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.

First Person Leadership

If you can’t lead yourself you can’t lead anyone. 

 

Too many people in leadership positions focus all their leadership energies on leading other people. They forget about leading the person most responsible for their success… themselves. The problem with that is it often causes someone to hold the people they lead to a higher standard than themselves. 

 

They know exactly the qualities and characteristics they are looking for in their people but they never stop long enough to see if they possess those qualities and characteristics themselves. They forget that they are the model of successful behavior for their people. 

 

What about you? Are you leading yourself with the same standards that you apply to your people? 

 

It’s likely you expect your people to have a positive attitude. Have you checked your attitude lately? Attitudes are contagious and a leader’s attitude is more contagious than most. If your people see you struggling with your attitude then they will struggle with theirs as well. Maintaining a positive attitude is a choice and it’s a vital choice if you hope to lead effectively.

 

Are you an emotional leader? Emotions are a powerful human force but they are also a twin-edged sword. Too little emotion and leadership dies pretty quickly. Too much emotion and it can die even faster. What kind of emotional model are you for your people? If you can’t lead yourself to control your emotions than it’s almost certain you can’t lead anyone else to control theirs. 

 

Are you modeling enthusiasm? Leaders want their people engaged in and enthusiastic about their work. It’s not often that you find a leader’s people more enthusiastic than the leader. When was the last timed you evaluated your own level of enthusiasm? It’s hard to stay “pumped” everyday but if you act enthusiastic it doesn’t take very long until you’re actually enthusiastic. You can’t fake enthusiasm but you can make it. Act enthusiastic and you will be enthusiastic!

 

Can you lead yourself all the way to the finish line? Successful people finish what they start and that applies to leaders as well. Strong starts are important but it’s strong finishes that make people successful. You must push yourself to finish what you start. If you can’t get yourself across the finish line then you won’t be able to pull others across who are following you. 

 

You can’t start projects and leave them unfinished. When you do that you’re modeling unsuccessful behavior for your people. When that’s what you model that’s what you get.

 

When I want to know how well someone in a leadership position leads themselves I don’t invest too much time evaluating the leader. I evaluate their people, that tells me far more about the qualities and characteristics of the leader. Your people are a reflection of you. When they aren’t performing look first in the mirror for potential causes and solutions.

 

You can occasionally find that gem of a person who excels past the level of their leader. They find a way to make their own model of success. But generally speaking you as the leader are that model so it’s a good idea to stop occasionally to determine what it is that you’re modeling for your people. 


Always remember, before you can effectively lead others you must lead yourself exceptionally well. So… how you doin’?

The Case for Micro-Leading

It seems as if I’m always learning something more about leadership. If there is one thing about leadership that I learn almost everyday it’s that I have a lot to learn when it comes to leading.

 

If you’ve read this blog for any length of time you’ll know my thoughts on micro-managing. It does great harm, to the person being micro-managed, to their organization, and even at times to the micro-manager

 

People resist being managed and they super resist being micro-managed. Micro-managing causes the micro-managed person to feel that they are not trusted even though that’s often not the case. Many times a micro-manager trusts their people and believes they are actually helping them. It’s not meant to be hurtful, it is in fact meant to be helpful. 

 

Regardless of their motives micro-managers are not helpful in the long-run. 

 

I am a firm believer in delegating tasks and empowering your people to take the reins. Let them work through the details and learn more than they ever would by being micro-managed. In the long-run it could be better for the organization. 

 

But….

 

You can delegate a task but as a leader you cannot delegate the responsibility for it being successfully accomplished

 

Which brings us to what I’ve learned lately. Given the choice between a well meaning leader who micro-manages their people, or a well meaning leader who empowers their people with little or no supervision, I’m going with the micro-manager every time

 

Despite my recent discovery I still refuse to acknowledge that micro-managing may have a place in the development of people. So I’m going to coin a new term and call it micro-leading. Here is the difference between micro-managing and micro-leading. 

 

If you’re closely managing someone only for your benefit or for the benefit of the organization then it’s micro-managing. If you’re closely supervising someone for their own development and learning then it’s micro-leading

 

Why you do something matters. Motives matter. 

 

Now, for those of you who think that the leader who sets their people free to find their own way has terrific motives I would say that you are likely correct. Except that successful leadership requires more, much more, than pure motives. 

 

Authentic Leaders cannot risk the good of the many for the development of one or even several people. Their first responsibility is to the entire organization. That requires them to find the balance between too much supervision and too little. Because of that awesome responsibility to the many I would have to suggest erring on the side of too much. 

 

It’s great when a leader can trust the judgment of their people but leaders must also understand that good judgment often comes from experience. If your people lack that experience then it’s not micro-managing to question their judgment, it’s micro-leading

 

Authentic Leaders “loan” their experience to their people until they have enough experience of their own. It’s only then that an experienced leader will allow them more freedom to use their own informed judgment to make great decisions

 

The good of the many must be foremost in the mind of a leader. It may cause the development of future leaders to be slower than they would like but if you’re in it for the long haul it’s the only way to go

Leading from a High Horse

I had a nice long “catch-up” conversation with a friend I’ve known a long long time. Since High School actually so it’s kind of a shockingly long time. 🙂

 

She works for one of the largest manufacturing companies in the world, she started right out of college, and she has done very very well for herself. She runs a very profitable part of the company and has a significant number of people who report either directly to her or to one of her direct reports. 

 

During our conversation she asked me something that I thought, given her success, was pretty surprising. She asked me how she could get her people to stop giving her their opinion without hurting their feelings.

 

When I asked her why she wanted them to stop giving their opinions she said it was just a matter of time. She simply didn’t have time to listen to people whose opinion didn’t really matter. 

 

It was at this point that I had to just stop for a minute (seemed like an hour) and think of how to respond. There was so much wrong with the statement I didn’t really know where to begin. Now this is a person I have great respect for, I remember her when she was so afraid of her own shadow that she couldn’t try out for the cheerleading squad. She has truly grown so much through the years and she is a wonderful person. 

 

But the statement was so incredibly insulting to her people that I couldn’t hardly believe she had said it. 

 

I asked her how long she had felt that way and she couldn’t pinpoint when it started but she said the feeling was growing and she was getting more frustrated with her people by the day. 

 

So I offered her these two ideas. I said that she really didn’t need to do anything, the “problem” would soon take care of itself. I said if her team had any brains at all they would soon realize that she didn’t value their input and the input would simply dry up on it’s own. I told her that hurt feelings would be the least of her problems because her team would simply disengage and be far less valuable employees and that the disengagement would be her responsibility. 

 

Then I told her that it wasn’t her team’s responsibility to stop offering ideas and suggestions; it was her responsibility to get down off her high horse and learn to value their opinions. I said if she had hired someone, or allowed someone to be hired, that she couldn’t learn from then she had allowed the wrong person to be hired. 

 

She was pretty quiet. 

 

I reminded her that when she was moving through the ranks that her leaders DID value her opinions and encouraged her to share them frequently. It was one of the big reasons she advanced in the company. I asked her where she would be today if her former bosses had thought of her opinions that same way she was now feeling about her people’s opinions. 

 

Here’s the lesson folks; sometimes we “lead” by letting the people we lead teach us. Sometimes we lead by simply listening to our people. We always lead by demonstrating that we value the people we lead. 

 

If you’re a leader who has gotten so full of yourself that you can’t learn anything from the people you lead then you have gotten to the point that you can no longer actually lead.

 

If you’ve forgotten that you can learn from anyone and everyone then you’ve forgotten how you became a leader in the first place. Get down off that high horse and retrace your path to becoming a leader, you may just be surprised at how much you don’t remember.


By the way, I’m happy to report that my good friend now keeps time open on her calendar each day just to be available for any member of her organization to drop in to her office with ideas, concerns, opinions, and suggestions. She’s a great leader and she already knew all that stuff I told her, she, like everyone else, just needs a reminder once in a while. 

Fake Leadership

There certainly seems to be a lot of news lately about fake stuff. There’s fake news, fake websites, and even fake, or at least disingenuous, people.

 

While much of the “fake stuff” is new and can be mostly attributed to the rise of the internet there is one fake thing that has seemingly always been around. That one fake thing is Fake Leadership.

 

Fake Leadership happens when someone gives the appearance of leadership without really leading. They may have a title or position that indicates they are a leader, they may make big decisions, say big things and even have great success in their careers. But they are missing one necessary characteristic of nearly all Authentic Leaders and absolutely all Authentic Servant Leaders.

 

They do not build people and they do not develop more leaders.

 

Fake Leaders may have tremendous business success but that only proves they were great managers. As I have written on numerous occasions there is a singular distinction between managing and leading….you manage stuff, buildings, inventories, budgets, and plans but you lead people. 

 

Leadership is about people and only people. Many people are blessed with both management and leadership skills but many, many more are not. Frequently when people possess only one of those skill sets the one they possess is management. 

 

A manager builds a successful organization mostly on their own efforts. They outwork and out-think most everyone around them. They are successful albeit a bit selfishly so. But here’s the thing, there’s really not all that much wrong with that, I’d rather be a very successful great manager than a not so successful mediocre leader. 

 

What is wrong with it is when that person claims the mantle of leadership. I don’t know if they are trying to fool themselves or the people they try to manage but either way, if they are not building people they are not a true leader.

 

While a manger builds a successful organization a leader builds people who then build the successful organization. In the case of an Authentic Leader they truly care about the people they build; in the case of an Authentic Servant Leader they may very well care more about the success of their people than they care about their own.

 

A strong manager’s organization will have success as long as the manager is present to ensure it. A leader’s organization will outlast their leadership so long as the leaders they built continue to build people who become leaders themselves. The success of an Authentic Leader can go on virtually forever, the success of an Authentic Servant Leader does go on forever.

 

If you want to know if someone is a leader don’t look at the leader, look at the people around them. If those people are not growing, if they aren’t involved in the decision making process, if they aren’t responsible for at least part of the success, then it’s safe to say that the person above them isn’t really leading. 


If a person isn’t leading, regardless of the title or position they hold then they are simply not a leader. If they say they are then you’ll know they are a fake.