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.