always changing, and they need to better themselves to keep their organizations successful.

See also  8 Proven Ways to Stay Focused in A Busy Office

So what does constant learning look like? It’s more than just reading new books and listening to podcasts. The most successful leaders learn from the people around them by engaging with projects at every level and surrounding themselves with people who aren’t afraid to challenge even their most closely held ideas.

It’s this consistent intellectual immersion that keep leaders on their toes, forcing them to reevaluate, defend, and question what they know.

What traits do you look for in a leader?


You May Also Like