Qualities of a Leader

  • Published
  • By Chief Master Sgt. Steven Durrance
  • 141st Medical Group Superintendent

Airmen often ask me what qualities make a good leader. There have been thousands of books and articles dating back to antiquity regarding these types of questions. I can’t add to this impressive list but I can share some insights from my career. There are four characteristics of a person’s character that quickly identify them as a leader. These are in no particular order, but all four have proven to be critical to being a good leader. Quality Leaders must be an example to others, a problem solver, a servant, and a mentor.



Leaders who lead by example share the experience of service with their followers setting the standards for conduct. For those of you who have read, We Were Soldiers Once, and Young, “Col. Hal Moore” was the first person to step off the helicopter during the assault and the last to leave after the battle was over. Moore told his troops he expected everyone to step forward no matter how dangerous or difficult the situation was. Secondly, “Cmd. Sgt. Maj. Plumly” personally searched the scattered battle field for the bodies of all of his missing soldiers before leaving for safety. Plumly walked out of the lines and began searching the bushes for soldiers who had been separated in the fighting. The message Plumly was projecting was the care of his troops came before even his personal safety.



I always look to see if the leader is a problem solver. There are three key traits of a problem solver: they are positive, persistent and proportional.  Running any military organization is a constant balance of success and friction. Problems are often posed in negative terms with an emphasis on the potential for future difficulties. A quality leader should admit the challenges but emphasize the opportunities. You will never inspire anyone if you look and sound defeated. Remember to develop others so they can work through problems. Interject with your wisdom, experience and authority at critical moments to help them overcome major problems. If you do everything yourself you will do two things. You will not train anyone, thus weakening you organization, you will miss opportunities to positively influence and lead others because you are bogged down in the weeds.



This quality of leadership is related to your motivation for being there. If your motivation is to enjoy the prestige and the benefits of promotion people will see that. If your number one motivation is getting the mission accomplished and supporting your organization people will know that as well. What makes a leader a servant leader is first and foremost the type of motivation in the leader. When the motivation of the leader is to unleash the potential of the followers and primarily benefit the needs of the organization, that person is a servant leader. A person who is not a servant leader will tend toward more mixed motives in leading, striving to lead out of pride, manipulation and force.



When I speak to our senior leaders, I usually ask what they are doing to develop themselves as leaders. The days of the military leader who inspires victory primarily through personal magnetism probably ended with George Custer during the Civil War. One of the easiest ways to develop your leadership skills is to learn about other leaders.  After reading the book about Moore and Plumly I changed some of the way I approach my job. I have had senior leaders tell me they do not have time for leadership development and they have learned all they need to know by osmosis from people they served under. This severely limits our Airmen’s ability to learn and grow as a leader.


How will you lead your Airmen? Hard work is important but is only the start of developing yourself, your organization and a new generation of leaders. The worst thing a leader can do is walk away from an organization which has no one prepared to deal with new challenges. This results in several years of very difficult self development and a very steep learning curve. I want to leave a program where we have Airmen leaders capable of stepping up to the next level of leadership and develop other leaders to follow behind them.