The Three Traits Of Exceptional Leaders

'The Three Traits Of Exceptional Leaders' by Richard Shrapnel

There are three traits that will determine whether someone will be an exceptional leader, and they are character, character and character. Failure to assess character correctly is to appoint a leader who will surely fail.


Active Knowledge Question:

What does character mean to you in choosing exceptional leaders for your business?


Do We Really Understand Character?

I think we have now transitioned in our thinking about leadership to at least acknowledge that character is a key factor to be considered in selecting leaders. But I am not so sure that we universally agree upon what we mean by ‘character’ when we say it.

In the business world, we really struggle with accepting the core character traits of an exceptional leader as they are considered by many to clash with the profit imperative of business. But this profit-leadership paradigm reflects short-term thinking and undermines the capital value of any business. This paradigm really ties back to the self-interest thinking that permeates so many parts of our society today.

Character is defined as ‘the mental and moral qualities distinctive to an individual’, but what are the core – the most important – traits that are a ‘deal breaker,’ if not present in a leader?


Strengths Or Weaknesses – Which Is More Important?

Many of you will have come across, and perhaps taken, the StrengthsFinder test conducted by the Gallup Organisation through which your five core strengths are identified. Mine were, at the time:

  • Strategic: People strong in the Strategic theme create alternative ways to proceed. Faced with any given scenario, they can quickly spot the relevant patterns and issues.
  • Futuristic: People strong in the Futuristic theme are inspired by the future and what could be. They inspire others with their visions of the future.
  • Learner: People strong in the Learner theme have a great desire to learn and want to continuously improve. In particular, the process of learning, rather than the outcome, excites them.
  • Relator: People who are strong in the Relator theme enjoy close relationships with others. They find deep satisfaction in working hard with friends to achieve a goal.
  • Focus: People strong in the Focus theme can take a direction, follow through, and make the corrections necessary to stay on track. They prioritise, then act.

The by-line to the StrengthsFinder is ‘start with talent; finish with strength’ and its goal is to assist you in identifying where your natural talents lie so you can focus on them and turn them into real strengths. It grew out of the 1950s where psychology tended to focus on people’s weaknesses and seeking to correct them. Donald O. Clifton, the creator of the StrengthsFinder, felt it was more important to study ‘what is right with people’.

In business and human resources, we still seem to spend a lot of time identifying and trying to correct people’s weaknesses. However, this theme of focusing on strengths has not been lost. John Maxwell, a well-known author in leadership and performance, notes:

‘Focusing on weaknesses instead of strengths is like having a handful of coins – a few made of pure gold and the rest of tarnished copper – and setting aside the gold coins to spend all your time cleaning and shining the copper ones in the hopes of making them look more valuable. No matter how long you spend on them, they will never be worth what the gold ones are. Go with your greatest assets; don’t waste your time.

Don’t let your weaknesses get in the way of you reaching your full potential. Focus on what you do well, and capitalise on that. You are in a position of leadership for a reason. Your strengths helped you get there. Appreciate them and hone them, as they are like gold.’

But when I looked through the full list of 34 strengths outlined in the StrengthsFinder, I struggled to find strengths that hone in on the core traits of exceptional leaders. According to Gallup, almost 17m people (many of them leaders in business) have taken their StrengthsFinder test around the world. How many of them really appreciate the underlying core strengths required to be an exceptional leader?


Richard Shrapnel's 'Leadership Talk - Great Leaders Building Great Businesses' guide front cover




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  • A must for everyone who recognises that leadership is the most important factor in business success.
  • Includes a global benchmark test to identify your leadership strengths and weaknesses.



What If Character Is Lacking?

Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic and Clarke Murphy in an article titled, ‘When Leaders Are Hired For Talent But Fired For Not Fitting In’, published in Harvard Business Review, state that ‘over and over again, organisations are unable to appoint the right leaders’. They relate this failure to three key errors by organisations in choosing their leaders, which are to:

  • Decode leaders’ motives and values.
  • Understand their own organisational culture.
  • Be realistic about the new leader’s ability to actually change culture.

The authors discuss the ability of a new leader to change culture being tied to an understanding of the existing culture but, more importantly, that leader’s motives and values.

In essence they are saying, these organisations did not understand the new hire’s core character, as it is that character that gives birth to and drives their motives and values. And it will be through the strength of their core character that they will be able to influence the culture of their organisations.

Tim Laseter, in an article for strategy+business titled, ‘The Line Between Confidence And Hubris’, writes about an approach to identifying the early signs of failure in a leader from their behaviour. In his article, he poses the question: ‘Is there some predictable fatal flaw that distinguishes responsible risk taking from something reckless or even sinister?’ In answering this question, he identifies two early warning signs of risk, and two signs which should instil confidence. These signs are:

  • Risk:
    • Narcissism: reflecting a CEO who is focused on his or her own ego ahead of all else.
    • Dismissiveness: being a CEO who ignores input from others in their team and therefore takes unwarranted risks.
  • Confidence:
    • Humility: being reflected in a CEO who focuses on the larger vision and a broad set of stakeholders rather than their own ego.
    • Inquisitiveness: being a CEO who combines intellectual curiosity with a passionate pursuit of facts.

Laseter believes ‘hubris’ is the root cause of failure in many CEOs and signs of humility are critical in negating any elements of hubris that may exist, and in seeding inquisitiveness.


The Core Of Character

At the very core of a person are two traits that I believe drive all else in the individual, including their values and motives. They are humility and gratitude, and in seeking an exceptional leader you must ensure that these traits are evident.

These interdependent traits form the core of a person who has the Achiever Trait with the inner ring being humility, while the outer ring is gratitude. The Achiever Trait describes the combination of characteristics that collectively represent the engine that underpins and drives the ability of any individual to be successful. Build the engine, strengthen its components, keep them well tuned and success will be your daily reward. And a life of enduring success will become effortless.

Why are these two traits the core of a person’s ability to be an exceptional leader? It lies in what these traits allow this person to do naturally. I explore this below in an extract from my book, Achieve – Creating A Life Of Enduring Success.


'The Achiever Trait' by Richard Shrapnel
‘The Achiever Trait’ by Richard Shrapnel

Humility And Its Power

Humility may be described as a virtue, but it is not one I believe is held in high regard in today’s society. Rather, it is seen by many as a weakness. It is however the seed of great leadership and great businesses and should be studied and pursued. It is the core to enduring success.

Humility is a virtuous strength that allows you to place someone else before yourself, to uplift them and invest in them. It is not a sign of weakness or lack of ambition, but rather a willingness to hold power in the service of others. It is reflected in the business leader who places the business, its employees and its customers before themselves. It allows that business leader to promote the strengths of everyone else involved in the business and to lead it to greatness by not placing their self-interest at the forefront.

Humility allows you to learn and be grateful, to not take yourself too seriously, to seek continuous improvement, to take failure in your stride and to work with the best, at their best. It is a foundational trait upon which all else can be built as it allows you to be open to continuous improvement and learning and to win the trust, support and effort of everyone you work with. Humble people are the greatest leaders.


Gratitude and the Field It Creates

From the core of humility, you are able to look upon everything with thanks. You are able to wake up each morning with a positive outlook on life and with an excitement about what the day will hold and what you can achieve. It’s not about seeing everything through a false lens but instead about viewing life with a lens that looks for opportunity – that creates a positive energy.

If you are grateful in your life, you will be a person who gives. And if you are a person who has thanks and giving as core traits then positivity is generated and success will flow. You may want to say it’s the Universe or God blessing you, but do good things and good things will happen to you is my experience.

The Exceptional Leader

If you were to work with a leader who possessed the core traits of humility and gratitude you would be working for someone who:

  • Invests themselves in uplifting you and bringing your talents to the forefront.
  • Places themselves last and seeks to serve the business and its customers first.
  • Recognises and rewards your talents.
  • Believes learning is important and creates a culture of continual learning.
  • Listens to you and your ideas.
  • Seeks to work with the best.
  • Doesn’t take themselves too seriously.
  • Takes failure in their stride and doesn’t seek to attribute blame to others.
  • Seeks to win your trust and support.
  • Has a positive attitude to life and comes to work with excitement.
  • Views everything through the lens of opportunity.
  • Gives thanks for their life.

If your business had an exceptional leader at its helm, it would be a business that attracted the best of the best, who all gave everything they had every day to make the business an incredible success. And it starts with you choosing your leaders upon their core character.

If you would like to read more about leadership then my earlier article, Choosing Worthy Leaders, explores the topic in greater depth.


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All the best in the success of your business,

Richard Shrapnel