The culture and tone of a business is set at the top. If you encounter an excellent customer service representative, you can be certain the CEO of that company believes in treating customers like royalty. If a restaurant's kitchen is spotless, there's no question the owner or manager makes that a daily focus. The leadership displayed at the top of any company or organization shapes the behavior, priorities and culture of the associates who work there. A leader can make the workplace challenging, fun and rewarding … or boring, dreary and miserable. So what are some obvious qualities of an outstanding leader? This is the question I asked the 40 participants of the Leadership Carroll class of 2016 and their answers were very revealing.

Leadership Carroll, an annual program coordinated by the Carroll County Chamber of Commerce for the past 25 years in partnership with Carroll Community College, attracts the best and brightest leaders that Carroll has to offer, so I thought this all-star group would have insights worth listening to when it comes to leadership characteristics and traits. Before I unveil the qualities they felt to be critical in an exceptional leader, here are some traits that no one listed as crucial for a leader to possess:


• No one mentioned being profit-driven as an integral quality of a leader.

• Not one person said that a great leader works 60-hour weeks and normally walks around under a heavy load of stress.

• In addition, no one said being strong-minded and unwavering to the opposing opinions of others was a characteristic important in a leader.

What I was told by the vast majority of these stellar leaders and participants of Leadership Carroll was:

• Excellent leaders build relationships and are loyal to their people. They are always available to patiently listen to others and they look to understand another person's point of view instead of simply dismissing things that don't mesh with their opinions. They are humble enough to put themselves into another person's shoes.

• Outstanding leaders are empathetic and truly care about the people they work with and serve. A dynamic, visionary leader who is devoid of empathy will roll over employees without realizing the damage being done to morale and culture within the organization. A leader possessing empathy and compassion for others, however, can rally a team together to achieve what may seem impossible.

• Admired leaders are honest, transparent and possess integrity. You can count on this type of leader to do the right thing and shine a spotlight on the employee who had a great idea, rather than stealing the credit. Honest leaders aren't perfect, but you can count on them to tell the truth.

Financial acumen, long hours, a strong will and vision are all important characteristics in an inspirational leader, but without the ability to forge relationships they will not lead a company to excellence. People follow leaders who inspire them and inspiration is built on a foundation of relationships, understanding, integrity and empathy.

Mike McMullin is President of the Carroll County Chamber of Commerce. Email him at