The Characteristics Of True Leadership

Sep 23, 2016 1 Min Read
true leadership
Understanding True Leadership

Discourse about leadership in business, politics or the community in general is often dominated by intricate academic discussions about “leadership techniques,” “leadership skills” and the qualities of good leaders.

An entire academic industry has grown around the issue of leadership and what constitutes good and ennobling leadership.

What I want to focus on however is an example drawn from contemporary events which, to my mind:
• demonstrates both the characteristics of good leadership in society and
• conversely, reveals what is wrong in regards to some who would claim the mantle of leadership.

The example that I draw reader’s attention to is to the demonstration of leadership by Khizr Khan and Ghazala Khan whose experience in exercising their civic duty and democratic rights both at the Democratic National Convention (DNC) in Philadelphia and in other venues provides us with a gold standard from which to judge and understand the key qualities of a leader.

Being in the forefront, the Khans’ son, Humayun, died in battle and in so doing displayed the classic martial virtues – courage, sacrifice, loyalty, honour and discipline – that define leadership in times of war.

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However, Humayun’s parents also exhibited “Gold Star” leadership as well in their exercise of a decent and inclusive sense of civic duty which comes from the heart.

What are the characteristics exhibited by the Khans? What can we learn from them about leadership?

In the following, I point to the core qualities and virtues that the Khans, as a family, have exhibited and the couple have exhibited both at the DNC and after it in response to mean-spirited attacks.


The Khans have shown America and the world the virtue of dignity. Standing strong, committed, without rancour but with great strength they have demonstrated dignity and proper bearing. This is a mark of good leadership.


In honouring their son and those who have served and sacrificed, they too exhibit and represent the classic virtue of honour. They honour their son, they honour their country and through their demonstration of honour, they point out its continued significance as an attribute of civic leadership.


Make no mistake, loyalty is a critical part of leadership. The Khans’ loyalty to their country, to the memory of their son and to the Constitution – under which all Americans exercise and realise their liberties – places them primus inter pares when we consider this as the most important of the characteristics of leadership.Photo courtesy of Lucy Nicholson/Reuters.Photo courtesy of Lucy Nicholson/Reuters.


Good leaders need to have knowledge. It is not enough to want to lead or to assume that for some reason you ought to lead.

They know about the people, the institutions, and the traditions of those they seek to lead. Khizr has a copy of the US Constitution in the pocket of his jacket. Furthermore, he has read it. If you expect to lead, then take the time to acquire the necessary knowledge.


This is perhaps one of the most important characteristics of a great leader: the capacity to demonstrate empathy.

Empathy is crucial for leaders and those who aspire to lead. Without it leadership becomes mere power.

It lacks insight and it lacks humanity. Not only do the Khans exhibit great empathy, they expect it from their leaders as well.


Finally, the virtue of sacrifice. True leaders know this virtue since they exercise it every day.

Humayun made the ultimate sacrifice. And his parents know the meaning of this word for it is more than a word.

Sacrifice and the ability to sacrifice is the mark of real leadership.
From small things to more significant sacrifice, the ability to put one’s individual interests aside and do things for the common good is a core characteristic of a good leader.

Let’s take a step back and evaluate

If we take a look at the Khans’ example, we can see that we do not need to read a thousand articles or attend a hundred conferences to be presented with a golden standard on leadership.

For these gold star parents and their heroic son provide us with a poignant and moving demonstration of what leadership is and what it is made from.p08_2409_purpleheartmedal

If we want to see what real leadership is about, and what virtues characterise true leadership, we can take a leaf from their book.

Judged against their gold standard, many politicians and those who claim the mantle of a leader can be found wanting.

This may appear as a despondent end to my piece given the paucity of leadership we face today in the political realm.

However, if we think about it perhaps there is room for hope that leadership becomes more than a word, and more than a technique.

The Khans remind us that leadership and the virtues upon which it is based come from the heart and the very nature of our souls.

Khizr has pointed this out to us and in so doing provided us with even more insight into good leadership and what at root is at stake.

There is hope in our world for decent leadership despite the malevolence and darkness that we see around us.

The example of the Khan family provides us such hope, for they have exercised true leadership based on dignity, honour, loyalty, knowledge, empathy and sacrifice.






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Tags: Emerging Leadership

James Campbell is a writer and lecturer at Deakin University. He has two PhD's, one in Education the other in Political Science and is interested in social theory, political philosophy and educational theory

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