The seven traits of a good leader

Are you a good leader? To help you improve your skills, Briana Pegado FRSA defines the seven traits of good leadership.

I have worked with many leaders whose aim has been to make their visions a reality. From working with small community-led arts organizations to visionaries who build spaces to support other purpose-driven visionaries, my career to date has included working with thousands of social entrepreneurs, artists, creatives, freelancers, self-employed people, and start-up organizations.

Whether legally incorporating these organizations, fund- raising, or helping small groups of people to realize a creative goal, I have encountered a number of different types of leaders.

What I have noticed in this 15-year period is that there are some common characteristics or behaviours that indicate how not to behave in leadership positions. These behaviours will tell you when you might be venturing into a sticky, challenging, or deeply problematic situations. I learned the hard way.

So that you do not have to live my mistakes or go through some of the deeply uncomfortable, soul-destroying, and patience-stretching situations I have experienced, I would like to share these with you now, reframing them as positive lessons.

1) A good leader isn’t always right

A good leader does not feel the need to have all of the answers and always be right. More importantly, a good leader does not equate not-knowing with weakness. A good leader surrounds themselves with people who know more than they do about certain areas or things they want to accomplish – if only because they recognize that one person cannot know everything.

When they bring in a co-director, consultant, or expert to support them in making their vision become a reality, they do not feel threatened by this person. A good leader does not conceal information that is crucial to the survival or existence of their vision coming to life. Good leaders do not view any team members who choose to step away from that work or project as an attack, assault, or personal affront. 

2) A good leader can separate themselves from their work

A good leader creates some distance between their vision for the future and their sense of self. There is some separation between their self-image and their work. Entanglement between those two things leads to a number of complications and is a direct result of the messages we receive from society about our worth being tied to our productivity.

We are inherently worthy of living and thriving simply because we are human. However, the energy it takes to bring something into the world – whether it is a creative endeavour, project, business, idea, or piece of writing – requires the person or group of people to go through an energetic birthing process and relate to it as “their baby” which means they are often very precious about who has any impact on their idea or piece of work etc.

Not only can an unhealthy attachment develop but they begin to treat others supporting them as if they are working directly with their own offspring, sometimes in a very protective, precious, and unhelpful way.

There is nothing wrong with having an attachment to your work, but once you invite others to join your process, it is important as a leader to change or renegotiate your relationship to whatever it is that you are bringing into the world before you negatively impact the people supporting you in realizing your vision. This can feel like a grieving process. Remember Kalī and embrace it as a natural part of the process of change. 

3) A good leader encourages others

A good leader encourages you to be open about your skills and interests, so as not to limit you, your potential, and the external influences that might contribute to the wider work you are doing.

This also means that they are secure enough to let go of power and do not try to control the people they work with. Behaviour that suggests otherwise includes never asking other people about their hobbies or interests outside of their work. They may also draw attention away from or choose not to celebrate the other parts of you that you are proud of/love because these aspects of yourself do not seem relevant to work you are doing with them.

This is largely about a leader’s sense of self and security. If they are a secure leader, they will not feel threatened by anybody around them. They will encourage you and support you by being proud of the person you are and everything that might entail.

A good leader encourages their team and colleagues or the people they are working with to be their full, authentic selves. They lead by example in this, and they do not inadvertently signal to others or explicitly ask them to leave certain aspects of themselves at home or cut off parts of themselves to participate in the work they are doing together. 

4) A good leader does not overshare themselves

A good leader does not expect their team to hold their emotions, needs, and desires – the rollercoaster ride of emotions that emerges when bringing something into being – without their team’s consent. There needs to be a consensual exchange of personal information and energy in any group. An invitation to share and be open is not the same as sharing information, emotions, and fears or positive emotions with others without them consenting to receive that information.

The invitation to share within reason is different to unloading emotions and thoughts onto the team in a way that they either cannot reciprocate or which means they feel responsible for the leader’s emotions, feelings, fears, and expectations in a way that is disproportionate to the responsibility team members feel for the emotions of each other (or anyone else they are collaborating with). 

5) A good leader protects their energy

A good leader practises energy hygiene regularly and is aware of the energetic frequency, build-up, exchange, toil, and nature of the work they are doing.

A lot of this requires having the time and space to reflect on the energetics of a situation. We work in a world that encourages us to perform quickly and “efficiently” to optimize productivity, but we know that decisions made hastily can have a detrimental impact. Leaders who go at their own pace, who create an environment that allows everyone in their team to work at their own pace, who frequently revisit their values, who create space for everyone’s well-being, and have time for self-reflection, are more able to tune in to and be attuned to the energy present within a process.

Good leadership includes practising good energetic hygiene, which means regularly clearing your work energetically, cutting energetic ties to decisions and people involved in that work, and having the clarity to look into the future of a project. 

6) A good leader does takes responsibility (not credit)

A good leader does not need to receive credit for their work (and takes responsibility when there is a crisis or things go wrong). Not everyone in leadership roles should have the same skill set, but when it comes to crisis management, a leader’s skills can reveal their true colours.

Think about how somebody reacts under pressure or in circumstances where they are surprised. This surprise may come with an element of challenge and a lack of control where the outcome they expected is no longer possible.

A good leader is able to adapt to change and treat people with dignity when things do not go the way they planned. From an energetic standpoint, this may look like having the foresight, calm, patience, understanding, and an energetic reading of a situation that enables everyone to proceed in a manner that minimizes damage and supports the whole team. 

7) A good leader ensures they are not an island

A good leader is as strong as the people they work with. Leadership can feel lonely, but a leader does not have to be alone – and this is often where some leaders can make mistakes. There are many different people who a leader can approach for advice, perspective, and to gain insights from their past experiences.

A leader who thinks they can come up with a solution on their own – and that it is their responsibility to come to decisions by themselves, uninformed by the input of others – has got the wrong end of the stick.

Good leaders ask for help, as often and as regularly as they need it. A strong group of advisors who do not necessarily hold the same views as you, but with whom you share collective values, are good critical friends for any leader to surround themselves with. 

Briana Pegado FRSA is a fellow of the Royal Society of Arts and the author of Make Good Trouble – A Guide to the Energetics of Disruption.

Briana was named one of Scotland’s 30 Under 30 Inspiring Young Women in 2017 and has won a number of awards for her work as a social entrepreneur in the creative industries over the last eight years. Currently, she is an anti-racism and governance consultant working across the third and public sector.