What Does Leadership Mean? Hiring Managers Reveal the Qualities They Actually Look For

Our whole lives we hear about the importance of being a leader. Leadership skills are in high demand with seminars, classes and entire majors in college devoted to the designation.

“Most people describe themselves as a leader during an interview, but actually lack the ability to lead in a professional setting,” says Igor Kholkin, founder & CEO of Avidon Marketing Group. “I prefer unique tests to get insights into applicants' leadership abilities.”

The term seems to be thrown around so loosely these days, but what does leadership actually mean? To cut through the fog of ambiguity, we asked hiring managers to disclose the traits they look for in candidates and what they define as leadership.

How can you become a leader?

If you are a new hire in your first corporate job, it’s unlikely that you will be in a management position. But that doesn’t mean you can’t flaunt your leadership skills. So what does it mean to be a leader, when you don’t have people to lead?

“People typically describe a leader as an individual who is social and loves to take initiative,” says Marc Prosser, co-founder of Fit Small Business. Getting to know your co-workers, being curious about the organization and finding new ways to improve on how you do your job are all signs of a great leader in the eyes of employers.

Leaders are more interested in a principle-based approach rather than a proscriptive one, according to Prosser. They want to know the whys behind their tasks and understand the larger goal. It’s about being truly invested in your company and eager to improve it—from the tasks on your desk to the organization as a whole.

5 leadership traits employers are seeking

Apart from the bigger ideals of motivation and growth, there are some very concrete attributes hiring managers associate with being a leader. According to Kholkin, these are the most sought-after leadership qualities in the corporate world:

1. Critical thinking skills

Leaders make sound decisions. Nothing says leadership like thinking critically, making choices on the fly and consistently clocking in with your intellectual A-game.

2. Collaboration

The ability to work with all personality types is extremely important trait in a leader that translates to an essential skill for anyone on a team. Letting annoyances or personal disputes stand in the way of your goal shows a lack of ownership, which equates to lack of leadership.

3. Courage

A good leader isn’t afraid to voice well-founded dissent. If you have reason to think something is not the best course of action, have the audacity to speak up.

4. Problem solving ability

In terms of leadership, this is more than simply fixing the problems that fall into your lap. Leaders in the workplace are proactive and independent problem solvers. It’s easy to escalate an issue straight to your boss. Alternatively, you could brainstorm a way around the roadblock first and have the satisfaction of presenting both the problem and a possible solution.

5. Perspective

Leaders know how to keep a broad perspective. Try to understand long term goals and observe how the parts of your team or company contribute to the whole. Anytime you take proactive action to help meet a goal, particularly if the action wasn’t a specific task on your plate, you’re demonstrating perspective and leadership.

What role does personality play in leadership?

The term "leader" typically has a positive connotation, and "follower" tends to have a negative connotation. These assumptions can make job applicants feel like "leader" is the only right answer to a question, even if they aren’t sure what the term means to their interviewer.

“At face value, it is tempting to hire someone who identifies as a leader rather than someone who identifies as a follower,” says Linda Williams, founder of Whose Apple Dynamic Coaching Services. “But the two terms are not mutually exclusive.” She goes on to say vague terms like ‘leader’ aren’t ultimately helpful in making hiring decisions. 

"Personality types do not make a leader."

Above all, don’t make the mistake of thinking you have to be someone you aren’t to show leadership. “Personality types do not make a leader,” Kholkin says. “I've seen introverts become fantastic leaders and extroverts fail at basic job functions.”

Rather than thinking in terms of a leader versus follower dichotomy, it can be more valuable to learn about personality quirks, according to Matt Cholerton, co-founder of Ping Labs. He emphasizes that personalities can even be more important than job skills when hiring new team members.

So focus on being genuine in your resumes and interviews. Helping an employer understand who you are will help them determine the role you will thrive in. “If a position capitalizes on your strengths and interests, you can easily become an effective leader,” Kholkin says.

Think of your personality as an asset and don’t alter it to try and impress an employer. Once you find the right fit, you will be more invested in your work and will start developing leadership skills.

What does leadership mean to you?

Everyone has a different definition of what a great leader is, but most hiring managers can agree on a few important attributes they seek in candidates. But what other skills and traits are employers looking for?

There are plenty of attributes across all industries that employers find appealing. Check out our infographic to learn more: Do You Know What Employers Are Looking For? (And Do Your Skills Match?) [Infographic]


About the author

Brianna Flavin

Brianna is a senior content manager who writes student-focused articles for Rasmussen University. She holds an MFA in poetry and worked as an English Professor before diving into the world of online content. 

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