10 Leadership Qualities I Didn't Learn in Graduate School

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In this article, we discuss 10 leadership qualities that are often overlooked in graduate school education. You'll learn the importance of traits such as humility, emotional intelligence, empathy, and setting boundaries in effective leadership and provide guidance on how to develop these qualities for a successful leadership journey.

Updated on September 15, 2023

researchers learning leadership skills

When it comes to leadership, it’s easier to pinpoint what is going wrong than what is going right. Dealing with a leader who micromanages employees and team members or who thinks they know it all and are inherently smarter than everyone else, is blatantly disrespectful and disheartening.

Recognizing why and how a leader gains trust and motivates their team, however, is more opaque as the associated traits are subtle and interwoven. Yet somehow we just know when we are in the presence of a good leader. We want to be around them, feel empowered and appreciated, and sincerely want to contribute our best.

What exactly are these traits of a good leader? How does a person acquire, cultivate, and foster them?

We refer to some people as “natural” leaders - they’ve developed positive leadership qualities through their life experiences and instinctively put them into practice. While gifted, these leaders learned additional targeted skills along their professional path and continue to seek improvement.

Many more of us must take it upon ourselves to learn how to be good leaders. Like the “natural” leaders, these skills still evolve through experiences, but unlike them, we must not only work hard to hone them into effectiveness but also practice consistently with their implementation.

The accomplishment of attending graduate school is one example of a life experience that ostensibly teaches leadership skills. Through team projects, students learn:

  • The importance of  collaborating on complex problems
  • How all forms of communication are vital to the process
  • What it means to be dependable and trustworthy

A single environment can never teach everything. Many find gaps in their leadership skills after graduate school. 

In this article, we will explore 10 leadership qualities that may not have been learned in the academic arena, discuss why they are important, and determine how to improve them. 

Leadership Qualities 

As we look ahead to the next century, leaders will be those who empower others.” ~ Bill Gates

  1. Confidence: While sometimes unwittingly confused, there is a considerable difference between confidence and arrogance. As a valuable leadership trait, confidence is characterized by the self-assurance that allows a person to openly accept new ideas without feeling or acting threatened. Arrogance, on the other hand, is a toxic trait distinguished by the sense of superiority. The lack of empathy interferes with the open-mindedness needed for good leadership.
  2. Humility: In direct opposition to arrogance is humility, a leadership quality which relies on being open to positive and critical feedback and seeking out help with our shortcomings. It ensures that a leader is approachable and compassionate. Other team members can be confident in sharing their ideas without the fear of intimidation or degradation and in receiving fair and sincere constructive feedback.
  3. Responsibility and accountability: These terms are also often mistakenly used interchangeably. They are unique. Responsibility is a task-driven trait that motivates us to complete something. On the other hand, accountability is a more intricate leadership quality dealing with how we take ownership of the results and consequences of those responsibilities. Lack of either trait depletes trust. It breeds resentment as team members worry about being the next scapegoat.
  4. Integrity: Demonstrating humility and accountability as a leader is closely entwined with integrity and trust building. By not blaming others, we show respect. We encourage open and honest communication with other team members. Knowing when to share information and when confidentiality is required exhibits integrity and a set of values others can trust. This is key to building a positive company culture where people feel safe, respected, and valued.
  5. Emotional intelligence and management: Possessing the self-knowledge necessary to recognize and appreciate our own thoughts and emotions is the first step to emotional intelligence. The next stage, self-awareness, allows us to monitor others’ perception of us in a particular situation, inducing positive emotional management. As a quality of good leadership, knowing ourselves and the impact we have on others is an avenue for building trust and strong relationships.
  6. Empathy and active listening: When a leader genuinely cares about the feelings and viewpoints of other team members, they exhibit empathy. Using empathy to improve active listening skills means they are sincerely paying attention and relating to the speaker. Empathetic behavior encourages healthy work culture and team development by making people feel respected and valued.
  7. Empowering others: Because we’ve all felt the confidence-shattering effects of micromanagement, we intuitively know it is not a beneficial leadership quality. To undertake the responsibilities of a leader without being overbearing in the management of every single detail, we must trust and empower other team members. Delegating goals and expectations as opposed to individual tasks gives people autonomy. It exhibits faith and reliance in them. Setting up regular meetings to discuss processes, exchange ideas, and give constructive feedback further motivates team members to learn and improve through mentorship.
  8. Managing conflict: When there is disagreement between team members, a good leader sets the stage for an unbiased route to a fair resolution. By establishing an open-door policy from the start, we create an environment where people are comfortable discussing their differences to find a common ground. Then, a leader can use conflict management and negotiation skills to brainstorm positive solutions with those affected and devise a plan of action.
  9. Creativity: The creative leader doesn’t always follow the same pathways to address questions and challenges. He or she feels compelled to consider novel solutions. They encourage the advanced problem-solving and innovation from both themselves and others that promotes the fresh outlooks necessary to propel businesses forward. This quality requires a leader who approaches projects and situations with an open mind that remains flexible through unpredictable circumstances.
  10. Setting boundaries: While being an accountable, confident, and available leader is paramount, it’s impossible to be everything for everyone all the time. Setting boundaries is an often discounted leadership quality that ultimately affects our personal health and the well-being of everyone we interact with. The ability to clarify our standards, set priorities, and manage time are essential elements that initiate this skill. Respecting those same boundaries for other team members brings it to full realization.

Recognizing bad leadership qualities

Lead me, follow me, or get out of my way.” ~ General George Patton

At some point, we’ve all dealt with a leader whose poor leadership skills negatively influenced our lives. Their shortcomings were ultimately identified and the repercussions exposed. Turning the mirror on ourselves is more challenging.

When you notice adverse changes in yourself and other team members, whether it is decreased communication, increased stress, or general ennui, it’s vital to honestly explore the origins of those feelings. This begins with self-reflection.

Look at the leadership qualities discussed here, search for others not on this list, and ask yourself:

  • “Are any of these fundamental traits deficient or absent?” 
  • “Am I compensating for a lack in this favorable skill by replacing it with a destructive habit?”

Developing good leadership qualities

Leadership and learning are indispensable to each other.” ~ John F. Kennedy

The first step to becoming the best leader possible is realizing no leader is perfect, including ourselves. We always have room to grow. As evident lifelong learners, self-improvement is a natural part of our lives and an integral component of who we are.

Here are a few examples of resources for correcting, honing, and continuously developing good leadership qualities.

Within your organization: Starting at the most obvious and accessible source, contact the Human Resources (HR) department of your organization. They can guide you towards coaching, training, and other resources for career and leadership development.

Through mentors and coaches:

Reading books:

  • Leaders Eat Last by Simon Sinek
  • Dare to Lead by Brené Brown
  • Principles by Ray Dalio
  • The Five Dysfunctions of a Team by Patrick Lencioni
  • The Culture Code by Daniel Coyle
  • Crucial Conversations by Kerry Patterson et al.
  • The Myth of the Strong Leader by Archie Brown

Listening to podcasts:

Seeking out blogs and websites:

Joining clubs and memberships:

From your team: Ask for feedback, anonymously if necessary, to find out what is going well, where they would like to see improvement, and what an ideal environment might look like. Then, create an atmosphere of continuous open communication for the future.

Final thoughts

Graduate school provides countless avenues for academic, professional, and personal growth. Because our time as students is challenging and often all-encompassing, the good and bad experiences inevitably shape both our lives and identities.

The professional realm offers immeasurable opportunities to learn and evolve as teammates, leaders, and humans. Unlike graduate school, though, we are not evaluated by an impartial professor who is not personally influenced by our actions. We’re evaluated by affected peers whose professional lives hinge on our actions.

The essential qualities for leadership roles and situations overlap all at the same time. Success is a lesson in self-awareness and self-improvement. To become effective leaders, we must repeatedly assess our own merit and well-being to identify what is going well and where improvement is warranted. 

First be a leader of yourself. Only then can you grow to lead others.” ~ David Taylor-Klaus

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