Key Traits of Exceptional Leaders


Harvard Business School just released an exhaustive 10 year study on leadership.

The study– which included interviews with 2,700 leaders and analytical data crunching courtesy of IBM’s Watson– came up with the following key traits of exceptional leaders:

They Know the Whole Business—exceptional executives and leaders have deep knowledge of how their organizations work and how the pieces fit together to create value and deliver results.

Great leaders understand the big picture and the different disciplines that make an enterprise hum. They strengthen the “seams” to minimize weaknesses and make sure silos don’t exist.


They are great decision-makers—Exemplary leaders have the ability to declare their views, engage others’ ideas, analyze data for insights, weigh alternatives, own the final call and communicate the decision clearly. No hand-wringing, no waffling, no blaming others. Because they are great decision-makers, they are also exceptional at setting priorities. They know what’s important and avoid overwhelming the system with competing goals. They tend to balance instinct with analytics; trusting their gut but getting and trusting the facts too.


They know the industry—they study their fields and understand the ever changing world they work in. They know they have competition and they mind the landscape and don’t make decisions in a vacuum. They have innate curiosity.


They form deep, trusting relationships—they meet the needs of key stakeholders, they communicate in compelling ways and reach beyond superficial transactions to form mutually beneficial relationships. Their legacy becomes a positive reputation for delivering results while genuinely caring for those they serve.

Of the four traits, relational failures often tripped up even those who scored high on the other three attributes.

The best executives develop trust and invest in developing their own emotional intelligence and actively seek feedback on how others experience them.

Do these traits correspond to political and community leadership? My guess is that they do.

Certainly, we want our mayors and council members to know the whole community, be great decision-makers, know the industry they are involved in (building competitive, sustainable and happy cities/communities) and we would all benefit if they form deep, trusting relationships with the people they serve.

So the next time you think about your elected leadership on the local, county, state and federal levels ask yourself if they have these traits. It’s hard on a federal level to develop close relationships—unless of course you write big checks (sigh), but on a local level it’s not too much to ask for…it’s the beauty of local government.