What Leadership Qualities Does it Take to be a Good Leader?

Ever wonder about the difference between leadership and management? This article shares essential leadership qualities. Also, we’ll give some examples of what leadership on a UX team looks like. What does leadership involve?

Leadership means you know where you’re going and have the ability, skills and qualities to take people in the same direction.

  • Leadership deals with taking responsibility for influencing your people, knowing the direction you want to head while also taking the responsibility and actions to reach that goal.

Everyone has leadership qualities. Still, few can grow them enough to become great leaders. Let’s dig deeper into these skills first.

Great leadership qualities will be followed by subordinates

Leadership qualities list

Hundreds of articles abound on the essential leadership qualities you need as effective or good team leader. The question always remains: Which blogpost/book/source of information can I trust? Today, we must really look out – even skeptically – about what we read and accept as truth.

For this reason I’d like to share the thoughts of Dr. Jordan B. Peterson and Stanley McChrystal on the topic with you. Some consider Peterson one of the most influential intellects of our age. He works as a professor of psychology at the University of Toronto, clinical psychologist and public speaker. 

A retired four-star general, McChrystal wrote the New York Times best-selling book Leaders: Myth and Reality. In it, he talked about these skills:

  • Humility – Less ego, please:
    • I often found myself led by soldiers many levels junior to me, and I was the better for it. Deferring to the expertise and skills of the leader best suited to any given situation requires enough self-confidence to subjugate one’s ego, but it signals a strong respect for the people with whom one serves.” 
  • Self-confidence Leaders walk a fine line between self-confidence and humility:
    • Soldiers want leaders who are sure of their ability to lead the team to success but humble enough to recognize their limitations. I learned that it was better to admit ignorance or fear than to display false knowledge or bravado. And candidly admitting doubts or difficulties is key to building confidence in your honesty. But expressing doubts and confidence is a delicate balance. When things look their worst, followers look to the leader for reassurance that they can and will succeed.
  • Collaboration – Connection, interaction with followers:
    • “Physical appearance, poise, and outward self-confidence can be confused with leadership—for a time. I saw many new lieutenants arrive to battalions and fail to live up to the expectations their handsome, broad-shouldered look generated. Conversely, I saw others overcome the initial doubts created by small stature or a squeaky voice. It took time and enough interaction with followers, but performance usually became more important than the advantages of innate traits.”

I consider empathy the key, but it alone doesn’t make a team leader. With empathy you understand and relate. Without proactive communication, what do you do with your “great intuitive wisdom and knowledge of others”?! You have to put your skills into motion, showing the ability to collaborate.

  • Consciousness
    • Conscious, or correctly, highly conscious people earn more trust. Thus people will rely on them more because they do what they say they will. You can even treat others harshly, but if you have their trust, they’ll more likely follow you. 
  • Proactivity
    • People with the “get shit done” mentality will ultimately get that shit done. So after that they’ve done the job, they can set their team an example. Then they can lead.
  • Empathy
    • Without empathy, you can get by as a smart, dominant guy if you have enough charisma. But if you lack empathy, you can understand, connect and lead.

How can you lead your team? – Hierarchy and leadership

Top-down and bottom-up leadership structures

Flat vs. Hierarchical organizations – Can we have leadership in a flat organization?

Leadership in a flat organization sounds a bit contradictory, so let me clear up this. Peterson says: “Hierarchies must be based on competence not on power. Hierarchies that are based on competence are reasonably functional and valuable.”

He calls bullshit on the idea that hierarchy must build on power and dominance. Rather it depends on competence. And competence deals with skills and their utilization.

I truly believe in flat organizations. I have worked for strongly hierarchical corporations and flat ones too. Both need leadership. Without exception. Both need guidance, direction and competence. Still, competence wins much easier in a flat organization because they have less bureaucracy than hierarchical ones. 

Main takeaway: Even flat organizations need leadership. Flat organizations can base leadership on competence much easier. For that reason, they’ll definitely function better.

How do management and leadership qualities differ?

A manager and a leader have different leadership qualities

  • Management deals with the resources and sorting out tasks. Leadership sets the goal which will need those resources.
  • Management sets the table and takes pride in doing it in an orderly fashion. Leadership overturns it on realizing they’ve got the wrong table and screams, “Shit! We need a boat, not a table! Let’s do this!”
  • Management tells Leadership, “We’re running out of time!” Leadership tells Management, “We’re heading in the wrong direction!”

Personality and Leadership qualities

Personality typology really interests me. Let’s dig deeper into the question of the relationship between leadership and personality. “Born leaders” don’t exist. But! Some people definitely come into the world with particular personality traits or default preferences.

Also your personality will greatly influence what kind of leader you’ll become.

If this interests you more, read more about the Harvard Thinking style.

Leadership qualities on an orientation versus focus diagram

“People have different temperaments. Different temperaments can be leaders, they just do it in different ways. There is although one thing common in leaders. If you are a leader, you know where you are going.”

Jordan B. Peterson

One of the best-known science-based personality models, the big five personality test (or OCEAN) looks like this:

The big five personality traits in leadership qualities

Find the original here: The Big Five Aspects Scale personality test. A cheap person (like me) can find nice free versions like the Visual DNA test. I personally recommend it for its additional insights, fun and ease-of-use with its bounty of visualisation. (If you want thorough and trustworthy, try the “Big Five Asoects Scale” test.)

People higher in conscientiousness have better leadership qualities

Takeaway from The Big Five test : People higher in conscientiousness make naturally better leaders. Why? Conscious people have better self-discipline. We can trust someone with self-discipline more because they do what they say they will. Even if we don’t agree with them, we can know this. And this quality correlates extremely highly with leadership. This way you know your leader will keep their word and that you can trust them.

Who makes a better leader, a UX researcher or designer?

Now let’s put all this leadership and leadership qualities into context. Take a look at how all this applies to a UX team. Who makes a better UX team leader, a UX designer or a UX researcher?

First, I have some bias as a researcher. Second, I also have a few years’ experience as a designer, and with it, some valid points. So let’s see the pros and cons. Just as in other cases, it always depends on the context. What type of goal do you have? Choose the right leader for the goal.

UX researcher vs UX designer – Leadership qualities list:

I tried to differentiate the “leadership skills”, but I found that UX researchers and designers don’t have different specific leadership skills. Apropos, to learn more about how a good designer functions, read our previous blog post, “The characteristics of a good designer”.

Qualities of effective UX researcher and UX designer:

  • Empathy 
  • Collaboration
  • Communication
  • Active listening
  • Analytical thinking
  • Proactivity
  • Assertiveness

To sum up: The difference between a UX designer or UX researcher lies not necessarily in the skills or character but the attitude! The researcher explores more and the designer goes more direct. Both can become a good leader but we get the best results from equal collaboration between the two.

The attitude makes all the difference. Let’s take a look at an example how this difference in attitude embodies itself.

UX researcher – Leadership qualities list

What pros and cons come with a UX researcher as team leader?

  • Pro: A researcher has a strong sense of empathy. I consider it rather a quality of a researcher. I know designers have to have empathy too. Otherwise how would they make something useful for the users? They have to empathize with the user needs in order to do so. Still, researchers master mapping out the users (or in the leadership context the followers) needs, problem and everything about them.
  • Con: As a researcher, you must remain objective and unbiased. Researchers have to give insights, but stay objective. This can look like a con if we’re talking about leadership. Although it doesn’t necessarily hold.

It depends on the goal. For teams which set truth-seeking as the most important goal in finding true customer/user needs and problems, it makes for a pro not a con. This usually happens in the discovery phase of a project.

UX designer – Leadership qualities list:

What pros and cons does a UX designer as team leader hold?

  • Pro: A designer works to dedicate the direction of an application/interface. A good leader has a direction and sticks to it.
  • Con: The disadvantage comes in that design definitely needs research or insights from research to find this must-have direction. Designers can surely do research, but because of the nature of their profession, they may still lack the objectivity essential to do research well.

Again, these pros and cons don’t come written in stone. I’ve just based them on my experience working in different teams.

Our list of leadership qualities: Leadership on projects, here in UX studio

Here at UX studio, for those on a project (a designer and researcher working with external clients) the combination of the following really matters :

  1. Experience: Know the client types. Where do the fuckups hide (aka “Oh, sir,  I really did not expect this outcome!” situations)? Your intuition can help a lot, but you’ll need real experience as well.
  2.  Communication (teamwork): The less ego you have, the better.
  3. Get shit done” mentality: Proactivity, taking responsibility for your own stuff.

Why these three?

Let’s take a look what happens if any of it is missing:

  • Communication + Experience – Get shit done: A great communicator who has a lot of experience will still fall into pushing your dear teammates and clients to keep deadlines, leading to efficiency=0, that means success=0. Done. Lost
  • Communication + Get shit done – Experience: You’ll stand there with all the prototypes and research ready, everything communicated, and still end up with a “sudden” change of mind from your client. Without experience (and the intuition which comes with it), you can miss important nuances in your client. That can lead to a dead project.
  • Experience + Get shit done: Dude, you’ve gone pro! You did everything, so your teammates underperform and your client becomes detached because you haven’t communicated well. That means you lack client engagement, and your skillset limit your project results. So very sad. 🙁

A sad day after having lost a client

I hope you’ve found the article useful. To close with a few questions:

  • What does your experience reveal as the main leadership qualities/skills?
  • What personality trait helped/supported you the most as a good leader?
  • And the other way around: What personality trait of yours most kept you from acting like a good leader?

Continue learning with UX studio

As UX/UI designers and researchers, we know why customers don’t buy your product or service. Or at least why not enough of them care to pay for it. Read our article about identifying customer needs.

For additional reading, check out our Product Design book by our CEO, David Pasztor. We ship worldwide!

Alexandra Kovács

Discover users, see the real problem, uncover motivations & needs, cut out bullshit, share the truth, find a solution, create a vision.
If you want me on your side, just give me a great coffee. ;)