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8 Traits Of Exceptional Leaders

Christian Roach is a highly sought after Fitness Educator, who is known for transforming the way fitness education courses are delivered. He is the co-founder of Redefining Fitness a UK based education company and the Author of Becoming Superhuman: 99 Ways To Become Your Own Superhero.

 
Executive Contributor Christian Roach

Leadership is a term thrown around often with varying understanding and ideas of what it means. There are universal traits that strong and effective leaders all embody, at least most of the time this is regardless of field, industry, or level of expertise.

 

Leadership concept

This article will touch upon those traits and give a brief insight into why they are important in modern-day leadership. This is not so much about classical leadership styles but about the personal traits a leader must embody to lead their team.

 

1. Leads by example

 

You’ve probably heard this one before, but it still rings true no matter how many times we say it. It also feeds into the idea that strong leaders don’t ask their followers to do anything they aren’t prepared to do themselves (providing they aren’t incapacitated or there is a specialist skill gap) which means they are prepared to do what’s necessary and often help their team instead of dictating to them.

 

The difference between leaders who operate in this way and those who boss people around is that their team will trust them a lot more than the autocrat that gives orders. The added buy in is better for morale and productivity as no one wants to be around someone who bosses them around, they prefer to be around those who lead through their actions.

 

People respect those who are willing to toe the line with them as they share the struggle and show that they are part of the collective effort. The image below illustrates the difference perfectly.

 

The traditional “boss” is the antithesis of a leader and lead through directive commands, and this does have a place, especially in certain contexts such as crisis management and the military however in the modern landscape of business, it usually is not so effective.

 

Employees will buy in more to a lead from the front leader as this shows that everyone is in this together and no one is more important than someone else. This is vital for any business that wants to build a coherent and positive culture because without this being made a priority, this will eventually lead to a toxic environment. This is where collaborative and transformational leadership styles work better than autocratic ones.

 

2. Challenges mediocrity

 

High performers don’t tolerate mediocrity and neither do strong leaders. This must be a standard set by the leader because people will eventually default to the level of their training and the quality of their leadership. This means leaders must set the bar high and keep it there.

 

The reality is that if you want a mediocre life, you just need to have mediocre standards and strong leaders have exceptional standards, but they understand that this is a pre-requisite to living an exceptional life and getting exceptional results.

 

A strong leader isn’t afraid of pulling people up by the scruff of their neck or calling people out, when they are underperforming. They also don’t tolerate poor attitudes or phrases like “but that’s the way we’ve always done things” or “No one’s done that before”.

 

Strong leaders are also hard on others whilst balancing their approach with empathy and kindness whilst being even harder on themselves. A healthy, strong leader will deeply care about their team, the team’s performance and their own. They will scrutinise themselves behind closed doors and introspect because self-improvement matters, and no one is the finished product.

 

In contrast, weak leaders will assume they are complete and don’t need to develop due to their ego, but this will eventually lead to them being found out as short-term success through toxic behaviour has a shelf life. In the long term, toxic behaviours are not a successful approach for repeated success which is why a strong leader understands that standards and performance matter but so does the way they are achieved.

 

3. Leaders fight for their team

 

Strong leaders don’t just fight for themselves, they also fight for their team. I am known to have a hard line with standards in leadership and my style will push people beyond the level they thought they were capable of but it will come through several difficult conversations, me ripping apart substandard thought processes and destroying someone’s ego so we can build them back up again. I would run through a brick wall for anyone in my team and would defend them to the hills from people outside of our circles but I will also sift through their nonsense.

 

This must not be misconstrued when I say this because this does not mean that I would lie for them or I would defend something that is inexcusable but it does mean that we will fix the issue wherever possible and if that person doesn’t want to fix the issue, then they know they can go and find another team or role because a team has to be more than people working towards a common goal, the team has to have common values and a bond that does beyond superficial targets – they have to fight for each other.

 

This means calling them out when they need it but also defending them in rooms, they are not in. This is far from easy to do especially when people are underperforming or showing poor character which is why management and leadership skills both need to be utilised in conjunction. This also means that bad apples need to be removed before they infect everyone else. After all, the team always comes before the individual.

 

This short clip from The Sopranos is a clear example of what huge buy-in to a leader looks like.

 

“No player is bigger than the club” – Sir Alex Ferguson

 

4. Enforces clear boundaries

 

Most people can’t do this, and therefore they struggle in their life. Most of the time it comes from a lack of self-esteem but sometimes it comes from not knowing how to do it properly. The latter is easy to fix, and the reality is that by focusing on the latter, the former gets resolved in the process. I would go as far as the root of most of most people’s problems is not being able to set clear boundaries and then the problems start small eventually festering into something bigger.

 

Setting a boundary is very much about the tone and how you say the words, rather than the words themselves. It needs to come across as strong but fair without being aggressive or overkill and that’s a hard tightrope to walk. When most people set boundaries, they use aggressive language such as don't or stop e.g. “Don’t do that please” or “stop doing that” instead of “I would prefer if you spoke to me in a kinder tone” or “I understand why you went ahead and did that thing without my permission however for us to work together effectively, I would appreciate it if you asked me first in future.”

 

Imagine if I reworded that second example to “You went behind my back instead of asking me, please don’t do that again” This comes across completely different and you might get away with it depending on the context and tone, but it is generally a less effective approach as it comes across blunter. Blunt isn’t always bad and sometimes it’s needed and if the other methods don’t work, then sometimes blunt needs to be utilised in the right way and more importantly at the right time.

 

“Setting boundaries isn’t just about what not to do but educated people on what you want them to do.”

 

5. Congruent with their values

 

A strong leader has clear and ingrained personal values. These values are more than platitudes because they are deeply embedded into the leader’s ethos, mindset and character so strong leaders will embody these values in everything they do – without exception.

 

This is important because for a leader to foster trust from their team, peers and the public they need to be consistent in who they are and who they appear to be. What they say and what they do need to match because there’s nothing worse than someone saying they’ll do something and then not following through.

 

Most people couldn’t tell you what their values are and therein lies the problem. This doesn’t make someone a bad person, but it does identify a gap in introspection and shows a blind spot when it comes to self-awareness. Getting clear on personal values is essential for an aspiring leader or someone who wants to improve their leadership skills.

 

Several years ago, I spent a lot of time reflecting on what my values are as a leader and I make every effort to act through those values today. They include delivering on my word, being willing to speak up when something is wrong regardless of the negative consequences and always acting with integrity. This is important to me because it means I will say no, when something doesn’t make sense and I will walk away from people, clients and businesses that act in opposition to these values. This means I know who my people are and who they aren’t.

 

“At the end of the day, if you don’t stand for something – you will fall for anything.”

 

6. Keeps their word

 

“My word is my bond and without my bond, I am nothing.”

 

This is something that I think about often because if we have control over anything in life, it’s following through on our promises and commitments. Following through on commitments on a regular basis is a huge green flag when it comes to those in leadership positions because it separates those who like the title and the power from those who are meant to lead with class, decorum and integrity.

 

Let’s be honest though, no one keeps their word 100% of the time and even the most well-intentioned person will have times where they forget or something pressing prevents them from doing so and most people will understand the odd hiccup. What people want to know is that the leader follows through significantly more often than the times they don’t. One instance of lack of follow through doesn’t make a bad leader but several instances of it do.

 

The key to improving this is to manage expectations. Instead of promising the world, be realistic of what you can deliver on and if you must - under promise and overdeliver. This approach will buy you leniency and reduce the prevalence of egg on your face moments which can be the beginning of the end for some aspiring leaders.

 

I won’t work with or follow anyone that consistently doesn’t keep their word because I only do business with those that I trust and respect and the fastest way to lose my respect is to be all talk without action. There is nothing I hate more in a person than saying one thing and doing another.

 

You then start to question everything from that point and you will never see that person the same again.

 

7. Comfortable saying no

 

Weak leaders say yes when they mean no. This is a simple and provocative statement, but it is true. Many people will say yes to things they don’t agree with just to avoid confrontation, fallout or inconvenience and quite frankly, these people are despicable leaders that we should all run a mile from. This may sound strong however I fully stand by this statement especially when I have seen so many people in leadership positions who aren’t fit to lead because they lack a backbone.

 

Strong leaders are comfortable saying no because they understand that they must do the right thing, even if it’s unpopular or makes everyone’s life more difficult. Most people will try to people please or butter things up which softens the message, eventually working against them. This means people are in charge who can’t be trusted to make the right call at the right time so my question is then – why would you follow them?

 

There may be all sorts of reasons as to why people say yes when they mean no. Sometimes they may feel pressured or coerced but real character means that the values remain true, no matter what is going on in the world or if someone held a gun to our head. You will see who the true leaders in the world are under times of conflict or duress and you will see that their integrity won’t be compromised, no matter what.

 

This takes a strong character to embody this, but it also takes a strong character to be a leader.

 

No means no.

 

8. Embodies a growth mindset

 

Some people have a solution for every problem and some people have a problem for every solution. The latter is infuriating because it’s unproductive and portrays a victim mindset which will get us nowhere. If you’re not familiar with fixed and growth mindset, then I recommend starting by studying the work of Carol Dweck.

 

Simply put, a fixed mindset has ingrained beliefs that things are just the way they are and we have to accept them. It’s defeatist, rigid and pessimistic which will lead to undesirable outcomes over the long run. Examples may be “that’s not possible” without even trying, “I’ll never be good at maths” when the reason you aren’t is because you don’t do it and deliberately avoid it. It’s also imposing your limitations by focusing on them and pushing them onto others because you don’t believe that you can improve yourself or your situation. I have made it a non-negotiable that I refuse to work with people on regular basis when they display this mindset.

 

On the other hand, growth mindset is seeing failure as a setback that’s an opportunity to learn, seeing the obstacle as something to overcome rather than something that stops us, believing that rejection is just redirection to something better – even if it takes a long time. It’s reframing our thoughts to more productive ones so our brain can find solutions to problems but ultimately, it’s believing that even the smallest progress is still progress and that we can always get better.

 

A strong leader understands this, knowing they have a lot to learn and that every day is an opportunity to add value to someone else’s life, improve society and become better versions of ourselves. This, in turn, will help other people become a better version of themselves, too, meaning that we are leading by creating more leaders.


 

Christian Roach, High-Performance Coach

Christian Roach is the Director of Redefining Fitness – a multi-award winning, UK-based education and consultancy company. He is the Author of Becoming Superhuman: 99 Ways to Become Your Own Superhero and a highly sought-after Fitness Educator and High Performance Coach.

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