TSLH #003: 7 Leadership Qualities They Won’t Teach You At School

TSLH #003: 7 Leadership Qualities They Won’t Teach You At School

Read time: 5 minutes


If your goal is to become a manager of a team or you are already a seasoned manager, you without doubt learned the technical and leadership skills and the theory behind leading a team.

What about the intrinsic qualities that make a team leader successful though?

I mean the ones they won’t teach you at school, and likely not in any other corporate training program.

I have isolated 7 qualities that I consider key to have in order to lead a high-performing team.

You don’t need to be an expert at these 7 qualities. For a start, you must be aware of what they are and how comfortable you are with them. Maybe you’ll shine at half of them and s… at the other half. And that is OK, nobody is telling you that you must be perfect.

My point though is that with practice and self-awareness, each of these qualities can be developed. I will show you how.

Empathy. This is the ability to understand and share the feelings of others. Empathy is really about focusing on the other person rather than on you and what you are thinking when the other person is speaking.

The key skill to practice to develop empathy is listening. And as suggested in the first issue of The Saturday Leader Heroes, listening at levels 2 (focusing on what the person says and how she feels) and 3 (how the person moves, what emotions are showed) is key here to develop empathy.

My tip to develop that quality: Practice listening in your meetings with people on your team, in discussions with your partner or friends. Focus on not speaking at all or very little (I know it’s hard for some of us 😊) and focus instead on listening.

Resilience. This is the ability to keep going despite setbacks and challenges. As Winston Churchill famously said:

“Success is the ability to go from one failure to another with no loss of enthusiasm.”

This is a key quality to have as the leader of the team. You will lose many battles, will face setbacks. Your ability to recover quickly from those and keep going is what will set you apart as a strong leader. The result you’ll get from that is a much more engaged team.

My tip to develop that quality: Every time you experience a setback, a seemingly bad outcome, do 2 things:

  1. Pause and take a step back. Imagine yourself in 30 years from now, thinking about that bad outcome and ask yourself, from that “30 years later” position, how bad this really looks in the grand scheme of all you have accomplished in your life and career.
  2. Instead of ruminating on the setback, ask yourself one question: “What gift or opportunity does this seemingly bad outcome present to me?” For instance, if you lost your top customer, as bad as this looks, a gift or opportunity offered by this setback could be that you have more time for other important clients.

Integrity. Leaders must be honest and trustworthy, and demonstrate strong moral principles. There’s no point in beating about the bush on this quality.

Integrity is really about staying connected with who you are, your values, your beliefs and make any decision or act based on these principles.

My tip to develop that quality: You need to understand your values, your core beliefs, what makes you tick, what energizes you or does not. Once you are clear and fully self-aware on this, the key is to “spread the word”, by which I mean make it clear to your team, peers, managers what your principles are. Let everybody know about what your red lines are, that people should not cross. The more clarity you offer on this, the better that skill will develop and be apparent to others.

In the end, remember that it’s not that great leaders have to choose to live by integrity. It’s choosing to live by integrity that makes them great leaders.

Confidence. A leader must be self-assured and unafraid to take risks and make decisions.

In my opinion, this quality is one of the first ones you must possess or develop as you shift from individual contributor to a team manager position.

As leader of a team, everybody expects you to make decisions.

However, what’s important to understand is that nobody expects you to be perfect and right 100% of the times.

So forget about getting all the facts gathered before making a decision, forget about judgment from others when you make a wrong decision. Making leadership decisions is almost like playing at the roulette: You only need to be right about 51% of the times to be successful!

My tip to develop that quality: Have clarity on your goals, keep your most important values as inner compasses that you can use to weigh ideas, facts, feedback, and make decisions from that place. These decisions will be aligned with who you are as a leader. Some of them will be right, some of them will prove wrong. And again, this is OK. When you are wrong, admit it, and change course if needed.

Courage. Leaders must be brave and willing to stand up for what they believe in.

What is it you’re believing in? Reflect on these questions for a few minutes:

  • What are your core, non-negotiable values?
  • What are your red lines, the things you won’t compromise upon?
  • What do you need from other people to help you succeed?
  • What are you ready to do to stand up for what you believe in?

In the end, courage is about standing your ground when somebody trespasses your red lines. Courage is about admitting when you are wrong or when you made a mistake. Courage is about stepping up and telling your boss or someone at higher levels that they are wrong or that they are making a mistake. Courage is about asking for help when you don’t know.

My tip to develop that quality: Leverage your 1-1’s with your direct reports, your boss, other stakeholders to practice courage. You can use that time to give feedback to someone, to ask feedback about yourself.

Adaptability. Leaders must be able to respond quickly and effectively to changing circumstances, especially so in a VUCA environment.

A VUCA world is filled with Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity and Ambiguity. This is the world in which we all live today.

The best leaders are those who can navigate this ever-changing world and stay on course with their goals and achievements.

Remember that contrary to a common (mis-)conception, change is not rare, it happens all the time. Just look at the cycles of our seasons every year, our emotions, thoughts or feelings, the cells of our bodies, the plants around us. Everything is changing or decaying continuously. Change happens all the time on earth.

This concept is even at the core of a religion like Buddhism, which states that “Everything changes and nothing lasts forever.”

My tip to develop that quality: Here’s the problem you need to solve: Most changes are outside of your control, especially in the corporate world. You can’t control a corporate reorganization, you can’t control a takeover or divestiture, you can’t control a lot of the decisions that bring change. But you can control how you’re perceived in the organization, by living by your values and beliefs, by stepping up to fight the battles you can influence and win, by continuing to protect your team. My tip is therefore to identify what it is you can control and to focus on this exclusively. This will help you tremendously in coping with change and adapt to it.

Humility. Leaders must be humble and willing to learn from their mistakes. They must be wise to ask for help when they need it.

This is tightly connected to courage. Great leaders recognize their mistakes in front of others, admit when they don’t know something, and do not shy away from asking for help.

My tip to develop that quality: Every time you make a mistake, do these 2 things:

  1. Reflect on what the learning is for you and how you can ensure that you take that learning into account in order not to repeat the mistake.
  2. Ask for people’s feedback. For instance, go see your team, admit your mistake, ask for their opinion on what could have been done better. Ask the same from your boss.


Like I said at the start, there is only a little chance that you have learned to develop these qualities at school or as part of your leadership development. Most likely, you already possess some of these qualities and they should not be too hard to demonstrate in your leadership role. Otherwise, you can use the tips I gave you to practice developing them and enhance your leadership credibility by demonstrating them with your team, your boss, and other stakeholders.

Have fun with this and let me know about your progress.

TL; DR (Too Long, Did not Read)

7 leadership qualities they won’t teach you at school

  1. Empathy
  2. Resilience
  3. Integrity
  4. Confidence
  5. Courage
  6. Adaptability
  7. Humility

Whenever you’re ready, there are 3 ways I can help you:

1️⃣ Work 1-1 with me to step up as the authentic leader you aspire to be.

2️⃣ Hire me to help you build a high-performing team.

3️⃣ Start with my affordable digital course on Mastering Difficult Conversations for Leaders.