The Most Important Characteristic of Leadership

I have long held that the most vital characteristic of leadership is integrity. Other’s including some who I greatly respect would say the most important characteristic of leadership is good judgment. 


I have a hard time admitting I could be wrong about this. It does seem though that lots of people are willing to sacrifice integrity for what they think is judgment that more closely resembles their own. 


But it is beginning to appear that those who believe judgment to be the most crucial leadership characteristic may be mistaken as well. That’s because empathy seems to be increasing in importance. 


There are currently 462 million variations of the definition of leadership on Google. No matter which one you prefer they all have something to do with people. The definitions say something about motivating, encouraging, teaching, challenging, or building people. They talk about caring and making a difference in the lives of the people you lead. 


Every definition of leadership indicates that empathy is a critical characteristic. Perhaps even THE critical characteristic for successful leadership. 


There is a great line near the beginning of the all time classic Christmas movie “It’s a Wonderful Life.” It’s the scene where Clarence the Angel is getting his instructions from Joseph. Clarence is in a hurry to get to earth. He wants to earn his wings by helping George Bailey who is played by the great Jimmy Stewart. But Joseph tells Clarence to stop long enough to learn something about George’s life. Joseph says that if he is going to help George he needs to know something about him.


So it is with leadership. 


If you’re going to lead others, motivate and coach them, challenge them and make a difference for them then you’re going to have to know something about them. You’re also going to need to be able to see their life from their point of view. 


That’s empathy!


Empathy grows in importance as technology continues to push the human element out of relationships. If you lose sight of the humanness of the people you’re supposed to lead then you lose the ability to actually lead them at all. 


So what is the most important characteristic of leadership? Here’s the real answer… if you lack integrity then you lack the ability to lead. Without integrity people will not trust you and if they can’t trust you they simply will NOT follow you. 


If you have integrity but lack sound judgment then you will be an honest failure but a failure as a leader all the same. If you have no empathy for the people you lead then you’ll likely find that even with integrity and excellent judgment there will be no one following you. People will know that while you may care about them, as you would any “asset” in your organization, you don’t actually care for them. 

I suppose what I’m discovering late in my own leadership journey is that it doesn’t really matter which leadership characteristic is most important. If you struggle with even one of them you’ll have significant challenges when attempting to lead. 

11 thoughts on “The Most Important Characteristic of Leadership

  1. Just curious. What do Google analytics say about those 462 characteristics of leadership? The top five? The one mentioned most frequently? How does integrity fare in their analysis? Any surprises? What about empathy? How about some of the so-called, erroneously named I think, “soft” skills of leadership? What do the top 100 CEO’s say what’s most important? What does IBM turn up in their surveys? Other analytics and data? What does the research reveal?

    1. Google does not offer 452 million characteristics of leadership or even 462. There are a dozen or do generally agreed upon characteristics of Authentic Leadership. The order of importance changes depending on ones point of view. Empathy currently does not make the top five but it’s moving up fast from the outside. Mentioned most frequently are indeed integrity and judgment.

  2. Hi, Steve. Thank you for regularly sharing your insights, thoughts, and advice with us. I find them very valuable to my leadership. Pertinent to this post, I’m curious why so many people turn to the business world and, hence, CEOs, for examples of leadership? Management maybe, but leadership??? When we come to realize it is the people who empower leaders and not the other way around, we won’t have to look far to see/name 7yo’s, 11yo’s, and MANY teens who lead as good or better than ANY CEO. The best examples of leadership, it seems to me, are always found among the people; as such, they’ll not be found hovering around the water cooler waiting for their turn to be CEO. As for my view on the most important characteristic of true leadership (and we won’t likely find this in google): if we do not LOVE the people we serve, how can we lead them? My heart is grateful for you. Kind regards …

    1. Thanks Jack for your kind words and insightful comment. I agree 100% that’s it’s a huge assumption that because someone has a leadership position that automatically makes them a leader. In fact I’d estimate that a majority of CEO’s aren’t good leaders at all. Almost certainly good managers but anyone who reads my blog regularly knows the very large difference between managing and leading.
      Leadership is about people and only people. It’s just not possible to truly lead people that you don’t genuinely care for. To be an Authentic Leader you MUST put your people first, even before yourself.
      The vast majority of leadership in organizations large and small comes from the middle of the organization not the top. People who miss that absolute fact also miss the opportunity to truly lead.

  3. Steve, Great article. I couldn’t agree more that leadership is about people not processes. In my most recent blog I mention just that. “Leaders take time to focus on their true priority, their people. They can fix the organization later.” Perhaps if more people spent time focusing on their people the organization would take care of itself. Now of course I am not saying that the organization doesn’t need to be managed but what goo is a product if you don’t have passionate people to sell it, build it, or maintain it?

  4. Hi Steve
    Very nice article. Ya, the leadership is a kind of art. That’s very hard to define what are the leadership characters or truth. Based on my experience, the most vital characteristic is “Credibility”. If people don’t believe the messenger, then they will not believe the message. If a leader doesn’t have credibility, then he will lose the leadership. One of my favorite leadership books is “ The Truth about Leadership”.

    1. Thanks, I agree. When the leader isn’t trusted then their leadership can’t be either. Everything, absolutely everything, a leader says and does either adds to or subtracts from their credibility. There are no neutral human interactions.

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