7 Traits of Exceptional Leaders

To lead successfully requires earning the confidence of those who are to be led.

learn more about Sherrie Campbell

By Sherrie Campbell


Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

This article is included in Entrepreneur Voices on Effective Leadership, a new book containing insights from more than 20 contributors, entrepreneurs, and thought leaders.

Emotions are the universal language. The way the emotions are felt is the same in each of us. What triggers our emotion is individual, but if we can feel our own pain then we can know what it is like for another to feel their pain. Because of this projective identification, it allows us to empathize and lead others with greater awareness and increased bonding. To be an exceptional leader we must be able to place ourselves in the shoes of another, and feel what they are feeling.

1. Self-awareness

Great leaders are deeply knowledgeable about themselves and committed to their own personal development. To be great we must do the same. The most influential people on earth, those who have left the most significant impact, led from the heart. Empathy is not something we learn from a book. It is gained through suffering. From our suffering, we come to accept pain and challenge as integral parts of life, and totally necessary for great leadership. Think about it, would you want to follow a leader who had never suffered? How would this person know what to do, or how to lead us on the front lines if they've never been there before? To be great, we must know how to lead ourselves through our own fears in order to know how to lead others through theirs.

Related: Inspire Loyalty With Your Leadership: Here's How

2. Self-control

Empathy is most easily sacrificed when we're upset, angry or disappointed with another person. We tend to be the most hurtful and impatient in these situations. The important thing to try and practice is taking a moment to get clear before speaking.

Great leaders tell others when a conversation will need to wait until they are clear enough to communicate responsibly. There is a wisdom to knowing that conversations can be placed on hold. We cannot be reactive and empathic in tandem. In taking some time, we are able to take in the feeling experience and perception of the other in a way that makes sense, or at least arouses questions that can be asked with empathy, rather than accusation. We get a lot further in business when we have enough empathy for the other to make sure and harness our own self-control before we speak.

3. Communication

Empathy is the great healer of miscommunication. It is the emotion that moves people and situations through times of being stuck. Without empathy, solutions are forced, rather than powerful. Exceptional leaders count on empathy as a catalyst for change. It makes communication a two-way, collaborative, reflective process. It allows for vulnerability. With empathy people feel seen and important. To develop a working environment conducive to success, we must be able to meet people where they are. We must be able to understand, respect and implement another person's point of view, rather than only our own. This type of communication introduces the concept of fairness into the success equation.

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4. Other-centered

When we're empathic we care about how other people are. Exceptional leaders ask others how they are doing, what they need, and what they feel. This increases bonding, honesty and connection. When we have a clear idea of how others feel about what they're doing, we can better support and guide them. When others trust that we support them, they realize they're not alone and without help. We must keep in mind that if we want others to be invested in what we're doing, and to respond with cooperation to what we're asking, then we must consider their ideas and also how they perceive who we are. To be great, we must use empathy to guide all aspects of our lives, allowing it to influence not only what we say, but also allowing it to influence how we say what we say, and allow it to direct the kinds of questions we need to ask. When these steps are taken, it naturally inspires the development of empathy within others.

Related: A Little Empathy Makes Good Leaders Great

5. Boundaries

Exceptional leaders expect to face situations where they realize the only way a person on their team can grow is to either have to withdrawal their support from that person, or to set boundaries around their support in an effort to protect their generous nature. To remain empathic, great leaders know they must protect their hearts, and put themselves first in negative situations. Through trial and error, we must also come to understand that there are people who can stay in our hearts, but not in our lives or businesses. If we are dealing with a person incapable of empathy, we must separate from them. All it takes is one toxic person to short circuit an entire team's path to success. It is impossible to work with someone who is constantly defensive and unwilling to listen or take feedback.

6. Kindness

Great leaders, lead from the heart. They live the wisdom that it is the kindness of their spirit, how they treat, think about, and relate to others that makes all the difference when it comes to developing a cohesive team driven to succeed. When we're kind, we naturally come from a genuine and sensitive place. Exceptional leaders are kind and use empathy to guide their every word, deed and action. When we have this, we are able to be kind, even to those we do not care for. This is not a weakness or a vulnerability. To be empathic is our greatest influence over others. There is truly no human quality that will take us further in life than kindness. We must not strive just to be successful. We must strive to be exceptional. Anyone can be successful.

Related: Why Business Leaders Need to 'Tune in' to Their People

7. Unselfish

Great leaders give back. They understand that they get more from giving, then from getting. When we give back, it increases our own quality of life, our perception of what we have and it reminds us to be thankful for our lives, as we witness the impact we have on the lives of others. When we give back, we feel good. It reminds us of the love and abundance we have in our lives, inspiring us to continue to strive to succeed to have more and more to give back. To be exceptional we must embrace the power that comes from giving. Giving back is relationship building. It is through an involvement in our communities that we develop quality relationships which also give back to us. People want to be linked with others who are giving. People want to work for people and companies that care. Great leaders do not want to be remembered for their net worth, they would rather be remembered for how they made other people feel.

Exceptional leaders live by the Golden Rule. To be exceptional in our own right, we must do the same. We must put ourselves in the situation of the other and ask how we would like to be treated in their situation, and do our best to provide them what they deserve. The more empathy we bring to our more challenging relationship problems, business negotiations or disciplinary situations the more successful we will be. Empathy, humility, kindness and understanding all come from love. There is nothing more appealing to others then to be in the presence of a loving person. Exceptional leaders live this wisdom.

Sherrie Campbell

Psychologist, Author, Speaker

Sherrie Campbell is a psychologist in Yorba Linda, Calif., with two decades of clinical training and experience in providing counseling and psychotherapy services. She is the author of Loving Yourself: The Mastery of Being Your Own Person. Her new book, Success Equations: A Path to an Emotionally Wealthy Life, is available for pre-order.

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