What is the Most Important Quality a Leader Should Have?

By reframing this question, we arrive at an important answer.

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We see this question pop up regularly in articles and posts on media sites such as Inc., Entrepreneur, Fast Company, and many others; even here on LinkedIn it makes an appearance here and there.

It has a bit of a click-bait-ish quality to it, yet most of us can’t help but add our favorite tip-of-the-tongue answer to the contest, if only virtually, by reflexively considering one or two characteristics, without actually typing them in the comments section.

Intuitively we know, of course, that any answer to that question would carry about as much weight as a definitive answer to “What’s the most important organ in the human body?” The heart? The brain? The lungs? The skin?

Fall for it and see how your response invites an endless stream of “but what abouts” in rapid succession.

But tweak the leadership question to “What is an important quality an effective leader can’t do without?”, and a few of the responses could spark an interesting conversation.

For me, that quality would have to be the genuine concern for the physical, mental, and emotional well-being of people.

And by people, I mean mainly employees. Yes, customers, potential customers, shareholders, vendors, suppliers, and any other stakeholder group businesses deal with, directly or indirectly, are among the people a leader must engage, and do so with empathy and a keen understanding of their values and interests. But without employees, the people that get the actual work done, none of those other stakeholder groups exist.   

So if a deep concern for one’s employees sounds a bit touchy-feely, consider that an entire body of scientific research supports the idea that the so-called soft skill of “genuine concern for the well-being of people”, i.e. having the human touch, consistently drives organizational performance and profitability.

Here are just a few business outcomes leaders who care about others affect:

  • Organizational culture flourishes when leaders demonstrate they care about people’s growth and happiness.
  • Employees are more satisfied and committed when they know their leaders care about their overall well-being.
  • Employee turnover is reduced when leaders demonstrate warmth and compassion in interpersonal encounters.  
  • Fewer employees “think about quitting” when they know leaders appreciate them and want their best.
  • Innovation thrives where leaders ensure all employees enjoy psychological safety to take risks and learn from mistakes.
  • Engagement and productivity increase when leaders invest in positive relationships with employees.
  • Customer satisfaction soars when employees feel their leaders support them and help them succeed in serving their clients.
  • Satisfaction with pay increases when employees feel their leaders genuinely care about their emotional well-being.
  • Ability to recruit top talent improves when leaders treat employees with dignity and respect.

Most people don’t require a definition of caring any more than they need to know what Webster’s says about hunger. However, in this case some guidance can be helpful because taking a personal interest in others too often gets the superficial treatment of bringing donuts to the office or “getting the gang together for happy hour”.

Instead of a perfunctory nod to social intelligence, we can: acknowledge contributions, ask for input or advice, check in on someone when they appear to be upset, remember the last conversation and pick up from there, schedule an informal lunch just to get to know the person, send an uplifting text, like, “Hey, just wanted to wish you a good day!”, include someone in a private conversation, inquire about someone’s favorite pastime or passion, ask how we can support someone on a difficult project, show curiosity about career goals and aspirations and think of ways to help, share something personal of emotional relevance, give autonomy in performing tasks, offer to mentor or sponsor someone, ask for feedback, listen with intention when someone speaks.

There’s no end to the ideas for building genuine human connections, and all it takes is the intention to do so and a modicum of effort to make the first step.  

All leaders are judged on their ability to deliver outcomes critical to the organization. Eventually, depending on leadership level, those outcomes will have to be accomplished entirely through others, compelling leaders to get out of the weeds and operate at a higher level, focusing on mentoring, coaching, inspiring and otherwise influencing their teams to cooperate and collaborate and perform at the highest levels to meet organizational goals.

And if the earlier-mentioned measurable business outcomes aren’t convincing enough to develop more of an interest in the well-being of one’s employees, pure self-interest may be a catalyst, as my experience coaching senior leaders over the past two decades tells me that the enormous responsibility of leadership is much easier to bear and more enjoyable when you genuinely care about the people with whom you work, and you consistently show it.  

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