9 Characteristics of Holistic Leaders

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by Jim Funk

Holistic Leader Competencies Screen Shot 2016-06-24 at 8.01.49 AM

Traditional leadership competence has been about behavior—what a leader is capable of doing in the workplace. That approach describes desired actions, but it overlooks the character traits that are crucial for guiding those actions. A more complete model of leadership competence goes beyond actions to describe who the leader is as a person. I refer to this model as holistic leadership.

Holistic leaders know how to integrate their character and values into their leadership, and they understand that they bring their whole selves to their leadership role – body, mind and spirit. In observing these leaders, I have identified the following nine key characteristics that I believe set them apart from others.


Virtue is defined in Webster’s Dictionary as, “Conformity to a standard of right; a particular moral excellence.” It is not only the holistic leader’s behavior that is virtuous, but his or her disposition and attitude toward the good; toward what is right. When virtues become part of who a person is, the person is in turn more disposed toward virtuous actions. These show up as behaviors and decisions, which are guided by moral excellence. One particular virtue that is critical to holistic leadership is that of humility. The humble leader is able to admit faults, to ask forgiveness, and to be vulnerable and authentic.


Leaders are frequently faced with making decisions when circumstances aren’t black and white. Critical thinking skills and an acute sense of right and wrong are paramount to being able to consistently and reliably evaluate possibilities and make ethical choices before moving forward. When it comes to the ethical treatment of people, it really boils down to treating others the way he or she would like to be treated—known as the golden rule.


Holistic leaders are open, honest, direct and forthright in the way they act and communicate. This doesn’t mean they are indiscriminate with the timing and information that is shared. Rather, they understand when people are impacted by certain situations and they willingly share the information that matters at the appropriate time. Transparency is also linked to the virtue of humility, because holistic leaders are willing to be vulnerable and admit when they don’t have all the answers or things don’t go according to plan.


When leaders are truthful and follow through with what they say they will do, they build strong relationships with their colleagues. This becomes the foundation for trust, which at the end of the day also enables getting work done efficiently and effectively. It is also important to recognize that trust comes not only from one’s character, but also from competence, or capability. It is one thing to make a promise, but the leader needs to be able to follow through with more than just good intentions.


This characteristic is about being able to functionally get the job done. Effective leaders must be able to craft a vision, engage others in following that vision, create a plan, execute the plan, and drive results. While character matters to a very great extent, a leader will not be effective without these competencies that deem him or her capable.


Holistic leaders have a balanced view of others, work, teams, and themselves as a composite of body, mind and spirit. These leaders take good care of themselves while supporting others in self-care as well. This plays out in a positive work-life balance, but also as avoidance of any negative “isms” that can be extreme (e.g., workaholism, absolutism, dualism, egoism, and hedonism.)


Awareness is a critical characteristic of holistic leadership, because it is required for emotional intelligence. As described by Daniel Goleman in his book, Emotional Intelligence: Why it can matter more than IQ, awareness of self and others is key to being able to manage one’s emotions and relationships. Leaders who are not open to feedback, do not ask for it, or do not know how to receive and process it with an open mind, continue to have blind spots that can derail them. Self-awareness also requires humility—the ability to see ourselves as we really are, even when we don’t care for some aspects of that picture.


Much has been written in recent years on the topic of Servant Leadership. Robert Greenleaf wrote, “The servant leader is servant first. It begins with the natural feeling that one wants to serve. Then conscious choice brings one to aspire to lead.”* This dynamic is similar to what I described earlier for Virtuous. When being a servant becomes part of who a person is, the person is in turn more disposed toward service. Holistic leaders are servants first because they are focused on people and their needs. They know that work gets done through people, and when their needs are met they are more likely to be engaged and be at their best.


I once got into a debate with a colleague about whether holistic leaders are inspired or inspiring. Which comes first? I believe it is both. The leader’s own inspiration becomes inspiring to others. When the leader brings inspiration along with authenticity, people can sense that the leader is genuine—the real deal. There is also an aspect of inspiration that is linked to faith. While this may or may not be religious faith, it is when leaders recognize they are part of something larger. They know that inspiration comes not only from within, but from outside oneself as well.

How Can You Develop Holistic Leadership?

If you aspire to be a leader who embodies these characteristics, or if you would like to adopt this leadership model in your organization, there are several things you can consider. Individual leadership coaching can be a very effective way of gaining self-awareness and building holistic leadership practices. And organizationally, creating a leadership competency model that spells out the expectations and development opportunities for the 9 characteristics of holistic leadership is a good place to start. But in the end, a leadership program will only be effective if it also addresses who the leader is as a person and not simply what he or she can do. That is the key to holistic leadership.

In my next blog I will talk about what it is like to work for holistic leaders who have the characteristics I am describing, including some compelling stories from members of their teams.

*Robert K. Greenleaf, The Servant Leader, 1970

Jim Funk is a consultant who helps leaders, teams and organizations discover and develop their full potential. He is passionate in believing that strong leadership competence combined with the leader’s personal characteristics, values and virtues are key to achieving goals and driving business results. In addition to his work at J L Funk & Associates, Jim has served on various boards and commissions, and is currently a member of the Economy of Communion in North America Commission. Learn more about Jim’s work at www.jlfunk.com and www.linkedin.com/in/jlfunk or e-mail him at jim@jlfunk.com.

One thought on “9 Characteristics of Holistic Leaders

    Jim and Mary said:
    July 15, 2016 at 10:45 am

    Dear Jim Funk,
    This is such a great article. EOCA is so blessed on having your leadership.
    Prayerfully, Jim and Mary Jane Milway


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