Editor's note: "The First 90 Days" is a series about how to make 2016 a year of breakout growth for your business. Let us know how you're making the first 90 days count by joining the conversation on social media with the hashtag #Inc90Days.​

Many people call themselves a leader--but many of them fail at the actual task of...well, being a leader.

So why do some fail where others succeed?

The proof of leadership, its true measure, is not about being assigned, appointed to, or awarded with leadership. It is about action, not position.

True leadership is earned, and it is earned by having an impact--a lasting influence, an effect on those around you.

Here are seven traits of the most successful leaders:

1. They lead with character. You have to know who you are. What makes people want to follow a leader? Why would you follow one leader to the ends of the earth but wouldn't count on another to lead you across the street? What separates true leaders is their character--the quality of who they are as an individual person. Leadership isn't about a designation. It's a matter of knowing who you are and spreading your passion so profusely that others are inspired.

2. They cultivate strong relationships. You have to know whom your important relationships are with. A common leadership mistake involves trying to lead others before developing a relationship. The stronger the relationship you have with others--the deeper, the more caring, the more connected you are--the more likely you are to have an impact. You have to learn what makes your most vital relationships tick. When you learn about the people who are important to you, you can help them fulfill their dreams.

3. They steer with competence. You have to know what they know. The ability to understand people is one of the greatest assets anyone can develop. Learning what your people know has a positive impact in every area of your life, not only in your leadership. The biggest gift you can give your people is to learn what they know. The best leaders always surround themselves with individuals who are better than they are. They look for people who know more than they know, without feeling threatened or defensive. They look to develop their own competencies so they can influence people and make an even bigger impact.

4. They trust their intuition. You have to know what people feel. Few things are more important or pay bigger dividends when it comes to business and leadership than getting to know how your people feel. When you do, you can understand what they're thinking and get inside their perspective. Nothing will give you greater satisfaction or bring about more influence than being a leader who understands what people feel.

5. They focus on experience. You have to know what they've done. If you want to make an impact, find out what your people are committed to. Where do they spend their time and their money? What are they passionate about? People buy into leaders who are interested in their experience, who want to know what they know. Leaders who can honestly say, "I don't know it all, so tell me what you know" are truly influential.

6. They take pride in potential. You have to know where they can develop. Too often, people make the mistake of focusing on their weaknesses. As a result, they spend too little time focusing on their potential. True leadership is about lifting people up, raising their performance to a higher standard, and building their personality beyond their former limitations. To have impact, you need to focus on the potential.

7. They inspire to motivate. You have to know how to inspire them. You must be able to believe in your people to be able to motivate them. If they see your belief that they have some value, if they know they can make a difference, they will be influenced by you. People earn leadership not through their power but because they have the ability to motivate and inspire others. True leadership is not about elevating oneself but lifting others up.

Great leaders are capable of developing these seven core elements. They know that to truly affect people, you have to influence them. If you don't, they will not follow you.