The 9 Essential Qualities of Leadership

qualities of leadershipIn 1917, as his farewell address to the graduating student officers of the second training camp at Fort Sheridan, Wyoming, an Army Major by the name of C. A. Bach discussed leadership in what was, in my estimation, the most succinct, comprehensive, and compact analysis of the qualities of leadership ever put together. I’ll discuss Major Bach’s farewell address further on this site, but today I want to get down some of the core points of his speech.

(If you’d like to download a complete copy of Major Bach’s brilliant address, you can get it here)

I was blown away the first time I read this address. I’m not sure why this took me 29 years to find; I would think that a piece this incredible would be a center point of education at every school. But, as it were, most things get lost in the fog of history, and this address on leadership to a graduating class of US Army officers from the end of the first World War seems to be one of the many things that simply got written off as yesterday’s news.

Well, no longer. Because here, in this fantastic piece, Major Bach’s identified the most important qualities of leadership that any leader can attain and to which every leader should aspire, and I’m going to identify them for you in this post to help you start being a better leader immediately.

A Note on Leadership from Major Bach

Before we dive into the actual, literal qualities of leadership as Major Bach has identified them, I want to review a few higher level points on what leadership is that Bach details.

The first of these is that people only follow a leader so long as they believe he possesses the qualities of leadership – and that the instant they lose faith he possesses these qualities, they’re gone.

I’ve heard many a would-be leader lament the abandonment of his people, wondering why people refused to line up and follow. I heard this in the very first job I ever held from a power-hungry colleague who tried his best to take command over the department we worked in (and tried his best to get me fired, and very nearly succeeded, when I refused to bend to his will), and I still hear it today.

But this is the reason why. Any man who wonders why others elect not to follow him must only look to the qualities of leadership and ask which of these he falls short on. By identifying his shortcomings in the qualities of leadership and fixing them, a man can transform himself into a leader praised and honored by many. By ignoring those faults in his leadership, however, a man is doomed always to stress at keeping people’s attention and loyalty, and ultimately to fail.

Major Bach highlights also the difference between leaders in the military and leaders elsewhere, inasmuch as soldiers in the military fight selflessly and will even die for their cause, while people elsewhere in life (work, religion, politics) have personal gain mixed in as a motivation along with the devotion to the cause. It’s my belief, however, that there are no further points needed to be mastered as qualities of leadership than these 9 points, whether we’re talking about military or civilian leadership.

Bach also urges those who aspire to leadership to become students of people. In other words, to learn what makes people tick; to break down and understand the different quirks, differences, exceptions, and personality types; to know what drives people, what emboldens them, what weakens them, and what makes people strong. In so doing, the leader can learn all the more how to use the 9 qualities of leadership to truly lead his team to success – both for the cause, and for themselves.

qualities of leadership

Some Thoughts on Civilian Leadership

While I haven’t served in the military myself, I’ve had a number of friends who have, and have come from a lineage of ancestors who’ve fought in wars around the globe. I’ve done contracting for the military, worked at numerous military bases, and have directly reported to Navy captains as my immediate supervisors. I’ve additionally studied military conduct and routine somewhat extensively, and become quite familiar with a number of its precepts.

One of the largest differences between military life and civilian life is that military life is all-consuming. You are not just going to a job in the morning and coming home at night, with the weekends to yourself. You’re living on-base, on your ship, or in the middle of a war zone. Your free time is spent with the other members of the military; your time off isn’t really time off, at least not when you’re on deployment and often not even when you’re stationed somewhere domestically. You are always in the military environment.

In civilian life, you check in and check out of different roles. During weekdays you’re at work. Weeknights you’re taking classes or going to dinner parties or bars. On the weekends you busy yourself with other activities and social circles. Your life is fluid; some parts of it are larger than others but you have no one overall devotion that overrides all others to a large extent. It can be difficult to get focused on work.

Because of this, a leader’s influence over the life, mind, and heart of a civilian is necessarily less than the influence of a leader over the life, mind, and heart of a soldier. For the soldier, his leader in the military is his leader period. For the civilian, his leader at work, or in his social circle, or at school is only his leader in that one particular sphere, and he has other leaders he reports to too.

I’ll tell you a quick story.

When I was 18, after I graduated from high school, I didn’t want to go to university right away. In fact, I was certain I ever wanted to go back then. So, everyone else I knew went off to school, and I stayed behind to do I knew not what.

I ended up taking a job putting tires on cars.

It was hard work, so much so that I almost quit after the first week. Nevertheless, I stuck it out, and eventually I found myself promoted to a sales and assistant store management position.

In those days for me, I had no social life. I saved all of the money I made because I had nothing to spend it on. I did nothing but eat, sleep, work, and go to the gym. My work was my life.

Because of this, I came to view my work at the tire store as almost a sacred mission, of sorts. I put my heart into doing as great a job as I could, and as a first time salesperson I soon became one of the best in the district. I got so good I even became someone sent off to ailing stores to help turn around their sales teams. I treated my superiors as people to whom I pledged my spirit and devotion. And all the while, people kept telling me I reminded them exactly in demeanor and disposition of their military friends. They told me I needed to loosen up, and they told me it was “just a job.” To me, this was insulting; how could they treat this as “just a job?”

What I discovered was this: the bigger a portion of your time and focus something gets, the more devoted to it you become, and the more you honor or revile the leader you follow, depending on his abilities.

I think understanding this difference in people’s commitment levels is key. This is why companies like Google and SAS go so far out of their way to have doctors, and dentists, and daycare, and sports facilities and gyms and classes on their company campuses; to become an ever larger part of their employees’ lives and thus to command a greater degree of loyalty and commitment to their causes.

If you are leading in an environment that does not produce exceptional amounts of loyalty, then you’ve got to work with what you’ve got. Understand that you only get a certain percentage of your people’s commitment, and do your best to earn that percentage. Understand their motivations – we’ll cover these more in the section on paternalism, but I view the 3 key motivations for people as recognition, compensation, and growth – and help them to reach them.

But just because you are not in the military does not mean you cannot lead. It simply means you shouldn’t expect the same level of loyalty and devotion from your people, and that you’ll need to have a somewhat different focus on helping them to meet their individual needs.

The 9 Essential Qualities of Leadership

Each of these qualities is one highlighted by Major Bach himself. On each, I expound, provide examples, and detail exactly how you can apply these qualities to your own life – whether you’re leader a military division or just a division of your project group at work.

qualities of leadership

I refer to these three as the “inner qualities of leadership” and the other six as the “outer qualities of leadership” because I view these first three as much more dependent on your actual inner condition. You’ll be hard-pressed to fake self-confidence, moral ascendency, or self-sacrifice, for instance; these must come from within. However, things like initiative, decision, or fairness you can very much “fake until you make,” so I’m considering them “outer qualities.”

Note that this is solely a distinction I’m making, for the purposes of thinking about these qualities a little differently and more easily, and not one that Major Bach himself makes.

Onto our qualities, then…

1. Self Confidence

Major Bach very clearly identifies self-confidence as being comprised of three (3) components:

  1. Exact knowledge
  2. An ability to impart that knowledge
  3. The feeling of superiority over others these two give

This in an of itself is a fascinating description of self-confidence I’ve never heard elsewhere before, and one I’m inclined to wholeheartedly accept as correct. In my experience, this is, to the letter, exactly what self-confidence is.

This is also why you can’t typically fake self-confidence. If you don’t know your stuff, it’s very hard to come across like you do.

I can tell you, for one, that things I feel like I know well, that I feel adept at imparting to others, and that I feel I have a firmer grasp over others on I feel very confident talking about. I’d surmise that you’re the same way.

Now, if you asked me to discuss something I don’t understand to any great degree – for instance, how string theory explains the other dimensions outside of our normal three dimensions of space and one of time (according to string theory, anyway… I’m still not convinced that time is a dimension, but who knows), and put me in a position where I was expected to, and couldn’t admit I didn’t actually know, you’d see my confidence dry up in a heartbeat.

Major Bach notes that “you may bluff all your men some of the time, but you can’t do it all the time,” and further states you’ve got to know your business from the ground up.

You must master every facet of knowledge in your domain if you want to lead. You’ll hear report after report about great leaders doing this. The CEO who walks the factory floor and knows everything that’s going on. The company founder who interacts with the marketers and finance people and knows their jobs better than they do.

Major Bach further emphasizes that this knowledge must be able to be communicated in clear, correct, and engaging English.

Knowledge isn’t any good if you can’t communicate it in a way that makes people listen.

This is where true confidence comes from, and it’s this confidence that inspires people and makes them want to follow you.

2. Moral Ascendency

This one’s fascinating to me. Moral ascendency is the “belief that you are the better man.”

What this means is a little different for everyone. But what it essentially comes down to is that whatever you define “being the better man” as being, that’s what you have to be.

Because we’re not necessarily talking about others’ opinion of you here… we’re talking about your own opinion, and that must come from within.

To enforce this, Major Bach insists you have the following characteristics:

  • Self-control
  • Physical vitality
  • Moral force

Let’s briefly define each.

  1. Self-Control: you must never show the emotions of fear, uncertainty, hurriedness, hastiness, or changeability. You must appear solid, resolute, and certain if you want to inspire those same emotions in your people.
  1. Physical Vitality: a leader who seems physically weak or tires easily is difficult to respect. You must seem youthful, sprightly, and be in good condition. Personally, I’ve met 60 year olds who were full of vigor, and 20 year olds who did nothing more than laze about in a stupor. This comes as much from a state of mind than it does a state of the flesh; if you are doing what you believe in, you will come alive. You must be able to withstand the pressures that come with leadership. Remember that as a leader, your job is to take the burden of leadership off your people, that they might do their jobs. You must be able to bear the weight and cost of leading and still provide an unwavering guiding light to those who look to you for certainty and their cause.
  1. Moral Force: moral force comes from living a correct life. Doing things the way they should be done – and not preaching about it. You’ve heard of “being a role model” – that’s what moral force is all about. No one cares much about what you say – what they really care about is what you do. Show them how you want them to act by acting that way yourself, and your team will come to do as you do.

3. Self Sacrifice

The last of our three inner qualities of leadership is self-sacrifice, and the reason it comes from inside is because it requires you to give.

You will do the hardest work.

You will work the longest hours.

You will work while others sleep.

You will take the troubles of your people on, and lend them your ear.

You will even give of your money, supporting your people (or projects) financially.

You will do these things because your people need them from you. This is what’s required of the man who leads.

This must come from within, from a genuine desire to give to others, because you cannot long fake self sacrifice before wearing thin. You must genuinely want to give; otherwise, you will find yourself unable to lead this way.

qualities of leadership

These I refer to these qualities as the “outer qualities of leadership” because they can, in a sense, be faked; they can exist externally to your inner condition. In other words, when you’re first learning to lead, you will be able to wear the mantle of these qualities, even if you don’t yet have them fully developed within.

4. Paternalism

By the term “paternalism,” we mean of course taking care of those you are responsible for as though they were your children. This can arise from an inner view of them as such, or from an outer discipline to always take certain actions.

You must look to ensure the comfort of those you have responsibility toward more than you do for yourself. You must not demand more of them than they can provide, particularly for things that can wait until later or aren’t urgent.

You must develop a very good sense for what the cost will be to the individual man to do something, versus what the benefit will be for him to do it. If an activity generates a small gain, but costs him greatly, you should not do it, or wait until a time when the cost is lower.

For instance, if you have an employee tasked with a project he really enjoys, but you could use him on another project that he won’t enjoy nearly as much, consider whether the cost in his reduced happiness and productivity is worth using him on this new project. You may just realize it’s better to find someone else, even if that first employee would be a bit better at it.

If you ask me, the three key workplace motivations for people are:

  1. Recognition,
  2. Compensation, and
  3. Growth

and you must cater to all of these needs of your subordinates if you want to command their full loyalty. For instance, if you’re running an organization, you might build it this way:

  1. Create multiple opportunities for employees to gain recognition, both publicly and from superiors;
  1. Compensate employees competitively, and outline a clear process for what objectives or metrics employees need to hit in order to earn more;
  1. And create clear paths to personal growth and development on the job, finding ways to help employees develop new skills and abilities and raise their competencies in various areas.

Do these things as you build your business, and you create very dedicated employees.

When this kind of paternalism is internal, you will do it intuitively. Until then, you must stop and ask yourself constantly what the potential costs are to those you’re responsible for, and what the potential impacts – good and bad – are of everything you ask them to do or take on.

What this leads to, ultimately, is reciprocity:

  • Look out for your people, and they begin to look out for you
  • Fail to be considerate of them, and they will become inconsiderate themselves
  • Take from them, and they will take from you

Because of this, your consideration toward your command determines its cohesion or lack thereof.

A unit that has too much asked of it and too little concern paid toward its personnel will destroy itself from the inside out; a unit that has its people’s care positioned as an utmost priority will become an evermore cohesive unit that works better and better together with people who support each other more and more.

5. Fairness

I think one of the first things to recognize about fairness is that people tend to overvalue those they perceive of as good and loyal individuals, and devalue those they perceive of as ineffective.

For instance, at my job working at the tire store after I’d been promoted to sales, I once had my manager tell me he thought I was as fast as any other tire changer he had. The fact was, I was skinnier at the time than almost anyone else there, and I was slower at changing tires than anyone else on the staff. My manager had a rosy recollection of me, however, because I was a diligent and loyal employee, and because I was doing better and better at my sales job.

Conversely, another employee, who always had a bad attitude and took more coffee breaks every day than anyone could keep track of, was actually pretty fast (when he was working, of course), but I recall my manager several times commenting on how slow he was at his job.

You must be aware of cognitive biases like these, and work around them. Be fair.

Major Bach emphasizes that you must treat people “just,” and not “the same,” because not everyone is the same.

For instance, if you’re a teacher, you might have:

  • One student who pays a lot of attention and really loves learning
  • Another student who likes talking to her friends but is still pretty sharp
  • One more student who’d rather fight other students than learn anything

Treating these students the same would mean giving them all equal attention, using the same teaching methods, and grading them exactly the same.

You can quickly imagine why treating each of these students the same would actually be unfair.

Instead, you should do something closer to this:

  • Give the student who loves learning challenging problems to work on on her own. Sit down with her and go over them to make sure she gets it, and challenge her to do even more.
  • Give the student who likes talking to her friends an assignment that involves problem solving in a teamwork or group setting. Let her turn her desire to talk into learning collectively with her friends.
  • Give the student who likes to fight easier tasks – he might have been left behind in earlier grades or assignments and fights now to act out his frustration at not understanding. Give him things he can do that will let him have some “wins” so he starts getting the rewarding feeling of “I can do this” and then help him move up to progressively more difficult material.

In order to best be fair, realize that different people need different things. Major Bach recommends that you:

  1. Study your people
  2. Mete out appropriate punishments (that will actually be punishments for them)
  3. Mete out the appropriate rewards (that they’ll actually value)

Publicly calling someone out as punishment might be shrugged off by one person and be taken as a crippling, wrathful blow by another. Alternatively, giving one person a $100 bonus for something might be taken as an exciting gift, while someone else might even feel insulted. Only by studying your people can you figure out what each one needs to be treated fairly.

This also extends into giving others the sort of respect you expect from them. Major Bach raises the issue of a leader being overbearing, insulting, and harsh toward the treatment of his subordinates; he takes temporary pleasure in the power of being able to treat them this way and not be retaliated against, but it breeds resentment and ill-content.

Treating your people with respect is a part of the leader’s discipline and self-control. It’s mandatory for maintaining respect and loyalty.

Personally, this is one I’ve striven for myself, though I often surround myself with very dynamic people who’ll keep pushing and pushing for what they want even as my temper shortens. I’ve found that by being aware of your emotions, you can realize when you grow closer to losing your temper, and ask people to stop what they’re doing before you do. “John, this isn’t the time for this right now,” you might say, “I’ve been dealing with a lot today and my temper is getting shorter and shorter. I don’t want to blow up at you, so let’s discuss this a little later when I’ve had a chance to cool off.”

It’s important to head outbursts off at the pass to avoid snapping at someone unjustly. As often happens when you snap at someone, they’ll get the full brunt of your pressure released on them, despite the fact that they’re usually responsible for only a fraction of all that pressure – leaving them feeling unjustly maligned. Catch yourself before you put people in this position and keep control over your emotions.

6. Initiative

Initiative is so important to leadership because without it, noting gets done. You must have initiative to make things happen.

Initiative is, of course, taking action. It’s telling the troops to march and get the move on. And the one who has initiative nearly always wins.

I’ve seen it myself, time and again, in everything from games to business to projects to relationships. The instant you lose initiative, you’re living on borrowed time. Go too long without taking any initiative, and you quickly risk falling hopelessly behind.

How do you take initiative? You keep in mind that you must always be taking action. You must always be advancing your position. Even if you don’t feel intrinsically motivated to do this, recognize its necessity, and plan it as a part of your day.

How will you advance your cause today? Figure that out, and do it.

7. Decision

Going hand-in-hand with initiative is decision, another core leadership quality. In order to take initiative, of course, you first must decide what initiative you’ll take… hence its necessity.

You may be surprised to learn that decisiveness is not an inborn trait. It’s learned… trained up, even.

I remember a time years ago when I myself was incredibly indecisive. “I need some decisive people around me,” I said to myself, “so I can learn how to be more decisive.” Soon I reconnected with a Chinese-American roommate of mine from college who was quickly moving through the business world with a decisive personality, and I started dating a Peruvian girl from a family with a background high in her national government who had no qualms about getting anything and everything she wanted it, the instant she wanted it. From them, I learned decisiveness.

Decision, it turns out, is a very simple thing:

  1. First, know your options
  2. Decide which option is best
  3. Select that option

When I was younger, I used to have problems with decisions because:

  • I didn’t know if I knew all my options
  • I had trouble deciding which option was best
  • Even when I was leaning toward one, I’d want to take time and be sure I was right

A lot of this ties back in with that earlier leadership quality, confidence. If you have the knowledge around a given area, you’ll know what the options are, you’ll know their pros and cons, and you’ll have the confidence to act decisively.

If you don’t… then you need to learn to act using your best guess anyway.

You’ll find that your best guess is still correct much of the time. And the advantage you gain by making a decision and taking initiative and being right much of the time and wrong some of the time is, on the whole, far greater than the advantage you lose of being the perfectionist. Being the perfectionist, you’re a bit more correct (you’ll still be wrong some of the time anyway), but you lose so much time and initiative that you cost yourself greater in the long run.

This doesn’t mean you should make hurried decisions, of course. You should make intelligent, well-informed decisions – ask for help if you really don’t know. But, ultimately, you must make decisions… and you must stick to those decisions.

Choose quickly, and choose well. Doing so is one of the key marks of a leader.

8. Dignity

One of the best managers I ever had – a man named Bill Austin – gave me this piece of advice, when I’d been newly appointed to a management role:

“It’s okay to be friendly with the guys, but don’t become too friendly.”

Major Bach echoes this same insight in his address: “Be the friend of your men,” he says, “but do not become their intimate.”

That same manager gave me another pearl of wisdom I still remember:

“If you want someone to do something, tell them to do it, then walk away. Don’t stand around waiting for them to do it or you’ll just give them the chance not to.”

Being a leader means being approachable, yet maintaining a certain degree of distance.

The instant your people start seeing you more as a pal than an authority figure, they’re going to stop wanting to take orders from you. They’ll start to ask themselves why you, their peer, are positioned over them in the hierarchy. Things will stop making sense to them.

Major Bach notes that your reports will despise you – not like you, not love you, but despise you – for attempting to form friendships with them or curry their favor.

I’ve violated this rule only a few times in my time as a manger, and I can safely say that every time I have, the people I violated it with have come to despise me. Not because I was a bad person, per se – but because they came to see me as an equal who now unjustly held power over them.

Stay on friendly terms, but maintain some distance.

9. Courage

The last of our qualities of leadership is courage. When we say courage, we mean:

  • Courage to see an order or duty through to the end
  • Courage to avoid the impulse to change directions
  • Courage to assume responsibility for your actions
  • Courage to assume the blame for failure
  • Courage to determine your people’s fate

Major Bach differentiates between courage and bravery.

Bravery he defines as a lack of fear. Courage he defines as action in spite of fear.

Bravery is something every man has, somewhere in his life. Courage, on the other hand, is something that must be cultivated. It takes, like each of these qualities, self-discipline, training, and self-control. It is difficult to not take the easy way out; to take the quick exit when you’ve promised to stay the course, to change directions after committing to one, or to not shift the blame to others – particularly subordinates – when plans fail to produce the desired results.

Major Bach at last observes that, like an instructor on demolitions once cautioned his class regarding dynamite, “One man has but one accident.” What he means by this is, if even once you show a lack of courage – only once – your subordinates will never follow you again.

If your people know that you are courageous – that you’ll see things through to the end; you won’t change directions without very good reason; you’ll take responsibility for your actions, and blame for failure if your people do as you asked them to do and things still don’t work; you’ll make decisions for your people that don’t put them into situations you yourself wouldn’t enter into – then they will follow you willingly, and you will always have people ready to do as you ask.

qualities of leadership

Applying the Qualities of Leadership to Your Life

This might seem like a lot to implement, but if you’ve spent time in any kind of leadership role (and perhaps even if you haven’t), you’ll probably find you have at least a few of these leadership qualities down cold already, and a few more of them in pretty good shape.

That means that, most likely, you won’t have to tackle all of these for much improvement – you’ll likely only have a few.

Those are the few you ought to target.

How to go about doing this?

First off, you’ll want to start by going through those 9 qualities of leadership above and honestly reviewing where you’re at with each one. And you’ll want to review them not by how you think you’re doing on them… you’ll want to review them based off how people are actually reacting to you.

Here’s a guide to help for each:

  1. Self Confidence: do your people come to you as a teacher and authority?
  2. Moral Ascendency: do your people open themselves up around you and trust you?
  3. Self Sacrifice: do your people go the extra mile for you, above and beyond?
  4. Paternalism: do your people look out for you?
  5. Fairness: do your people all act engaged in their tasks?
  6. Initiative: do you keep your people on the go working on progressive tasks?
  7. Decision: do you make most decisions on the spot when needed to?
  8. Dignity: do your people treat you like a respected boss, or a friend and peer?
  9. Courage: do your people reflect courage back at you, or do they reflect back a lack of courage?

Typically, you can think of your longer term people as mirrors, inasmuch as subordinates come to reflect back to their leaders the qualities that the leaders embody. This is why great leaders do great things – because great leaders make their people great, too.

Chase Dumont

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See you around.


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