To be in the upper echelon of leadership, one needs to possess the traits necessary for a desired leader. It is paramount that one not only talks the leadership talk but also walks the leadership walk. In my last article, we discussed the importance of building out your bench and increasing the depth of your organization to build value. In this article, I’d like to cover what makes someone an executive-level leader—even if they’re not currently an executive.

Over the years, high-potential employees have asked our Solutions 21 team, “What differentiates executives?” They’ve also asked, “What skills do I need to develop specifically to be a leader in my company?” While every organization is different, there are some overarching, non-negotiable traits that executive-level leaders need to possess in today’s 21st-century workforce.

Egon Zehnder International research shows that 78% of current executives do not think that “track record” is a good indicator of future success; however, 87% believe that personal traits explain the majority of the difference between good and great. So, what are the traits that separate the good from the great? Let’s take a look at what skills executive-level decision-makers possess.

1. EFFECTIVE COMMUNICATION

Communication is key. At all levels of an organization, communication is what drives the group. For executive-level leaders, the importance is significantly magnified. If you cannot drive your message and vision through communication, your team will suffer. Effective communication is one of the most challenging traits to master, but those who dedicate time to learning this skill set will rise to the top.

Harvard Business Review’s The Most Important Leadership Competencies According to Leaders Around the World” states that the third most important leadership competency is “clearly communicates expectations,” and the sixth most important competency is “communicates often and openly.” Communication, while always critical, is even more critical in challenging economic situations and during crisis management.

2. EMOTIONAL AWARENESS

Emotional intelligence is key to leadership success. Leaders who have a high EQ can connect, adapt, and build relationships with their team. It is no secret that people are the most critical asset to an organization, which is why having a leader who has developed EQ is vital to future success.

Even leaders who are highly aware and possess a strong EQ must continually focus on improving and growing their emotional intelligence. It is one thing to see a teammate in the hallway and understand by reading their body language how they may be feeling and how, as a leader, you can help. It is quite another thing to proactively reach out to a teammate you cannot see who may be working remotely. Leaders will need to continually fine-tune their emotional awareness to connect with employees who may be down the hall or around the world. Emotionally aware leaders must not ever fall into the “out of sight, out of mind” trap.

3. CALCULATED RISK-TAKING

If an organization does not take some risk in its strategy, chances are they are not progressing. And while every company’s risk tolerance is different, most companies take some amount of risk daily. Companies that take the calculated risks that yield the most significant rewards can progress faster than those that don’t. These decisions come from executive-level leaders who are calculated risk-takers.

With responses from over 3,000 subjects, 60% voted that New Wave leaders need to be “adept at risk-taking,” reported HR Daily Advisor in “5 Critical Leadership Traits Executives Need to Thrive in the Post-Digital Workplace.” This was never more evident than during and after the economic challenges caused by the global pandemic.

ONLY A STARTING PLACE

Leaders are made—not born. Take the time to develop the key traits outlined above intentionally. By gaining real-world reps and developing these leadership habits, you will position yourself on an upward trajectory to the executive level. Then move on to build your leadership superpowers. Leaders who establish these superpowers first will have access to the best available talent. The team with the best talent usually wins.


Adapted from our best-selling book, The Leadership Decade: A Playbook for an Extraordinary Era. If you’d like to purchase a copy, please visit s21.us/tldbook for a hardback book or s21.us/tldebook for an ebook. For even more information, check out theleadershipdecade.com.