What sets apart good leaders from great leaders? Is it political savvy and the ability to maneuver their way to the top? Is it the number of connections they have? Is it their ability to speak well and motivate people?

While all these things may be helpful to varying degrees, leadership goes much deeper than that, to the very core of a who a person is.

Here are five traits that truly set apart great leaders from the rest of the pack.


People will almost never rise above their leader. The leader sets the bar in every almost every area, from work ethic to integrity to office atmosphere. If he doesn’t give much thought to their example, those underneath will follow.

This is why the best leaders always seek to improve themselves before they lead others. She doesn’t have the luxury of saying, “Do what I say, not what I do.” If a leader says one thing and does another, people will follow his example, not his words.

Suzanne Lucas puts it this way:

Do you want employees who get to work on time? You’d better show up on time. Do you want employees who are kind to customers? Don’t talk about customers behind their backs. Do you want employees who do their work on time, with a high degree of accuracy? You’d best do the same.

Are you leading yourself before you lead others? Here are some helpful questions to ask:

  • Do I expect others to do what I won’t do myself?
  • Am I focused more on my own need for growth or others?
  • Am I setting an example that should be followed, or do I hope others won’t notice what I do?
  • Am I constantly pushing myself to grow?

You aren’t perfect and never will be. You shouldn’t expect perfection from yourself or others. However, you should expect more from yourself than from those you lead. After all, they’ll only rise as high as you.


Great leaders embrace feedback from their followers. They understand that they have both strengths and weaknesses, and that leadership involves a willingness to accept both criticism and praise.

One of the great temptations leaders face is to put themselves in a bubble. To surround themselves with yes-men who never challenge them or push back. The best leaders, on the other hand, build a circle of trusted friends who will give them honest feedback, both positive and negative.

John Hamm puts it this way:

Effective leaders…understand that their role is to bring out the answers in others. They do this by very clearly and explicitly seeking contributions, challenges, and collaboration from the people who report to them, using their positional power not to dominate but rather to drive the decision-making process. The more collaborative and apolitical that process is, the less isolated the leader, and the greater the likelihood that the business strategy will be grounded in reality.

If you want to be a great leader, consider asking yourself these questions:

  • Are those around me willing to give me honest feedback?
  • When was the last time someone close to me gave me constructive criticism?
  • Do I have people not like me in my inner circle?
  • Do I listen attentively when someone presents a critique?

Criticism and feedback are not usually pleasant, but they are essential. If you don’t seek them out as leader, you’ll never grow and will often cause harm to your organization.


In order to get to the top of an organization, you usually have to do a fair amount of learning. You need to gain mastery of new subjects, new skills and new concepts. You’ll often have to read new books and articles related to your position. When you move upward in the organization, you’re constantly learning.

But when you reach a position of leadership, it’s easy to stop learning. To assume you’ve learned all that’s necessary and now you can coast. To feel like you put in the work and now it’s your time to relax.

But the best leaders are lifelong learners. They know that in order to succeed, they need to be constantly deepening and expanding their knowledge. They’re aware that if they stop learning, they’ll become stagnant and prone to getting stuck in outdated ideas and tactics. And they’re committed to leveraging the expertise of real-life leadership practitioners through participation in professional development events such as the Global Leadership Summit at Cornerstone University every August.

Gail Sheely puts it this way:

If we don’t change, we don’t grow. If we don’t grow, we are not really living. Growth demands a temporary surrender of security. It may mean a giving up of familiar but limiting patterns, safe but unrewarding work, values no longer believed in, relationships that have lost their meaning. As Dostoevsky put it, “taking a new step, uttering a new word, is what people fear most.” The real fear should be the opposite course.

Are you a leader who’s learning? Ask yourself these questions:

  • When was the last time I read a book?
  • When was the last time I spent time with someone who disagreed with me?
  • How often do I take in books/articles/lectures that stretch me intellectually?
  • Am I building a library of helpful and stimulating resources?

If you want to avoid stagnation, make learning a lifelong habit. If you want to be constantly growing and improving, always be learning. If you want to be the best version of yourself, push yourself toward new ideas and experiences. The best leaders understand that great leadership requires deep learning.


“The buck stops here” saying may be a leadership cliche, but there’s truth in it. Leaders are in a unique position to either take final responsibility or blame those under them. It’s not uncommon for them to blame failure on others and successes to themselves, but this is the opposite of outstanding leadership.

The finest leaders understand that all final responsibility lies with them. If something goes wrong, it is ultimately their fault. They may not have caused the action directly, but it can usually be traced back to them in some way, either by the work culture they created or by policies they instituted.

Michael Korda puts it this way:

Success on any major scale requires you to accept responsibility . . . . In the final analysis, the one quality that all successful people have is the ability to take on responsibility.

If you’re a leader, ask yourself these questions:

  • When something goes wrong, do I try to pin the blame on other people?
  • Am I afraid of failure? If so, is it because I don’t want the responsibility?
  • In what ways does responsibility end with me?
  • What steps can I begin taking to accept more responsibility?

Failure will happen. There’s no way around it in life or work. If you want to be a great leader, you need to be willing to take responsibility when things go wrong. Only when you do that can you begin to put things right.


It’s easy to tear other people down. After all, we live in a world where failure is a regular occurrence. But what sets great leaders apart is their constant focus on building others up. They truly want others to succeed, and focus their energy on being a positive influence in people’s lives.

This doesn’t mean leaders don’t give meaningful critique or feedback. The most effective leaders want to help people grow, and often this requires helpful adjustment. But this critique and adjustment always occurs in a positive context, free from belittling or brutal criticism.

Glenn Llopis frames it like this:

The best leaders are those that can identify and appreciate the differences that one brings to the table and knows how to put them to full use. These leaders are emotionally intelligent enough to connect the dots and the opportunities within each dot to enable the full potential in each of their employees.

Are you focused on building others up? Assess yourself with these questions:

  • Is the tone of my communications positive or harsh?
  • Are people generally afraid of making mistakes around me?
  • Do I look for positive things in people and then praise them for those things?
  • What is my ratio of encouragement to criticism?

There will be times when you need to have hard conversations with people. That’s part and parcel with leadership. But even in those difficult conversations, people should know that you support them and ultimately want the best for them.

Be the leader you’re meant to be

Leadership isn’t primarily about charisma, the ability to take charge of a room or force of personality. It’s really about a person’s character and core traits. Many people rise to leadership, but few achieve greatness. Only those who possess the traits above find greatness.

Degree programs at PGS—whether associate, bachelor’s, master’s or doctorate level—seek to equip leaders to thrive. The knowledge and skills learned in the classroom will help you improve yourself, embrace feedback, be a lifelong learner, take responsibility and continually build others up.

Learn more about our adult programs

Learn more about our graduate programs