The One Characteristic of All Great Leaders

I am not a great leader. But I’ve never allowed lack of credentials to stand in the way of a good opinion. And so I won’t hesitate to tell you what I think is the most important quality of a good leader.

Let’s start by stating the obvious: A good leader is one who inspires people to follow. It is not someone who uses force to push people to do things against their will.

It’s no great talent to lead by force. One needs only a sizeable advantage. That could be a bigger, stronger body. Or a quicker mind. In business and politics, it is usually a position of authority. But the great thing about great leaders is that they know how to get people they can’t bully – people that are their equals or superiors – to follow their lead.

There are many ways to improve your leadership skills. You can become a more fluid speaker. You can become a skillful negotiator. You can become a better listener. But if you read books on leadership (I have, but reluctantly), you will probably conclude that the primary attribute of great leadership is vision.

It’s not hard to understand why vision is so often cited as the most important leadership quality. Looking back at men and women that have changed the world, we look at that change and retroactively attribute to those leaders the ability to foresee and communicate a better future.

But I think that’s a false inference. When I think about the best leaders I know, I see another quality they have in common: They make their followers believe that their mission has meaning.

Visualizing a bright and shiny future can be inspiring. But inspiration soon fades if there is not something more solid on which to anchor it. And that solid thing is the conviction that what they are advocating is good and important.

I’ve worked with many successful business leaders. And I’ve worked with a few that I’d call great. The first one that comes to mind is a very bright man, but he doesn’t flaunt his intelligence. Nor does he use it to pummel others into doing what he wants. He has always had a vision for his business, but it has been an indistinct one and has changed over time. Moreover, he rarely talks about it.

But what he does do is talk modestly but frequently about the value of the ideas his company is in the business of promoting. It could be said that he is almost single-minded in this regard.

Because he doesn’t make motivating speeches or give specific directions or paint inspiring pictures, his employees feel that they are free to follow their own instincts and develop their products and services as they see fit. As a result, there are lots of other driving forces in the culture of his company. There is the excitement of competition, the opportunity to make tons of money, and the freedom to follow one’s own path. But the cement that holds everything together is the belief that “what we are doing” is somehow better than “what they are doing.” Better for and more useful to the customers. And, therefore, something to be proud of.

Some successful leaders have the ability to make stirring speeches. Some don’t. Some are charismatic. Some are shy. Some are brilliant. Some have ordinary intellects. Some love their followers. Some don’t display affection. Some always understand exactly what should be done. Some have only a vague idea.

But only those that can make others feel that their work is both significant and also worthy can accomplish great things. Only those deserve to be called great leaders.