In my over 40 years of business, including being the vice president of HR at Microsoft, I've been fortunate to work with and observe some outstanding leaders. The best had many good qualities, and these were the ones I found common in all of them.
Much is written about the difference between a manager and a leader, a lot of it superficial. For me, the difference is clear when you compare these two lists. Here are my four traits of great leaders:
1. Team focus
Great leaders realize success is a team sport. They may have the title, but all the best work gets done when everyone works together—themselves included.
Many advocate for "servant leadership." They stress it's not the team working for the leader, but rather the other way around. While the intention is good, to counter the all-too-prevalent selfish leader, they have exchanged one overreaction for another.
Trying to spin the leader around into a servant to the team minimizes the value a focused and effective leader can add. And it trivializes the difficulty in telling someone who's worked hard for their position to forgo it.
The best leaders make everything all about the objective—not about titles and rank, not about you or me, but about the shared goal. They define a clear vision with crisp metrics and deadlines. They make sure everyone knows their role in this vision, including themselves.
They talk of "us" and "we," and they really mean it. They're happy to dive into the details if needed, but more often are fully aware of their first and best use. Their role affords them perspective and influence that makes the work of the team easier, even possible. So they use those tools.
Their hand firmly on the tiller, they are constantly charting the course, mapping the winds, and clearing mines. That is their contribution to achieving success.
Great leaders work hard to make the whole greater than the sum of the parts. With the relentless focus on the vision, the leader and team together make it so.
Great leaders see every member of their team.
They listen and acknowledge each person as an individual, not a replaceable cog in the machine. They recognize what makes them different, what makes them special, and what makes them an asset to the effort.
In fact, it's when the course is difficult that strong leaders rise to the occasion by using the skill of understanding to make the road less treacherous, less scary.
Acknowledging what might be hard for the team, they take steps to help them succeed. Sometimes, that's clearing away roadblocks, often, it's simply highlighting them. Teams benefit from knowing that their leaders see and hear them.
The empathic leader sees individuals and lifts them up when they struggle. Here too, heroism isn't required, simple acknowledgement and humanity is quite often enough support.
Great leaders view their teams as people. They recognize that, as much as you'd like to think of them as a unit, they are a collection of humans. Each deserving to be seen.
Though often overflowing with passion and urgency for the mission at hand, the best leaders practice patience at both large and small scale.
On the small scale, the best leaders are almost serene. They listen to people without pouncing. They acknowledge and hear out concerns. They think carefully before speaking. Interruption is rare, anger rarer still.
This stems from a clear realization of their position. They know that their role and title affords them gravitas and power in whatever they say. They needn't add to it with volume and bluster. That only makes them look smaller.
Strong leaders are patient with learners. They recognize failure as instruction. And they know that blame and criticism are poor teaching tools. Though often stretched, a great leader's patience with growth is abundant.
On the larger scale, even if they can't wait for the product to be done, the problem resolved, or the announcement to be made, they refrain from overwhelming the team with their urgency. They recognize that people are applying their best efforts and don't need to be ridden with a whip.
This, too, stems from their self-awareness. They realize that few situations are made better by the antics of a raging manager. If they've done their job and made the goals and deadlines crystal clear, the team knows what needs to be done. The leader's most valuable contribution is as a steady hand, not a panicked and impatient boss.
Great leaders find a way to balance a sense of urgency with uncanny patience—patience that lends confidence and trust to the whole team.
Great leaders recognize that trust is rooted in candor. Their team can only succeed when everyone shares a complete and frank picture.
Further, they see that secrecy can be a negative influence that drags the team down. In darkness, rumors and factions persist. Assumptions are made, conclusions are drawn. And the bias to the negative is rampant. Lacking any clear information, people tend to assume the worst.
Strong leaders know sunlight is not only a powerful disinfectant but a strong source of warmth and energy. Teams that understand what they're up against are more likely to overcome obstacles. And often surprise the leader with their creative solutions to problems that arise.
Thoughtful leaders provide a balanced perspective. Not all puppies and rainbows when things are going well. And not all doom and gloom when they're not. A realist's view is often that things are rarely as amazing or terrible as they seem. Real leaders shoot straight.
When asked a hard question, a good leader is prepared with a clear and honest answer. Not what the asker wants to hear, but rather what they need to hear.
Here, too, great leaders recognize the power of their positions. They know that people will hang on their every word. So they choose them wisely.
Great leaders speak always with an acknowledgement that the foundation of trust is candor.
Outstanding leaders are nowhere near as rare as it often seems
It's just that their calm and patient demeanor, the opposite of their flashier bad manager counterparts, makes them less noticeable.
The very best leaders balance their appearance. Their careful thought and actions are those of someone always taking the high road. Someone above the fray and noise, calm and deliberate in doing the right thing.
But they balance this with a personalization and approachability that bring a warmth and humanity to their style. Their ability to listen and empathize invites you to join them above the chaos. To see the larger view and share in their passion for the objective.
This is what leadership is truly all about. Painting a clear vision, highlighting the path there and offering whatever help the team needs to get there.
The best leaders make this seem almost effortless.
Chris Williams is a former vice president of HR at Microsoft and a leadership advisor, podcaster, TikTok creator and author. This article was written for Business Insider and legally licensed through the Industry Dive Content Marketplace. Please direct all licensing questions to email@example.com.