The Qualities of Good Leaders


As therapists, we work with many of Austin’s business and social leaders and notice what seems to translate into success in both their professional and personal lives. From that experience we have distilled down six qualities we feel are present in those that lead well at work and at home. If you feel that you could develop further in one or more of these qualities, set a specific task to get better in that area!


1. Empathy

Empathy allows us to connect to our own experience of life and that of others in a way that understands and relates. It is through empathy that we comprehend the emotional experience of others and what they may need from us to feel close and comforted. Empathy helps us connect to what we need as well, and allows us to express our own emotions in ways that seek helpful support from others. If you neglect the emotional dimension of life, it is difficult to connect closely with others, and you lose access to important information that can help you make the best decisions. To generate more empathy, put yourself in someone else’s shoes when you interact with them, and address the emotions involved in conversation before the logical dimension.


2. Listen Well

Listening well is about holding still while others speak their truth. Relationship health pioneer Ellyn Bader says that listening calmly to others’ perspectives and ideas is critical for relationships to feel valuable and grow. Yet others’ words and perspectives can generate anxiety in us as listeners. That anxiety often causes us to interrupt, change the topic or walk away. Instead, focus on relaxing your body, remembering to breathe fully and feel your feet on the ground when someone is speaking. When you allow others to influence you by listening, it makes you smarter by diversifying your perspective and makes those around you feel valued.


3. Balance Personal and Work Life

It is difficult for engaged leaders to balance work and personal life so that each gets its due, but if either one is out of balance, the issues can bleed into everything, causing stress. Good leaders tend to prioritize the personal and the professional and not neglect their relationships as they build their careers. They also bring healthy relationship habits from their personal lives into to the workplace. If you see your personal relationships struggling with your dedication to work, it is often the case that those traits are causing problems in both arenas. Set time limits for work and stick to them, freeing up dedicated personal time. Give yourself some “me time” to de-stress, like hitting the gym three times a week after work. Create physical boundaries if you work from home, like having spaces for work and others for family time. If your staff or life partners give you feedback, take it seriously and get support to work on those issues.


4. Have Vision, Yet Humility

Sometimes known as the entrepreneur’s dilemma, leaders need a robust ego to enact a new vision into the world, yet the humility to listen, adapt and change. When you are strong in both types of qualities—the confidence to create and the humility to not be arrogant—you have a good balance of traits to lead effectively. All leaders have healthy narcissism, but a way to guard against overactive narcissism is to ask people you trust, or a therapist, to discuss your negative traits with you honestly. By actively eliciting feedback and exploration around your negative qualities, you will stay ahead of problems, know your weaknesses better than those around you and be able to address them and grow with time.


5. Communicate with Clarity

Great leaders follow Grice’s Maxims when it comes to communication. Dr. Paul Grice identified four parts to effective communication: Be concise; be accurate; keep things relevant to the conversation, and present things in a coherent order. Too often, people hide information that is important to business or personal relationships. You may also assume that certain values or ethics are true by default, but those assumptions can prove false unless clearly discussed. Be clear even when it’s inconvenient and may cause conflict. It’s better to form relationships (and conduct business) around the truth than it is to avoid conflict, because eventually such business and personal projects will have to account for any lack of clarity.


6. Practice Mutuality

Great leaders look out for whether interactions and projects are a win-win for all involved. When we win at the expense of others, we may also feel the letdown of knowing that life became worse for someone else. This is especially true in our personal relationships, where a lack of mutuality creates a sense of disconnection, guilt or chronic failure. If we are controlling, or seek to have more power than others in interactions, we are often shooting ourselves in the foot in relationships. To increase mutuality in your endeavors, ask others how they feel about your interactions before you end them. Track what others say and how they feel, to detect any underlying sense of unfairness that can be addressed.


Influencers often have an impact due to their charisma, vision, and confidence, yet those same traits can make relationships difficult because it can be hard to turn off the focus on one’s own self as a center of decision-making and attention. Leaders can struggle to let their guard down, be vulnerable, and give equal power and perspective to others. Great leaders, however, balance caring, helping, equality, and humility with the fierceness and power to change the world. This balance promotes your own mental and emotional health, improves your relationships and allows you to serve as an effective leader at home and at work.

John Howard and Peter Craig are psychotherapists at Austin Professional Counseling™. They help their clients lower anxiety, heal depression, improve relationships and more.

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