Kevin and Melissa, two of the university students I work with, are taking a leadership class and were assigned to ask questions about leadership. They both had this question for me: “What are the characteristics of an effective leader?”

“Effective” is subject to interpretation. Gengis Khan was effective… in conquering, destroying, and subjugating, but he was a heck of a leader, as were many violent tyrants throughout history.

For this purpose, however, let’s assume effective has a threshold of moral propiety that makes no room for obvious bad behavior or world domination.

Leadership is not a topic I’ve explored with much intention. I’ve always felt like I’ve known it when I’ve seen it, and, more commonly, been very aware where it’s lacking. As I pondered this question from my students, though, some key attributes came to mind. (And after I thought of the first couple, I couldn’t resist continuing with alliteration. Hence, five “C’s”.)

Here’s what I see or hope to see in the most honorable and effective leaders:

Clarity – Effective leaders have a clear vision of the big picture and can communicate with clarity the “why” of an organization or business or movement. “Why?” comes first, and if a leader hasn’t asked and can’t answer that question about the endeavor they’re hoping to lead, they still may be leading effectively but in a completely wrong direction.

Caring – A good leader cares deeply about the mission and the people involved and all the “how’s” and “what’s” necessary for excellence. The leader cares about even small details, about the process as much as (if not more than) the outcome. The intrinsic rewards of a job well done, of creating something of value and quality, outweigh any extrinsic rewards.

Competence – Mastery inspires confidence. We will follow someone who is clearly competent in their abilities, who knows their stuff. Teammates will rally around someone who is committed to excellence and demonstrates extraordinary competence, even if that person has not been entrusted with any official leadership role.

Character – The authentic person of integrity, who treats everyone with fairness and is impeccable with their actions, that person is a leader I want to follow. A leader of character will be wholly themselves regardless of the circumstances or the people around them. And trust is the most valuable asset an effective leader has to offer.

Compassion – A leader I admire is one who is kind and compassionate and who treats everyone with respect regardless of position or title. She is quick to forgive, eager to reconcile, and open to listening to and understanding even, or especially, divergent viewpoints.

My favorite description of a master leader comes from the Tao te Ching, one of the most profound books of wisdom:

When the Master governs, the people
are hardly aware that he exists.
Next best is a leader who is loved.
Next, one who is feared.
The worst is one who is despised.

If you don’t trust the people,
you make them untrustworthy.

The Master doesn’t talk, he acts.
When his work is done,
the people say, “Amazing:
we did it, all by ourselves!”

You don’t need to be offered a promotion or run for office to be a leader. Be the CEO of your cubicle or your desk. Lead yourself. Act like you are who you want to be and embody the attributes that lead to an excellent life well lived.