5 surprising traits of great leaders

In my career as an executive recruiter, I’ve learned through thousands of interviews in dozens of countries to pay attention to how the C-suite candidate interacts with the receptionist.

5 surprising traits of great leaders
[Photo: Vasyl Dolmatov/iStock]

I’ve interviewed over 5,000 people from more than 35 countries in my career as an executive headhunter and investor. I’ve sought out CEOs, presidents, board directors, and more for companies big and small, ranging from small startups to corporations with valuations in excess of $10 billion, on every continent except Antarctica.


Along the way, working with firms in sectors like mining, technology, education, and healthcare, I’ve learned that, contrary to popular theories, most of the qualities that make great leaders won’t show up on their LinkedIn profiles or a Myers-Briggs personality test. But they will show up in their mannerisms, their way of speaking and–most importantly–how they interact with others.

Here are five somewhat surprising qualities I’ve learned to screen for in my career handpicking the people at the top of the org chart.

They can fist-bump all the way from the janitor to the board

Above all, great leaders have to be relatable and empathetic. They understand what motivates people at a human level and how to influence situations. I’ve seen this countless times behind the interviewer’s desk, but the best example may be someone I’ve never sat down with: Barack Obama.

Whether he was horsing around with kids in the White House, dancing with a 106-year-old lady, or cracking jokes on late-night TV, he interacted with people from diverse walks of life with humility, even while holding the most powerful job in the United States.

In my experience, great leaders have a common denominator of decency and courtesy with everyone they encounter, treating my assistant the same way they treat me or my colleagues.


They attract an entourage

Great leaders understand they don’t operate in a vacuum and that building the right team can define their success. They put their own ego aside and make the people around them better–and they get a reputation for helping others achieve.

While the candidates themselves will seldom admit this, I’ve often found the best indicator of effective leadership is when people develop an “entourage” over time. When the person at the top is truly talented, people will leave a company to continue working with them as they progress to their next role.

Take Canadian entrepreneur Hamed Shahbazi. After selling Tio Networks, his online bill payment company, to PayPal for $304 million, he started a health technology company called Well–and multiple employees, investors, and contractors followed him there. That fact speaks more about his qualities as a leader than any lucrative exit ever could.

They take the fall … without taking all the credit

Business is about taking risks. Shit happens. People who are quick to throw others under the bus or play the blame game when things go wrong often aren’t good candidates to steer a ship through rough waters. That kind of behavior erodes trust up and down the org chart.

Conversely, those who spread credit around, saying we rather than I when asked about successful projects, tend to be true team players. They have a knack for taking responsibility–without claiming all the credit.


This level of commitment is especially powerful when leaders are navigating situations outside of their control, like when former Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz tearfully apologized to the company after laying off 12,000 workers at the height of the 2008 recession.

Leaders who can walk the fine line between sharing credit and taking responsibility build loyalty and trust among their teams–and they recognize there is much more value in that than in saving face.

They appreciate the “unknown unknowns”

Contrary to the image of the CEO with the inflated ego, I’ve found the most natural leaders readily admit they don’t have all the answers. In fact, they go out of their way to ensure they’re never the smartest person in the room. Great leaders understand it’s not their job to unilaterally call the shots at an organization, but rather to sort, synthesize, and collate the insights of the brilliant people around them. They respect unknowns, gather the right people to minimize them, and act decisively with the info at hand.

Take former Pepsi CEO Indra Nooyi. Before deciding on a $1-billion overhaul of the company’s IT system, she read 10 IT textbooks from cover-to-cover and called professors with her questions. This approach takes a lot of humility. But leaders who can harness the power of their network also fortify companies by nurturing talent and grooming potential successors. Because ultimately, they realize their role comes with a shelf life–or at least it should. Their real job is creating a legacy that lasts long after they’ve left the building.

They take downtime seriously

I’ve seen it time and time again: All work and no play makes for an ineffective, burnt-out leader. In interviewing for top positions I’ve noticed the best leaders have a go-to way to recharge their batteries, outside of work, on a regular basis. They might spend their downtime scuba diving, like IBM’s Ginni Rometty, read 50 books a year like Bill Gates, or perfect their slow-cooking skills like T-Mobile’s John Legere.


Personally, I know I couldn’t manage a portfolio of over 50 companies if I didn’t spend time with my family, play basketball, or see friends on the weekends. Whatever it is, leaders’ hobbies help them decompress so they’re focused once they’re back at work.

What stands out about all of these qualities is that you can rarely discern them on a resume. A leader’s potential has as much to do with the subtle ways they influence others as with headline-grabbing accomplishments. As a headhunter, I’m constantly trying to figure out not just what they’ve done, but who they’ve lifted up along the way.

Manny Padda (@mannypadda) is the founder and chief people connector at New Avenue Capital.