Top 5 Characteristics of Effective Leaders


Ken Sylvester

Editor’s note: This is a guest post from Dr. Ken Sylvester.

Dr. Sylvester is the president of Organization Strategy Institute, Inc and has more than 35 years of experience as a leadership and management consultant and professional negotiator.

He’s mediated and negotiated for organizations such as Microsoft, the United States Olympic Committee, Google, the National Basketball Association (NBA), the National Football League (NFL), Boeing, the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA), the U.S. Attorneys Office, Nike, Mercy Corps, Coca-Cola, and many others.

Without further ado, here’s Dr. Ken Sylvester …

Twenty-five years of business in 32 countries has honed my understanding of what sets successful business people apart from those whom success is an elusive quest.

Five characteristics persist in leaders I have been honored to know.

Although there are more than five characteristics, these five characteristics top the list.

Top 5 Characteristics of Effective Leaders

Here are the top 5 characteristics of leaders:

  • Characteristic 1. Depersonalization: Neutralize Ego-Centric Thinking
  • Characteristic 2. Self-Control and Emotional Maturity:
  • Characteristic 3. Emotional Maturity: Avoid “Dancing” To Others’ Psychological Music
  • Characteristic 4. Manage Failure: Expect Setbacks
  • Characteristics 5. Cope with Imperfection: Guard Your Expectations

Characteristic 1. Depersonalization: Neutralize Ego-Centric Thinking

Depersonalization is an approach to avoid interpreting others’ words and behaviors as having to do with you personally.

Successful leaders and negotiators have learned to depersonalize others.

Most of the conflicts and problems that I have observed among people have its root in personalizing others’ behavior.

Characteristics 2. Self-Control and Emotional Maturity

Self-control refers to a person’s ability or inability to maintain “composure” under pressure. The challenge of maintaining self-control involves command of the arousal of strong feelings.

“Hot-buttons” are activated under stress and are most often a reaction to emotive habits. “Hot buttons” are distinct for each individual. The two most contagious human emotions are anger and aggression.

Characteristics 3. Emotional Maturity: Avoid “Dancing” To Others’ Psychological Music

Regardless of what the nature is of others’ behavior or words, there are people who can effortlessly stimulate our emotive behavior. Emotional maturity requires we control how we react to such things as others’ behavior, personality traits, use of words, or ways of thinking that sidetrack us from our goal – which is achieving an agreement.

Objectivity is simple when it concerns others. When others become upset, it is normal to explain to them why they should not be upset. That is because it is not “our” issue. It is different however, whenever our emotions are activated. Human behaviors are complex. They are “triggered” by numerous reasons. Most of the “things” that stimulate emotive reactions in us are simply other people trying to get their needs met in the best ways they have learned to do so.

Characteristic 4. Manage Failure: Expect Setbacks

Failure is a part of every attempt successful endeavor. Acknowledge that the human mind is imperfect. Human beings tend to believe that others make mistakes. Others may fail . . . but not us!

The human tendency to deny failure exists in all professions and in all aspects of human life. The fact is that people fail. Not succeeding is a condition of life.

An effective leader must adjust en route to achievement, but should not surrender to failures and setbacks. Great leaders accept that imperfections will invade everyone’s life and plans. Therefore, expect it! Better to be prepared than to be surprised.

Failure will occur. Failure cannot be avoided. However, the ability to recover from failure is the critical test of an effective negotiator. No one enjoys failure, yet no person has ever demonstrated perfection.

Great leaders have great flaws. It all depends upon what you choose to focus on – the shortcomings or the reaching for achievement.

Characteristic 5. Cope with Imperfection: Guard Your Expectations

It has been said that the test of leadership is determined by what stops a leader from achieving their goal [referred to as “stopping power”].

The kinds of imperfections that stop leaders are:

  • (1) External situations, complicated difficulties and seemingly impossible challenges;
  • (2) Personal flaws, defects, weaknesses, and mistakes that often dishearten, undermine, humiliate, and hinder one’s pursuits;

Perfectionism that demands meticulous precision to the exclusion of reasonably getting the task done; Perfectionism is not the same as high standards. High standards involve doing one’s best and pursuing continual improvement;

Leaders must be experts at managing disappointing performance in themselves as well as feelings of personal inadequacy;

I have observed highly gifted and intelligent leaders come to nothing under the collapsing weight of a failure and the expectation of perfection. I have equally observed people with profound limitations and deficiencies succeed because they managed these 5 characteristics.

Don’t Let Life’s Imperfections Stop You

One woman that comes to mind is Lucy Arnaz of the “I Love Lucy” show. Lucille Ball was born on August 6, 1911 in Jamestown, New York to Henry Durrell Ball and Desiree Evelyn Hunt.

She dropped out of high school in 1926 (at the age of 15) to go to the John Murray Anderson Drama School in New York City.  However, the school sent her 17 rejection letters telling her that she had no talent and therefore would not accept her into the school.  From 1951 – 1957 the “I Love Lucy” show was the most watched and popular Television program on the air. Her marriage disintegrated.

These early failures and life’s imperfections did not “stop” her.

It’s Not What Happens to You

I have never met a leader who has not experienced areas such as personal and organizational failure, struggled with imperfections in themselves and their followers, endured the isolation of being at the top, during a crisis reached out to friends that were nowhere to be found, were criticized for making a great effort, lost sight of their goal, were vulnerable to attacks from those they believed were their allies, and so forth.

Yet those who depersonalized others’ attacks and criticisms, maintained their self-control and emotional maturity under the strain of leadership, effectively managed the failures of their self and others, and coped with the reality of human imperfection stand as the icons throughout history.

What happens is not as important as how we interpret what happens.

About  Dr. Ken Sylvester

  • Dr. Sylvester has more than 35 years of experience as a leadership and management consultant and professional negotiator in the areas of business, production, law, education, government, and the non-profit sector.
  • He has mediated and negotiated for organizations such as Microsoft, Google, the National Basketball Association (NBA), the National Football League (NFL), Boeing, the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA), the U.S. Attorneys Office, Nike, Mercy Corps, Coca-Cola, Edison Electric, various government agencies, and others.
  • President of Organization Strategy Institute, Inc., since 1988, Dr. Sylvester has worked with international business including Canada, France, Germany, Britain, Wales, Belgium, Ireland, Scotland, Austria, Italy, Greece, Hungary, Poland, Czech Republic, Russia, Beijing, Shanghai, Hong Kong, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Argentina, Brazil, Columbia, Peru, Venezuela, Ecuador, Philippines, Australia, New Zealand, and Mexico.
  • His educational background includes a Doctorate in Leadership and Management, a Master of Science in Organizational Management, and a Bachelor of Science in Health and Education.


  1. Thanks for the interesting read. I like #2. It seems like people’s true selfs come out during times of turmoil and chaos. It’s easy to remain composed and cool when things are going well, but when the shi* hits the fan, people seem to be themselves, for better, or more often, for worse. I see this not only at work, but even on my mountaineering endeavors. Being under business pressure highlights how people really are, but even more so being in 60 mph windstorm on Rainier seems to bring out the best or worst in people.

  2. Nice overview!! These characteristics usually intermingle in all situations…

    I observed that “depersonalization” results, IMHO, as the most difficult one to overcome. Several times we heard the “judge the idea, not the person”, but when ideas came from us, or we presented it, or we represent the group coming up with the idea (and similar situations) it feels difficult to not receive criticism as personal attacks. Maybe driven by a feeling of failing to the people we represent or our capacity at that moment to defend the situation. But then again, a “fear” arises here as the cause of these reactions, and knowing about it gives us power to conquer it.

    Thank you for this very thoughtful post!!

  3. Its been years since I attended Ken’s Negotiation Starategies course, and I remember at the time I wanted to go all groopie / dead-head on him, i.e. get in a vw bus and follow him around for a year to just to listen and watch and learn. Always a pleasure to see his work!

  4. This post is awesome and very timely!

    I have been struggling with figuring out the best way to respond to some “difficult” people in my life from a position of Power and this post came as a god send!

    Thanks Ken and JD for being the messengers! I completely agree with the contents and amazed at Ken’s insight.

  5. I like the way the author has emphasized on key characteristics wrt leadership, especially the fact that failure in leadership is driven more by negative personal emotions than other factors.
    This article is like a “101” for all the not so successful leaders to identify with the 5 characteristics, and work on the ones they lack.
    In my personal experience, I have seen that a sudden failure to an otherwise successful leader pushes the leader into one of two modes- more successful, or a routine failure. For the latter, characteristics 4 and 5 would be the ones to adopt and master.
    Personally for me, characteristics 3 and 5 resonate well. I believe, perfectionism and high standards, delay my achieving the goals. Also, I think it is hard not to get triggered by others’ psychological music. However, I have taken cue from many of your earlier posts, and lessons to get over it.
    Once again, thanks for the post. I will forward this to some of my friends and colleagues who I know are going to benefit from this.

  6. Thanks for the posting!

    Great focus on managing your personal state and turn experiences into learning and move forward in an optimistic and thoughtful manner. Key advice to my son: what’s make the most significant difference in our life is how we manage personal capabilities, which include learning and appropriately honing the capability.

    Focus on “what works” less on “what’s right” from a personal, team and organization perspective of course within legal and ethical boundaries.

    Emotional triggers may be rooted in values, like “respect”. Now (1) when do you attempt to understand and reconcile differences in values? and/ or (2) when do you resolve the trigger issue? Organizations attempt to expose the culture and thereby values, which secures that many employees share many of the values. Organizational values develop over time and therefore the perception is probably delayed compared to actual current values.

    Ken provides good advice around anticipating things going different than you expect, plus continuously commitment to personal excellence rather than perfection. On the issue around expectations, I encourage people and teams to specifically define what they are looking for, including individuals’ definition of what success looks like. Think “SMART” goals including the emotional aspects.

    Which part of these leadership characteristics does it make sense to scale to organizational level? Are these also some characteristics that define a “learning organization”?

    A leader is someone some people want to “follow”, if that is the case are Ken’s characteristics sufficient?

  7. Like Don, I remember taking Ken’s course in the 1990s. It stands out out as one of the most valuable courses I ever took. What’s incredible is that the information he presented here is not even what was in his courses.

    What Ken says here is very true in my experience. A leader is hit with many more challanges in this area because he/she is out front leading.

    The ability to depersonalize both others reactions to you as well as your outcome (success or failure) is an important skill. It’s not that we should not be connected, but to have a choice about the matter. I actually saw this in spades during Ken’s course when he was able to manipulate the whole class with emotion and assumptions into a certain manner of thinking. It was something I was actually pissed at later because I like to think of myself as in control of my own choices.

    I call the ability to be separate from these items being “not plugged in”. The Buddists call it “detachment”. Plugged in means that there is an emotion, feeling or unconcious rule or decision that’s in control of you. You lose the ability to choose our actions to be most effective in the situation because you are not aware. In addition, the more plugged in you are, the more likely you can be manipulated by others who are aware of how you are plugged in.

    I had an example of being plugged in at work where a rift existed between my boss and another coworker. I attempted to work it out taking the middle ground and eventually hoping to bridge the misunderstanding. After spending hours of my time attempting to do so (mostly listening to her bitch about my boss), she sent an email to her boss. That email had to filter to my bosses boss and then my boss down to me to tell me to stop talking to her because “I didn’t know anything”.

    We can see all the elements here Ken mentions in this situation.

    At the time, (and even still a little bit now if I still connect with it), I was deeply offended that should couldn’t even be direct. I didn’t care if she thought I was an idiot, but she didn’t even have the courage to tell me directly. Being this angry, I could see that I was plugged in to the situation. I’ve made the situation mean something about me. All I wanted to do was go into the her office and verbally yell at her, which of course is completely in effective. this was one of my buttons.

    The good news is that when something like this occurs, you can dig and find the central rule why this is occuring. For me, it’s because my family always dealt with things straight ahead. There was no undercurrent. This was a form of respect. My inability to handle undercurrent was taking my choice away. When I connect with that and release my story/belief that the direct way is always the most efficient way, i have choice again. It’s obviously not the most direct way in this situation based on results. And I see that is just who my coworker is. Has nothing to do with me. Doesn’t mean that who she is works or that you don’t deal with the behavior in some manner, but I’m not in an emotional space where I’m angry and have to use my will to control that anger or worse, fail to and get the opposite of what I was going for in the first place.

    If you can see your reaction and do this with enough of these situations, you develop the ability to overcome these limitations. First it may be by force of will until you pin point why you are plugged in. Eventually the need to control your actions goes away because you are no longer plugged in at all. You can pass over the situation like a story in the Sunday paper.


  8. JD,
    I am not a manager but I am a leader. I lead myself and I lead my family. As a consultant I lead my customers when solving their problems. Said that, these crisp lessons are very helpful for me. I think all 5 deal with emotional intelligence in this way or another. I found that emotions can be one of the biggest blockers in life and at work. What I am taking with me is this – to succeed as a leader in life and at work I must practice my emotional intelligence skills.

  9. Very insightful article on the personality traits that a good leader needs to embrace. I would add something about motivation or ambition to the list, since I think that might be a core trait that sets leaders apart from followers.

  10. I like characteristic #4 especially. So often we expect leaders to take us in a straight path through the forest. This is often not realistics, or as interesting :P. There will be failures, there will be obstacles — a great leader will guide through the twists and turns of the forest and learn from each, making the next twists and turns less and less severe. Good stuff!


  11. Great read. For me the first characteristic – depersonalisation – leads to all the rest. When we don’t take things personally, we can think more clearly and avoid being influenced by others’ opinions etc.

  12. I was very fortunate to have been able to take Ken’s Negotiation Strategies course at Microsoft. It was absolutely transforming. It helped me develop my own leadership and negotiation skills, and to recognize good leadership when I saw it.

  13. Hi JD

    Thank you for introducing Dr Sylvester – very useful post.

    Hi Ken

    At the moment I am struggling with a team leader who is simply not leading. This gives me a framework to try to determine where he is struggling – thank you

    Do you think these leadership characteristics apply in one’s personal and not worklife? Do you think there would be some differences?


  14. This is a great overview. To me, it’s the “leader” with a big ego who can lead a project or organization into chaos and assumes that failure of a part of the goal is a reflection on him/her rather than part of the learning process. Depersonalization and emotional maturity are essential to a good, effective leader.

    Thanks for the post – it’s very useful.

  15. Yes, I especially like the “expect setbacks” aspect, that way we are never stressed to expect perfection, can roll with the punches.

    Really great article, thanks.

    When I sign up with StumbleUpon I’m going to link this up.

  16. This is awesome post, everyone has to lead someplace or somewhere, therefore its important to understand what makes a good leader. Dr. Ken Sylvester has put it very nicely and crisply. Even though I think I knew the chracterstics well enough, as most of them are common sense, but still reading the post was enlightening in number of ways. It gives a good framework to think about it.

    All in all its a great post and good food for thought, I am sure I should be able to hone my leadership skills to some extend.

    Once again thanks a lot JD for getting Dr. Ken Sylvester to post here.


  17. Thank you JD and Dr. Sylvester for this excellent post. These are very useful tips and Dr. Sylvester has nicely explained. To me depersonalization and manage failure are very important.

  18. Fabulous article!

    I’ve had the pleasure of being able to take one of Dr. Sylvester’s courses. Once again he’s been able to share some very valuable insite from his lifetime of work with so many different organizations.

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