11 Essential Qualities for Government Leaders to Have

When I talk to my colleagues in the federal government, there seems to be a common theme around leadership or lack thereof. We seem to think that there has been a decline in the effectiveness of those in leadership positions. Many people in leadership positions have not demonstrated that they are sufficiently prepared for the positions that they occupy, nor display the qualities that we expect from leaders. Do you agree or disagree with this unscientific assessment?

Your Leadership Definition

When you hear the word leader, what comes to mind? Is it someone who motivates people to achieve high levels of performance? Is it someone who stays calm during adversity and challenging situations? Could your vision of a leader be of someone who puts the needs of others above their own? Does your definition include someone who looks for opportunities to learn and share knowledge with others? My definition of a leader is a combination of each of the four descriptions mentioned above.

For me, leaders are not defined by a title or position but by the qualities that he or she demonstrates. Effective leaders motivate others without needing to hold a position or title. Take a few moments to reflect on the best leaders. What qualities did he or they demonstrate? What things did they do best?

11 Essential Leadership Qualities

Here are the qualities that effective leaders demonstrate through their actions on a regular basis. They continuously improve their ability to do each.

  • Learning Agility

  • Integrity

  • Fearlessness

  • Technology Savvy

  • Flexible

  • Great Motivator

  • Change Embracer

  • Visionary

  • Strong Communicator

  • Collaborator

  • Accessible

Take the 11 Leadership Qualities Self-Assessment to identify your strengths and opportunities for improvement. Be honest…you are the only one who will see your assessment unless you give it to others to compare.

Are there some qualities that you think are more important than others? I believe that learning agility is the most important. According to Vicki Swisher in Leadership Excellence Essentials, presented by HR.com, learning agility is the ability to learn from experience in a consistent, systematic way and then apply that learning in new situations. This is the one quality that impacts your effectiveness to achieve the others. Without being able to learn from your mistakes and successes, you will limit your growth potential as a leader. What do you think are the top three qualities for leaders to be effective? Maybe your top three are not on this list.

Develop Strategies

It’s not enough to assess your leadership qualities without a plan that includes strategies to improve and enhance. You may think that certain qualities are characteristics that are innate and cannot be developed such as integrity or fearlessness, while others are easier to improve such as communication or technology savvy. You are actually right, although you can still achieve higher levels of effectiveness even in integrity and fearlessness. Here is how.

  • You have already taken the first step which is to determine your current level of effectiveness by completing the self-assessment that I shared or another type of leadership assessment.

  • Next, you need to set clear and measurable goals of where you want to be. For example, do you want to improve your ability to motivate your team to goal achievement or increase your level of confidence to your staff.

  • The next step is to create blended learning strategies that include formal and informal activities. In other words, do not just include training. Many of the 11 essential leadership qualities are best developed by experience, so be sure to include activities such as shadow assignments, developmental assignments, and opportunities to use leadership skills.

  • After you have determined your current level of effectiveness, set goals, and created blended learning solutions, you need to think about what success looks like. For example, what will it look like when you are a more effective collaborator.

Next Steps

I created a tool to assist you in creating a plan for development. It’s called My Development Plan. Whether you are currently in a leadership position with a title or not, you will be in a leadership role at one point in your career or another. You owe it to yourself to develop your leadership effectiveness which will ultimately improve your performance.

Deadra Welcome is part of the GovLoop Featured Blogger program, where we feature blog posts by government voices from all across the country (and world!). To see more Featured Blogger posts, click here.

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Mark Hammer

Two competencies one will rarely see on competency profiles of leaders, or rather, for leadership positions, are courage and wisdom. In many respects, it IS what those being led want from their leaders. And in truth, a big chunk of what you have on your list-of-11, falls under the rubric of courage and wisdom. In some instances – for example, integrity – the wise leader knows that little can be accomplished with any staying power in its absence. But for some reason – perhaps because assessing it, and rejecting someone for a position who appears not to have “enough” of it creates a bad reaction – it’s as if we don’t want to fess up to courage and wisdom being what we want in leaders, so we sidestep it and don’t talk about it directly.

One of the attributes of wisdom, is that those offering sage counsel, attempt to make the advice-seeker more able to act independently as a result of their advice. In that respect, I think we too often confuse “communication” with mere motivating. Motivating others is important, but a great communicator allows others to understand the mission so thoroughly, that they can carry on, even were the leader to suddenly vanish. I’ve seen all too many leaders who talk pretty, and can pump up a room, but once they leave that room, you’ll be damned if you know what you’re supposed to do, and certainly incapable of conveying the required steps to someone else. So, being a visionary is a wonderful thing, but unless that vision is crystal clear, detailed, and memorable to all who are required to achieve it, it may as well be a hallucination. Being able to render others able to commit to that vision and act independently, in concert with that vision, takes one heck of an explainer.

Values are crucial to effective leadership. I am one of those who feels that values come from history; principally from shared history. So, when you note what you feel to be “a decline in the effectiveness of those in leadership positions”, part of that may stem from the instability of those in leadership roles. I don’t mean them being unstable as persons. But rather, their seemingly constant movement from this position here, to that position there. “Churn” as we like to call it. We view that as somehow intrinsic to a career as a leader (and see Steve’s recent posts asking about how long to remain in a job, and whether having lots of different positions on one’s resumé is a good or bad thing).

But perhaps that rootlessness gets in the way of being able to grasp and communicate those shared values. That doesn’t mean the leader is not well-intentioned, but there is a certain ring of inauthenticity to the leader of 2-3 years who attempts to whip up zeal amongst employees who have been serving, and offering their stewardship to, the organization for 20 years. They’re like foster parents or step-parents; not really “one of us”. In my more cynical moments, I tend to refer to middle and upper management as “high-priced temp help”.

To be fair, often the instability is a by-product of things outside the control of immediate leaders. People retire, and common-sense dictates that there be an orderly succession, drawing on the internal talent pool. Organizations can be restructured for this reason or that, and employees can be deployed under other people in a rejigged org chart. It happens. But there is little denying that those who aspire to be leaders, are rarely content to remain at-level for very long. And, as a result, they move on.


Mark, thanks for your comments! I appreciate your detailed descriptions effective leaders. I agree with you that courage and wisdom are definitely attributes of effective leaders. My question to you is how do you measure courage and wisdom? That may be, as you indicated in your comments, why you don’t see them on competency profiles. You hit the nail on the head when you described confusing communication with motivating. We do encounter too many leaders who talk a good game, and cannot communicate the strategy to accomplish the goals. I really appreciate your comments.

Mark Hammer

Thanks Deadra.

Believe it or not, researchers working in the area of adult intellectual and personality development have been measuring wisdom for about 20 years, now, using scorable responses from people to hypothetical situations. Although they don’t look explicitly in the more specific area of wisdom within an organizational context, I see no reason why such tools could not be developed, and be eminently scorable. But like I say, who would willingly accept being turned down for a job or promotion because “the test says you’re not wise enough”. So, the challenge would be to measure the same things, but call it something different.

As for courage, I don’t know that such a competency/quality is quite as measurable or quantifiable. It would likely rely on 360 feedback, which would, in turn, rely on more fully articulating to informants what one means by “courage”. It overlaps with, but is not identical to, being willing and able to take measured risks when needed. It also means a willingness to speak truth to power, and stand up for the people under you; being a true champion.

Gary Lyon

While I believe ‘Integrity’ is probably meant to capture it, I believe the foundation for all of these is ‘Trustworthiness’. Without being trustworthy all your efforts are for naught. Too many ‘leaders’ I’ve known fail because they don’t understand this. It’s not enough to be competent in your profession, you must practice the behaviors that elicit commitment by others to achieving whatever goals you need them to strive for. Stephen M.R. Covey’s “Speed of Trust…” is my personal go-to for reminding myself and I highly recommend it.

Marie Koko

One of the things that defines a great leader for me is someone who has enough command of their ego to hire people that have different strengths, or who are more skilled at something than they are, and then stand back and let those people excel. A great leader knows that he/she can’t be all things in all situations. They know that hiring the right people and letting them do what they are skilled at benefits the entire organization. They don’t try to take credit or diminish their people when they DO excel…they publicly congratulate them for it.

David B. Grinberg

Awesome post, Deadra! You raise many excellent points. Thanks so much for sharing them, as good leadership is key to good government — and we can always use more of both.

Mark Hammer

Gary, I suppose one might best think of “integrity” as a quality, and “trustworthiness” as an outcome. That is, we end up trusting those who demonstrate integrity. Some of us DO just trust people right off the bat, and have to be given reasons not to trust someone. But most folks tend to “be from Missouri”, and need to be shown why they should trust.

The late Elliot Jaques addressed what he called “requisite competencies” of organizational leaders, and adopted a cognitive stance, arguing for effective leaders’ tendency to think in terms of larger time-spans. Here’s a nice summary of the concept. http://edge.org/response-detail/11105