What are the Key Qualities of Great Leaders?

By: George Deines

Featured in Athletic Business magazine Jan/Feb 2016 issue

What Are The Key Qualities of Great Leaders

Organizations need great leadership. Organizational success depends on great leadership.  Organizational employees want and need great leadership.  A direct correlation exists between the leadership at the top of an organization, and the productivity, work ethic and engagement of that organization’s team.

Throughout my 13 ½ years as a municipal parks and recreation professional, I saw the best and worst of leadership. And, though I didn’t necessarily realize it at first, but at times, I was part of the problem! For example, it took an off-handed comment by a first-year lifeguard before I realized that I had put a supervisory team in place that was viewed as lazy, entitled and unwilling to help their fellow team members. What a shock to me, and a disservice to my lifeguards.  I wanted a team of great leaders, and I had the exact opposite.

You see, great leaders motivate, inspire, coach, discipline, encourage and develop their team. And, if their team members receive these things from the leaders, they will have a better work ethic, will buy into the organization’s vision, as well as be more loyal, efficient and a team player. Unfortunately, the converse also happens if leaders don’t exhibit great qualities.  If leaders demean instead of encourage, suppress instead of empower, and criticize instead of support, the likelihood their team becomes lazy, disengaged, negative, entitled and get burned out increases.  This is what happened within my aquatics division.

But, what relevance does this have to recreation professionals? What does organizational leadership look like, and how can you implement it?  This article will share recent survey results from recreation employees about what they want from their leaders, overview some basic leadership principles, as well as provide an implementation plan for you to create a culture of success in your organization before I realized it and worked diligently to turn my team around. .

In a recent survey that I conducted with recreation employees in the Dallas area, I found several interesting correlations between quality supervisors, and how employees felt about their role in their organization and the value they have to it. I started by asking two simple questions:

  1. What are some of the common errors that you have seen your bosses, supervisors and co-workers in leadership roles make?
  2. What are some of the great qualities of an effective leader that you have worked for?


As for the answers to the first question, employees dislike it when they have complacent leaders, their leaders get too comfortable in their job, play favorites and don’t lead by example. They also don’t like to be micromanaged, and don’t like it when their efforts go unrecognized.  Though the answers for the first question did not surprise me, they give those in leadership roles a great roadmap of things to avoid when dealing with their employees.

As for the positive attributes of leaders, all of them fell into one of four categories: vision, communication, character and work ethic. Employees want their leaders to focus on these areas. All four are individually necessary to the success of any organization, as well as how well they work together.  Organizational leaders need to have a vision, and an effective way to communicate it. In the same way, great leaders must communicate with their team with character so they don’t discredit themselves. When all four areas work seamlessly together from the top of the organization on down, success lies just around the corner.

Those interviewed described vision in a variety of ways, whether they stressed how great leaders know the importance of their job, display passion, confidence, decisiveness or motivation. It all came down to forward thinking and proactively being involved with their team to reach a common goal.  Employees value leaders who show purpose and value in their work each day.  This shows they have vision because they continually work towards something greater than what they currently have. Something as small as thanking an employee for great work and how it contributed to the quality of life for their guests, or how a team member’s suggestion improved the operational efficiency of the organization, leads to a better service provided to the community and a more engaged team.  Leaders seek to improve and move toward the goals they have for their team and organization. And, if you don’t have goals for your team, take some time to set and communicate 1, 5 and 10 year goals for yourself, your organization and your team.  You’ll be glad you did.

Willingness to listen, empathetic and understanding topped the attributes that fell under communication. Employees like it when their leaders care about them, primarily shown through how they communicate with them. Leaders should constantly communicate with their team, even when the conversation does not revolve around something work related.  Whether you give an employee direction on their work product, coach them to greater proficiency, or recognize them for a job well done, leaders need to consistently and effectively connect with their team.  Small things such as friendliness, smiling often and engaging your employees in conversation while at work can go a long way towards employee satisfaction and productivity. Employees want to be seen as a person, not a number.

After vision and communication comes character. Helpful, respectful, trustworthy and hard-working characterize the traits and ideas mentioned in the survey. Employees will work harder for someone who keeps their word. Leaders who don’t lead by example take advantage of their position, lose respect from their team and fail to be role models for the good employee behaviors that their organization needs.  Modeling great character sets the standard for your organization’s future.  When leaders exhibit poor behaviors and character, they tarnish their organization for the next 5 to 10 years and train the next generation of leaders to act just like them.

Work ethic ties in nicely to the previous three characteristics, as the other three can immediately be discounted by your team if you don’t exhibit a strong work ethic. Leaders need to be always present, punctual, organized and diligent in their work.  Proactivity and leading by example shows your team that you believe in corporate success and have the high level of engagement that it takes to help an organization succeed.  Leaders should be proactive in staff training and daily operations and train their team to handle situations before they come up.  Proactivity is the cornerstone to a great work ethic, seeking things out before they surprise you.

Speaking of proactivity, Jim Wheeler, recreation manager with the City of San Francisco Recreation and Parks, often asks those in the aquatics industry an interesting question. “Why do you allow your pool managers to sit in the pool office? No one has ever drowned in a pool office!”  This simple, yet profound, statement speaks volumes about both work ethic, and leadership in general.  You want leaders in place who value hard work and are willing to go the extra mile to ensure you have a great operation.

Vision, communication, character and work ethic make up the foundation to great organizational leadership. Leaders need to develop these traits in themselves, as well as their team so they have a high level of success among their team and organization. Great leaders need to communicate these characteristics to their staff by modeling them on a daily basis, as well as teaching their team the essentials and importance of quality leadership.  To do this well, leaders need to be intentional in training their staff and exhibit patience during the process.  It won’t happen overnight.