When you type the question "What is leadership?" into Google, you get about 1.1 million results. The dictionary's own definition lands at the top. It says that leadership is "the action of leading a group of people or an organization."

Not much meat there, you say. Sure, but don't discount the word action. In my nearly 20 years of research, I've found that real leaders can only walk the talk with action.

But while leadership can be hard to define and may mean different things to different people, we must have a barometer for measuring those actions.

Here's what I've found: True leaders serve others. That's their mantra. You'll find five rare characteristics in them that result in compelling human action that benefits others.

1. They exercise self-control.

A leader who practices restraint receives far less attention and acclaim than a charismatic leader with a commanding presence but a short fuse. Yet the former has the clear edge.

I previously wrote about a CEO of a home furnishings company who flew off the handle in an internal memo that went public. By the time the media (and social media) finished lambasting his lack of emotional intelligence, the company's stock value had spiraled downward 55 percent.

On the flip side, leaders who exercise patience have self-control--their conduct is steady, rational, and manageable. In conflict, they seek to understand first before being understood; they speak little, which gives them a clear edge in communicating and diffusing someone else's anger.

2. They care more for others than for self.

There are no rock star leaders seeking personal gain or glory in high-performing cultures. It's all about the team "W," (win) and there's zero tolerance for company politics under selfless leaders.

The focus of their "selfless excellence" is truly on the impact their employees can bring to the company.

Selfless leadership not only drives teamwork and partnership throughout a company, but it also prevents silos and barriers from arising between departments, teams, or individuals that can put a monkey wrench in innovation and kill collaboration. 

3. They are able to distinguish between right and wrong.

Some call it "moral intelligence." It's the mindset with which great leaders access their values, purposes, and higher motivations. 

It's where the ability to distinguish between right and wrong, and right from left, comes from.

It's discerning at their core when things are beginning to go off track from their intended purpose. From this higher plane, such leaders exercise goodness, truth, and compassion. 

4. They believe in their people.

Conventional thinking says that people have to earn trust. But it has been found that, in high-performing cultures, leaders are willing to give trust to their followers, as a gift, even before it's earned. That's because they believe in their people--their strengths, abilities, potential, and commitment to the job.

5. They lead with love.

The opposite of love is fear, and when fear permeates an organization, it stifles creativity and innovation. Love here is actionable and noble: creating psychological safety, connecting with employees, caring for their well-being, and not just managing their work performance.