Leadership is a simple word with so many different meanings mushed together. Whether it is about leading teams, people, or projects, or about bad, good, and great leaders, it is undoubtedly a topic that comes up often as a challenging HR priority. 

Developing leaders and finding the right approach is difficult. I have had to deal with it during my journey as a leader. On the outside, many people may seem like natural leaders, but every great leader can vouch that the title comes with huge responsibilities and hard work.

I’ve been asked many times what I think makes an exceptional leader. There are so many opinions, however, the top four attributes that have helped me along the way and ones I often look for in others are laughter, empathy, awareness, and decisiveness.

Have a Few Moments of Laughter

Isn't life serious enough? Humour, when well placed, allows for a climate that makes our colleagues relax and not take everything as a life-or-death situation. The mental well-being of the team is critical, directly impacts productivity, and increases the chance to succeed on our priorities. But part of that real employee experience is the ability to share and appreciate those moments. A true test of a high-performing group who trust one another is using humour with positive intent and openly accepting it as such. I love to bring a smile whenever and wherever I can.

Building Empathy

Empathetic leaders may sometimes seem too sensitive or vulnerable, but they allude to strength and compassion. It has always been a critical attribute to possess and can get stronger with practice. Empathy allows connections and getting to know someone better can only make the relationship stronger. For example, to feel someone's pain as my own means discovering and understanding from their perspective, which can help reduce bias and avoid sounding judgmental.

“If you can balance having a sense of humour, leading with empathy and decisiveness, all while knowing yourself, you are capable of creating an impact, regardless of how you choose to lead.”

Creating Awareness

When I think of a key attribute that helped me, it was my road to acceptance. Accepting what I am good at and being fully aware that I have my blindsides and opportunities is critical. My desire when starting as a manager was to try and be the best I could be, which means trying to tick off the list of what makes leaders great. That didn't work out. It can work for a mediocre leader. Instead, I doubled down on what I was effective at doing already that made an impact and then chose a few other skills to explore and enhance by learning from others and seeking resources, and tips that I could try. Awareness also means acknowledging that there are ways to improve and grow and that continuous learners are more self-aware leaders. Self-awareness builds confidence that enables one to proudly seek support from others and respect the unique differences and talents that others bring.

Road to Decisiveness

This is a personal challenge I had faced, and continue to face at times, but gradually getting better. Most people would love to live in a world and work with people where everyone gets along. This has clouded my thinking at times when I knew what the right thing to do was, but wanted to be reassured or buy time to avoid conflict. I realised by doing this, makes others around me also feel unsure of the next steps, uncomfortable, and need everyone to buy in. I had to let go of this mindset and take accountability to own these decisions for my team and my department. It doesn't mean being reckless. If you have what you need, the understanding that not everyone will support the decisions is something an effective leader has to be comfortable with. Hard conversations as a result of decisions made should not be something you hope to dodge. Instead, using empathy and awareness around you will help you to get through them and even earn the respect you might never have otherwise received.

In essence, exceptional leaders come in all shapes and sizes, with different capabilities, knowledge, and attributes. If you can balance having a sense of humour, and leading with empathy and decisiveness, all while knowing yourself, you are capable of creating an impact, regardless of how you choose to lead.