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. 

How to Build a Solid Leadership Brand

The first step in building a leadership brand is to realize that if you’re in a leadership position you have one. The only question is are you branding yourself or are you being branded? 

 

Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon says that “Your brand is what people say about you when you’re not in the room.”

 

Your leadership brand is built from the total of what you do, how you do it and why you do it. There is no faking your brand. Sooner or later the authentic you is revealed and when it is that becomes your brand. 

 

To build a strong leadership brand you must first realize it’s not all about you. Your work experience and personal accomplishments matter but as a leader they pale in comparison to what you do for other people. 

 

Always be evaluating the best way you can help other people succeed and where you can add the most value to your people and organization. Once you determine that then you know where your focus should be. 

 

Remember that today more than ever your personal life is your public life. Your personal life reflects who you really are. What you do in your private life is your private life only as long as it doesn’t affect your ability to lead others. As someone in a leadership position, your personal life is open to scrutiny. 

 

Your ability to lead others will increase if people respect you. Posting your wild weekend behavior on social media does nothing to improve your credibility or your ability to lead others. You may see yourself as two versions of the same person but most everyone else will not make that same distinction.

 

Once you have a bit of credibility you can build on it by doing what you say you will do. How many times has someone told you: I’ll get back to you on that – then never followed up? Authentic Leaders don’t make promises they can’t or won’t keep. Trust is lost when promises are made and then broken. Keep your promises and you will build relationships built on trust. 

 

One of my favorite movies is Liar Liar about an attorney played by Jim Carrey. This attorney, a well known liar, was suddenly thrust into a position were he was unable to lie. He was forced to tell the truth and nothing but the truth. The complete and unvarnished truth. It caused him serious problems. People were actually insulted by the truth. But that was a Hollywood production. In real life it’s far better to tell the truth all the time. The worst thing a leader can do is to not be open and honest with people. Trying to hide information will always catch up with you. Tell people everything they need to know, even if it’s bad news. A lie can be forgiven but it’s hard for people to forget that you lied to them. You might not ever fully recover. 

 

Some leaders see their position as loftier than others. That causes them to look down on people, even if only subconsciously. Leaders with a strong leadership brand treat people as equals. The more “perks” you provide yourself and other leaders in your organization the more distance you put between yourself and the people you’re supposed to be leading. There is no question that top leaders in any organization have earned additional benefits and compensation, but be aware that leaders are in the spotlight in more ways than one. Too many perks can make that spotlight so bright that it actually melts away your leadership credibility.

 

As a leader you must make certain that all your people have the same opportunity to achieve the success that you have. Never lose sight of the importance of humility to a leader. There aren’t many things uglier in life then an arrogant person in a position of leadership.

 

It’s a worthwhile investment of a leader’s time to occasionally do a “brand check” to determine the strength of their leadership brand. Don’t trust yourself with this one….ask others, a coach or mentor for their opinion of your brand. Even more importantly, ask the people you lead how you are doing. 


If you get mixed responses that’s a good thing; your people trust you enough to be honest with you, that’s makes for a pretty darn good brand.

Are you a Role Model?

Well, are you? The short answer, especially if you’re a leader or even just someone in a leadership position, is yes.

     

Your people watch you. No one is born with the knowledge of what it takes to succeed so they must learn it. They learn some of it by listening, some by reading, but mostly they learn from watching. If you are their leader or the person who is above them in a leadership position then it’s you they are watching. You MUST be their model of successful behavior!

     

So you absolutely are a role model. The only question is, do you model behavior that leads to success or do you model behavior that leads to something else. 

     

You can tell your people what to do and they may do it. You can show them and they will likely do it, or you can tell them and show them. If what you said matches what you do they will almost certainly do it.

     

Therein lies the problem for people who are leaders only because they occupy a leadership position. Their words often don’t match their actions. They have yet to learn that their people will do what they do long before they will do what they say. They are also surprised when they eventually learn just how closely they are watched by those who would follow them.

     

Authentic leaders are careful to make certain that their actions match their words. They realize that is the surest way to build trust and credibility and that those two characteristics are vital for leadership.

 

Showing your people what to do however isn’t really enough. Showing them how to do it is key. By “how to do it” I don’t mean how from a technical nature, I mean how in terms of attitude. 

 

You are their attitude model as well. Attitudes are contagious and no attitude is more contagious than the attitude of the leader. You may not appreciate hearing this but if your people appear to have a negative attitude then you must make certain that you are not the source. Maintaining a positive attitude is critical for effective leadership.

     

If your goal as a leader is to build other leaders then your words and actions must match and you must do everything possible to maintain a positive attitude.

     

So, watch what you say and remember, someone else is always watching what you do.

Uncommon Leadership

I’ve had the opportunity to spend several days recently with a person recently promoted to a leadership position. He was very good at what he did and earned his promotion. His promotion came with a new title and higher income, unfortunately what it didn’t come with was any hint of how to actually lead. So he doesn’t lead, he just tries to get by managing his new team.

I’ve seen the same scenario play out literally hundreds of times through the years. A person is good at what they do so they are promoted into a leadership role even through they have little, or more commonly, no leadership experience or skills at all.

I call them common leaders. I don’t mean to be disparaging here but it is what it is… common leadership really isn’t leadership at all. At its best it’s just managing and and at it’s worst it’s something much worse. That something involves fear, coercion and sometimes even outright abuse. 

Absent any real leadership skills people in leadership positions too often tend to use intimidation, coercion, threats and punishment to force the compliance of their people. 99.9% of the people in leadership positions who use those tactics are not bad people, it’s just that in many cases that’s how they were taught to “lead.” Sadly, they were likely taught to lead by people who themselves had few if any leadership skills. So the cycle of common leadership simply repeats itself. 

Individuals who do manage to break the cycle of common leadership and become uncommon leaders don’t do so on their own. They most often have a mentor or are led by someone who has broken through the common cycle themselves. 

Here’s one of the most interesting aspects of leadership: it can’t actually be taught but it can be learned. It is learned not so much by listening to a true leader but by watching them. 

Authentic leaders lead by example. They show the way to true uncommon leadership. I can tell people what to look for in a leader, I can share with them the characteristics that make a good leader, and I can even help them judge whether or not someone in a leadership position truly processes those characteristics but a person must teach themselves to lead. 

Let me give you one example. 

Caring for people, truly caring and investing yourself in another person’s success and well-being is an absolute characteristic of an uncommon, authentic leader. I can tell someone that, I can point out a person who has that characteristic but I know of no way to teach someone how to care. They must develop that caring nature on their own. The quickest way to do that is to see someone else display their own caring nature and decide if the results they see are something they want in their own life.

If you were taught to lead by someone who did not develop those uncommon leadership skills then my very best advice to you would be to find a mentor who has. Find a coach or hire a coach who will help you break that cycle of common leadership and become a leader who can actually make a positive difference in the lives of those they would lead. 

Never assume that a leadership position makes you a leader. A leadership position doesn’t come with the right to lead, that must be earned by demonstrating consistent leadership skills. 

Develop those skills and people will naturally follow you. 

Leading by Example

Somewhere around 15 years ago I met a person who ran a small business who was really into what at the time was cutting edge technology. The technology he was so fond of was something called “remote monitoring.” 

It seems simply today but at the time having cameras set up around your business so you could see what was happening when you weren’t there was almost science fiction like. This guy could sit at his computer at home and keep an eye on his employees without them even knowing about it. 

As he was explaining his latest foray into this new world of technology he asked several of us what we thought of it. Most everyone expressed their opinion and most everyone agreed how awesome it was. I didn’t offer an opinion because I was thinking more about what it would be like working for this guy.

Finally he asked me straight out what I was thinking. I was in fact thinking two things; first I was thinking how happy I was not to be working there. (I didn’t tell him that thought) What I did share with him was that it was probably only fair that he would be watching his people that closely since they watched him that closely too.

He was a little taken back by that and asked why his people would be watching him, after all he was the boss.

I said that was exactly why they were watching him. They needed to watch him to determine if he could be trusted. They wanted to see for themselves if his words matched his actions. They wanted to see if he saw them as mere employees or if he really understood that they were people. 

They also wanted to see how they should behave. They wanted to know what was appropriate to say and what behavior would lead to success. 

What this “boss” didn’t understand what that he was their model. His people were going to do what he did about a thousand times faster than they were going to do what he said to do. 

If his actions matched his words then he could be trusted. If not then they knew he was just a boss and not a true leader. 

This boss expected his people to trust him when he had no trust in them at all. He modeled an untrustworthy behavior and he likely received untrustworthy behavior in return. 

He may not have been a true leader but he occupied a leadership position and because of that people followed his example. If you are occupy a leadership position then you are leading by example whether you know it or not. Your people are watching. It’s up to you to provide them with a model of successful behavior.

As someone in a leadership position you should be modeling the kind of attitude that you want your people to have. You should be modeling the type of language you want them to use. You should be modeling the appearance that you want them to have.

You are leading by example. Always! You are leading by example in everything you say and do.

So…what exactly are you modeling for the people you’re supposed to be leading today?

Leadership is About Doing

Leadership is more about what you’re doing today than it is about what you did yesterday.

You may have done lots of great things yesterday that helped you earn your leadership position. Having a leadership position however does not make you a leader. Even being a great leader yesterday does not ensure you’re a great leader today.

You never “arrive” as a leader because the leadership journey never stops. Great leaders know that since their people are always evolving that they must evolve as well. They are constantly learning, always growing and perpetually looking for new ways to help their people succeed. 

No matter how effective you may have been yesterday if you’re not trying to be better today then your ability to lead will quickly fail you…and your people. 

We can talk forever about the characteristics of a leader but merely having some or even all of those characteristics does not make you a leader. It’s putting those characteristics to work, actually DOING something with them that makes you a leader. 

When you demonstrate that you care about your people, that’s doing.

When you model the behavior you want and need from your people, that’s doing.

When you cast the vision for your organization and people, that’s doing.

When you make the tough decisions that others are afraid to make, that’s doing.

When you’re willing to risk a confrontation to resolve issues and help people grow, that’s doing too!

What you did in the past may have earned you a leadership position but what you do today and tomorrow will determine if you’re really a leader. A leadership position is not someplace you go to rest on your laurels, it’s a place that you go to build upon them. 

If you were to go on trial this week, charged with being a leader, would there be enough evidence to convict you?

If you’re answer is anything other than an absolute yes then perhaps you’re a little short in the area of doing. The good news is, building a case for your leadership ability is completely within your control. 

The only question is, will you DO anything about it?

Principles of Leadership

Douglas MacArthur was one of the greatest military leaders the United States of America ever produced. General MacArthur’s discipline and leadership extended beyond his military service. He was of course an effective general but also a renowned statesman, administrator and corporate leader.

Through the years, biographies of MacArthur have noted what they call “The MacArthur Tenets,” and they developed a series of questions that reflect the human relations and leadership principles that people saw in him.

These are the types of questions that all leaders should be asking themselves from time to time. Better yet, perhaps they should be asking their mentor or maybe even their followers. 

I am not particularly found of the term “subordinate” and the tone of some of the questions is a bit terse but given the fact the both MacArthur and at least some of his biographers had military backgrounds I understand their use of the term and the inclusive, direct nature of the questions.

Here are the questions the biographers came up with:

  • Do I heckle my subordinates or strengthen and encourage them?
  • Do I use moral courage in getting rid of subordinates who have proven themselves beyond doubt to be unfit?
  • Have I done all in my power by encouragement, incentive and spur to salvage the weak and erring?
  • Do I know by NAME and CHARACTER a maximum number of subordinates for whom I am responsible? Do I know them intimately?
  • Am I thoroughly familiar with the technique, necessities, objectives and administration of my job?
  • Do I lose my temper at individuals?
  • Do I act in such a way as to make my subordinates WANT to follow me?
  • Do I delegate tasks that should be mine?
  • Do I arrogate everything to myself and delegate nothing?
  • Do I develop my subordinates by placing on each one as much responsibility as he can stand?
  • Am I interested in the personal welfare of each of my subordinates, as if he were a member of my family?
  • Have I the calmness of voice and manner to inspire confidence, or am I inclined to irascibility and excitability?
  • Am I a constant example to my subordinates in character, dress, deportment and courtesy?
  • Am I inclined to be nice to my superiors and mean to my subordinates?
  • Is my door open to my subordinates?
  • Do I think more of POSITION than JOB?
  • Do I correct a subordinate in the presence of others?

Your answer to these questions can go a long way towards helping you become the type of leader people want to follow, regardless of your position or title. How would you answer them and how would the people you are responsible to lead answer them?

Oh by the way, honesty absolutely counts when answering.