What is Quality Leadership?

Posted on 11 December 2020

Are we looking for the right qualities in our leaders?

Photo: www.lumaxart.com

Suppose someone asked you to list the most important qualities you want find in any genuine leader. What would you say? Toughness? Authority? Decisiveness, perhaps? Tenacity? You could make a case for all of these. Today’s conventional thinking about leadership tends to stress the more active, resolute qualities in a leader. Leaders are expected to get results and remain effective under the constant pressure of reeling markets.

What I want to suggest to you is a little different. The qualities of the strong, Hollywood-style leader may make for good newspaper copy, but they aren’t the ones that will create the kind of leader we really need today.

They are too superficial, too much the product of stereotypes. They over-emphasize action and underplay the need for leaders who can go beyond setting a direction to coax the best from everyone around them.

For that you need three far less glamorous qualities: restraint, generosity, and mercy.


Lack of restraint is a common failing of tough, macho leaders. They cannot hold themselves back from taking charge. They cannot hold themselves back from making decisions where none are needed, or where any choice will be premature. They interfere constantly with other people’s jobs, micromanaging and over-supervising in their constant need to be doing something—anything—to stay active and involved. When people say a leader like this is “on top of things,” they are more truthful than they realize. She is constantly imposing herself from above where she is not needed.

Leaders need restraint for to hold back from rushing into action when time is needed to wait for the situation to clarify. They need it to keep from doing things, or making choices, that are the responsibility of their subordinates. Much of the reason why executives today are so over-burdened with work is an inability to delegate. They are so convinced that they must stay on top of everything that they demand to be involved in every decision of any magnitude.

The results are plain to see. Decisions are delayed because the people in charge are overwhelmed; choices are made by those least able to see what is needed, because they are furthest from the action; subordinates’ jobs are reduced to carrying out instructions sent down from on high. Add to all this that many decisions are made that were never needed, and which perhaps made matters worse, and you have the causes of many of today’s problems: self-inflicted wounds.


Generosity used to be the defining quality of kings and great lords. The word even began by meaning ‘noble’ or ‘of high birth’. Kings and princes were expected to be generous with gifts, favors, and attention. It was how they held sway over quarrelsome petty nobles without constant fighting. A mean-minded king quickly faced rebellion or found his nobles transferring their allegiance to a more generous neighbor.

Today’s organizations are very like medieval kingdoms. There are the same petty lordlings, each with his or her own group of followers; the same turf wars and quarrels about influence and status; the same need for each person in charge to be able to rely on the loyalty of followers who have their own concerns about making a living; and the same requirement for those at the top to practice generosity as a means of holding everything together.

I don’t simply mean generosity in giving material rewards—though many top executives could benefit from remembering that nobles of the past who enriched themselves at the expense of their followers usually ended up as victims of palace rebellion. Today’s leaders need to be generous with their time, their attention, their recognition of good work, their listening, and their help for everyone around them. The leader’s role is to serve her followers by making sure they have the resources and know-how they need to achieve the objectives laid before them. You cannot do that by sitting in your remote castle on the executive floor, counting your stock options.


We all need mercy—often. We need to be forgiven for our mistakes and blemishes; to be given a second chance to get things right; to be saved from the consequences of our own, foolish actions. Mercy has always been seen as a quality of greatness.

Ordinary leaders delight in exercising power. Poor leaders go further, seeking to bolster their insecurity by appearing ruthless and punishing every fault. Only great leaders realize that to be merciful is the true proof of authority; and that forgiving people’s honest mistakes (and helping them do better next time) not only builds a stronger group, but cements their loyalty. Tough, unbending leaders inspire fear. Merciful leaders inspire love. Which is better for motivating people to give their all, even when you are not there to watch them?

Restraint, generosity, and mercy: leaders who possess all three have the raw material to become truly great. Of course, they still need know-how, experience, and some technical skills, but these are rarely in short supply. It is the inner aspect of great leadership that is misunderstood—and rare enough to be worth more than any pile of stock options. The sooner everyone comes to realize that, the sooner we will have organizations we can be proud of.

Sign up for our Email Newsletter

Technorati Tags: , , , , , ,

This post was written by:

Carmine Coyote - who has written 292 posts on Slow Leadership.

Carmine Coyote is the founder and editor of Slow Leadership, with a career that stretches from early employment as an economist, through periods in government service, academia and several multinational companies, to retiring as CEO of a US consulting company and partner in a large business services firm. Carmine now lives in Arizona, but is British for all that.

Contact the author

12 Comments For This Post

  1. Bob says:

    Excellent points. The exemplary leader is characterized by empathy, generosity and mercy. That last element is so often overlooked. We have a number of young people (ages 16-20) working here as part of court ordered community service. Most made a single bad decision, often impulsively. Accepting that they are not “bad” people, but people who might benefit from some help and direction is essential.

  2. Carmine Coyote says:

    @Bob: Thanks for your comment and the excellent example. Sadly, macho management, which has been the fashion for decades, sees a lack of empathy and mercy as evidence of being ‘tough’ and ‘in charge’. It’s ironic that we currently see so many CEOs seeking, if not mercy, then amnesia for their incompetence, so they can keep their jobs. Keep reading, my friend.

  3. CK says:

    Also a great leader would have the ability to express that he/she has weaknesses like any other human and not an all knowing god!

    A great leader can focus on an individual during a conversation as though no one else is in the world and that person is the most important person in their life! That every person’s thoughts are important to him/her - to his/her ideas. Being open to their ideas and creativity also opens them to sharing those ideas - thinking about resolving issues while on their own time!!!

    Leaders are confident in themselves enough to encourage dissenters to speak up - hearing opposing viewpoints and seeking different opinions. Reward those who speak up and encourage different viewpoints.

    J.C. Staehle found that the principle causes of unrest among workers were as following (in order).
    1) Failure to give credit for suggestions
    2) Failure to correct grievances
    3) Failure to encourage
    4) Criticizing employees in front of other people
    5) Failure to ask employees of their opinion
    6) Failure to inform employees of their progress
    7) Favoritism

    One final note … how many would think of Mother Terrissa as a leader? Leaders do not have to be head of a major corporation but leaders lead from the heart as well as the head.

  4. Brandon Cox says:

    Love the article! I think this is leadership - Jesus style - from the bottom up instead of from the top down. If it isn’t about others, and if we don’t love the people we lead, then what’s the point?

  5. Carmine Coyote says:

    @Brandon Cox: Surprising, since—being a confirmed atheist—I did not have Jesus or any other religious figure in mind. Keep reading, my friend.

  6. Carmine Coyote says:

    @CK: Great comment. I especially like the list you quote. Thanks for adding your piece. Keep reading, my friend.

  7. Ryan says:

    Excellent article.

    I think part of mercy as a leader is seeing your own part in something that may go wrong.

    I think a lot of recriminations also come about as a result of dysfunctional client relationships. In this case, small mistakes cause clients to become angry at front-line staff (or even escalate issues if they can) and the issue causes top-down recriminations within the organisation.

  8. Carmine Coyote says:

    @Ryan: Thanks for your comment. I’m glad you liked the article. Keep reading, my friend.

  9. Chris Young says:

    Great post! I have included your post in my weekly Rainmaker ‘Fab Five’ blog picks of the week (found here: http://www.maximizepossibility.com/employee_retention/2008/12/the-rainmaker-2.html) to share your insights with my readers.

    Be well!

  10. Carmine Coyote says:

    @Chris Young: Thanks. I’m glad you liked it. Keep reading, my friend.

  11. Dr. Wright says:

    is anyone seriously looking at fictional characters to use as templates for leadership?

    Dr. Wright
    The Wright Place TV show

  12. Carmine Coyote says:

    @Dr. Wright: I don’t know the answer to this. Perhaps someone else does and will use these comments to sharer the knowledge with us all. I hope so.

Leave a Reply

Custom Search
Business Blogs - BlogCatalog Blog Directory


Coming later this week

  • The Importance of NOT Doing Something All the Time
  • Staying Centered at Work

All articles and podcasts on this site are held in copyright by their respective authors

MyFreeCopyright.com Registered & Protected



Books etc.

Bad Behavior has blocked 1012 access attempts in the last 7 days.