Every four years, as Election Day approaches, we hear a lot of talk about strength and vision and character. But what do those words really mean? This month, readers share the traits they value most in a leader—from the president of the U.S.A. to the president of the PTA.

By Real Simple
Updated October 16, 2012
Illustration of a man on a horse
Credit: Christopher Silas Neal

A thinking mind. I can respect any change in opinion or policy if it was preceded by thorough research and an effort to deeply understand the issues. Leaders should have not only the ability but also the desire to look at things differently when new facts arise. To me, a shift is a sign of an energetic intellect.
Catherine S. Vodrey
East Liverpool, Ohio

An open mind and a tolerant attitude. You should have faith in your convictions but not be blinded by them. In other words, be like the Dalai Lama. He has met and talked with countless public figures and has shown respect to each and every one, regardless of their politics.
Rhi Cook
Tempe, Arizona

Practicing humility—that is, serving your people rather than insisting that they serve you. My dad has been a pastor and a counselor for more than 30 years and has raised eight children. In all that time, I’ve never seen him too busy to lend an ear, offer a piece of advice (when asked), or give a helping hand. A true leader is not known for how great he is as an individual but rather for how greatly he aids the people around him.
Grace Velasquez
Salt Lake City, Utah

A willingness to get in the trenches with underlings. In college, I worked in a deli. When my boss saw that we were slammed, he would come behind the counter and ask,  “OK, what do you need me to do?” Through this offer, he let us know that he didn’t consider himself  “above” our tasks. It’s amazing how such a simple act can generate team morale and enthusiasm.
Heather Solsvik
Coeur d’Alene, Idaho

The best leaders have the ability to express kindness and sympathy. My last two managers (both at a financial institution with more than 60,000 employees) took the time to get to know me as a person, to find out what motivated me, and to show that they cared about my personal and professional development. When it comes to bosses, it really doesn’t get better than that.
Lindy Vaught
Indianapolis, Indiana

I would say decisiveness coupled with wisdom. Throughout history, the most influential leaders—President Franklin Delano Roosevelt among them—proved to be strong decision makers. I have more admiration for someone who makes a poor call and learns from it than for someone who never makes the call at all.
Jen Ko
Foster City, California

You need to be consistent in your principles. When you are unpredictable and make declarations based on whims, you paralyze the people beneath you. How are they supposed to make decisions if they don’t know what is really right?
Meredyth Jones
College Station, Texas

The ability to admit mistakes. I didn’t agree with Ronald Reagan’s policies, but I admire him as a leader because he spoke up when he knew that he had been wrong.
Loren Rhoads
San Francisco, California

It’s essential that a leader separate friendships from professional relationships. I will always revere one manager I had because she asked for input from every person on staff instead of playing favorites. And when she had to make assignments, she never gave the easiest jobs to her friends. She considered each employee’s unique talents first and foremost.
Rosemary Stahlbusch
Granbury, Texas

I care less about a person’s personal stance on an issue than about his ability to help people with opposing viewpoints find common ground. You have to respect someone who tries to understand others around him and then unites their beliefs to form an even better idea.
Carrie Burggraf
Chesterfield, Missouri

Personally, I think it’s admirable when a leader has the capacity to say,  “I don’t know.” It shows a willingness to learn on the job. As a midlevel manager, I feel very comfortable telling those under me that I don’t know the answer to a question. Plus, I think that most people can tell when you don’t know what you’re doing. Why not just admit it? After all, we’re all human.
Sheila Spores
Ketchikan, Alaska

With the presidential election around the corner, I find myself searching for integrity and honesty in the candidates. These are the same characteristics I cherish in my father, sought out when looking for a husband, and try to pass on to my children.
Barbara Troutz
San Antonio, Texas