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Some say that people know effective leadership when they see it. Yet, a leader's effectiveness is in the eye of the beholder. Sometimes an effective leader in one environment may not be successful in another.

But surely there must be a list of best practices that act as a formula for effective leadership.

So we looked. We found no formula.

Instead, we found a dizzying array of lists that call out characteristics, traits and attributes of an effective leader. Take a look at what is out there. Do an online search or go to a book store and glance through books on leadership by known and lesser known authors. We at Kaleidoscope found as many lists of best practices for leadership as there are letters in the alphabet! Even more, we actually found a list with over 50 attributes. Amazing! Of course, there was overlap among lists. So, where to start? Which are most important? Is there a "silver bullet" to effective leadership?

Here at the Kaleidoscope Leadership Institute, we took a step back to think about this confusing state of affairs. As a leadership institute, we thought we should weigh in with our point of view on what it takes to be an effective leader.

Though our focus is on women of color, especially those in education, the principles are the same across color, race, creed, national origin, gender, and profession.

After much thought and research, we believe there are 2 critical traits an effective leader must have and that these 2 traits provide the foundation on which all other best practices are built:



Without self-awareness and contextual understanding, other effective leadership characteristics, traits and attributes tend to be rudderless and reactive. Kaleidoscope believes that the more self-aware an individual is and the better they know the environment in which they find themselves - the better they can lead. It's that simple.

The challenging thing about these 2 traits is that mastering them is an ongoing life-long journey.There is no “one and done” here. Coincidentally, the same is true for the myriad of leadership best practices that are informed by one’s self-awareness and contextual understanding.

The following is a glimpse of how we see these 2 traits:

1. SELF AWARENESS: We define self-awareness as the conscious knowledge of one's own character, feelings, motives, desires and strengths. It is no surprise that the journey toward self-awareness is not easy. Looking yourself squarely in the face is difficult. Hearing the perceptions of others is not easy and can be humbling. Yet, both perspectives are necessary to gain the insight into the "you" that you see and the "you" others see. This perspective is necessary to be a successful effective leader.

In our Leadership Forum, we help our participants examine themselves through their own eyes and through the reflection of others. Because the number of participants in each of our Leadership Forums is around 50 participants, our faculty and Institute Leaders are able to coach them through exercises and discussions to turbo charge their journey to self-awareness and pivot their perspective.

2. CONTEXTUAL UNDERSTANDING: We define contextual understanding as the ability to grasp, comprehend and appreciate the circumstances, conditions, factors, background and state of affairs for one's self, situation, team, department or organization. As with self-awareness, gaining an understanding of one's surroundings - the people, processes, policies, politics, perspectives and more can be challenging. The greater your understanding, the better you are able to focus and apply the right leadership characteristics, traits and attributes that are effective for that situation.

In our Leadership Forum, we use case studies and exercises to highlight elements of one's environment that one must know to have contextual understanding. Because we hold our Forums to around 50 participants, each participant can be heard, rigorous discussions had and deeper personalized insights gained.

Most people think of leadership as something that's done at work or in an organization. At the Kaleidoscope Leadership Institute, we know that the attributes of effective leadership can be utilized at home as well. We will talk about this point in a future blog.


In the end, we believe that there are many characteristics, traits and attributes of an effective leader. These best practices guide you toward success in your professional and personal life. We are resolute in our belief that self-awareness and contextual understanding are critical as the foundation on which all other leadership best practices can be built. Without these 2 critical leadership traits, all other best practices will be less effective, leading to less successful business results.

We invite you to go to our website and:

- Reflections, Kaleidoscope’s quarterly blog

- Insights, Kaleidoscope’s semi-annual newsletters

- Semi-annual webinars

- Leaders’ Tips

- Peer-to- Peer Forum

- Reference list

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