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Checklist: Do You Possess the 2 Most Important Leadership Traits?

by | Oct 7, 2016

The demands of leadership today require a more adaptive approach; the age of seat-of-the-pants leadership is gone. Sure, you might be able to achieve some success with a haphazard approach – but you must approach your leadership with intention, flexibility, and discipline in order to succeed repeatedly and consistently for the long haul. But that doesn’t mean discarding foundational elements that have been proven to work throughout time. In fact, there are two essential traits to leadership that are unchanging. These two stalwart elements should anchor your leadership — no matter the year, no matter the challenge — as long as you commit to developing these two most essential traits, you will be in a position to thrive. Always. The 2 essential traits that must be at the heart of your leadership approach are: Competence and Character.

Importantly, you must cultivate them together, simultaneously. While both competence and character are equally important, neither is sufficient on its own. You need both. Without them, you will not be able to inspire trust, and your leadership will be dead on arrival (as we’ve written about at length, trust is the foundational element to leadership that works).  The more you work on becoming a high-competence, high-character leader, the better you will be at engaging stakeholders, transforming your organization, and leaving a positive impact on your company, your community, and the world at large.

There are two essential traits to leadership that are unchanging.

In order to add discipline to developing these two most essential traits, we’ve compiled a checklist for each. Since both are quite extensive, were sharing one checklist with you this week, Competence — and next week, we’ll share the second checklist, Character.  Use the list as an interactive resource; go through the list to get an idea of where you stand now, and then use the checklist as a reference for practices you can use to better strengthen your leadership over time. Give yourself a numerical score from 1-5 for each  item – score yourself 1 for “poor”; 2 for “needs work”; 3 for “average”; 4 for “good”; and 5 for “excellent.” As you revisit the checklist, watch how your scores change and improve in the long term.

Checklist Part 1 – Competence:


  1. Do you have a demonstrable understanding of your area of responsibility (i.e. sales, human resources, finance, design, editorial etc.)? If you are CEO, do you have a demonstrable understanding of your industry (i.e. energy, consumer packaged goods, healthcare, media etc.).
  2. Are you able to clearly communicate with people within your area of expertise (i.e. do you speak the “language” of your industry? Sometimes jargon can be alienating to others, but often it is a reliable signal to your people that you are part of the group and “know your stuff”).
  3. Do you have a proven record of leadership success? Are there initiatives you can point to, spearheaded by you, that achieved the desired result?
  4. Have you been able to build a quality network of people within and beyond your field upon whom you can rely for guidance and expertise if need be?
  5. Are you proactive about identifying, and addressing, areas for improvement within your organization?
  6. Are you diligent about visibly celebrating what is working in tandem with your critical thinking efforts about areas for improvement?


  1. Are you adept at hiring/recruiting not just for job function but for overall “fit” and compatibility?
  2. Can you “read” people well – do your initial perceptions and intuitive notions about people usually prove reliable?
  3. Can you effectively pinpoint what responsibilities and roles are needed? Can you identify the right person for the job and delegate the right things to the right people?


  1. Do you create direction? Are you able to build an aspirational but achievable plan for advancing the agenda of your organization?
  2. Do you have a disciplined process for measuring progress against that direction and course-correcting as necessary?
  3. Do you consistently meet or exceed the standards of performance for your own role or job function?
  4. Are you able to clearly and succinctly articulate standards of performance to others, and identify effective ways to measure progress against those standards?
  5. Do you build strong, efficient teams?
  6. Do you have a process for disciplined task management?
  7. Are you able to act decisively when needed? Are you able to responsibly gather the necessary information to make good decisions while avoiding becoming mired in “analysis paralysis?”
  8. Do you effectively align the organization and organize resources to deliver the desired results?
  9. Do you practice an adaptive approach, changing as necessary, to ensure you reach your goals in the face of adversity or unforeseen challenges?


  1. Do your people feel confident in your ability to lead them? Have you earned their trust? (More about this in the “Character” checklist).
  2. Can you anchor the work of your organization to a higher purpose that delivers both economic and social value? Do you effectively communicate that purpose to your organization?
  3. Have you given serious thought to what motivates people to give the very best of themselves?
  4. Are you able to give feedback in a fair, swift, courteous, and direct manner?
  5. Are you diligent about saying “thank you” and celebrating achievements through recognition programs when appropriate?
  6. Are you respectful of other people’s time? Do you run and attend meetings with punctuality and responsibility?
  7. Do you visibly champion an abundant approach that is both tough-minded on standards and tender-hearted with people?
  8. Do you energize people to be actively engaged in delivering the desired performance?
  9. Do your people feel empowered and trusted to do their jobs with autonomy?


  1. Have you made it a priority to develop other leaders within your organization? Do you offer quality learning opportunities to the people you lead?
  2. Do you champion learning and growth across the organization, both demanding growth and celebrating it?
  3. Do you model the behavior of learning and growing with your own actions?
  4. Are you able to “lead in 3 time zones”? Do you learn from and honor the past, while meeting the expectations of the present, while also creating a clear path for a more prosperous future?
  5. Do you “do your homework”? Have you read a book about leadership, business, psychology — or a book that is related specifically to your area of responsibility in the last 3 months? 6 months? 12 months?
  6. Do you make it a practice to stay up to date on leadership and business articles, trends, and news?
  7. Do you draw inspiration from the practices and philosophies of other great leaders or contemporaries?
  8. Do you take advantage of leadership development opportunities to level-up your own leadership either through online or in-person courses?
  9. Do you pursue deliberate practice of your leadership craft?

As you work through the checklist, you may find there are other practices or actions that you’d like to work on in your leadership. Simply add them to the list. This checklist is a resource for you – to return to time and again — to use to hold yourself accountable, and to change or add to, in whatever way is helpful to you. If there is anything you feel strongly we missed, drop us a line in the comments. Now, let’s get to work — and tune in next week for the Character checklist!

Doug Conant is remarkable—and so is this work.
– Stephen M. R. Covey
Author of The Speed of Trust

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  1. Andrei Sanzharov

    I like this a lot and will certainly spend some time on this.

    One question that I have is in relation to the Continuous Improvement part: how do you find time to read books and stay up to date on Leadership articles? I mean, do you spend an extra hour or two at work? or dedicate evenings? or weekends? Do you have a regular schedule like reading 1 hour a day every day or is it more ad-hoc?

    I find that, while limited, you can find time to read and stay up to date. But where I struggle is using this time efficiently and getting the most out of it.

    • DouglasConant

      This comment slipped past so excuse the belated response! Good question. While it’s certainly different for everybody, I tend to block out time in the mornings or especially when I’m travelling (which is often). The important thing is finding something you can stick to. Finding an hour every day might seem like too much. To start, try to block off something more manageable — even 15 minutes a day — and see how it goes for a week or two.


  1. 8 Fascinating Leadership Links to Read Right Now - - […] **For more questions and exercises for reflection, explore our checklists for competence and character […]

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