[April 22, 2015] I’ve often been asked a basic question on leadership, “What is the most important leadership characteristic?” Of course there is no easy answer for the simple reason that no single characteristic can encompass all the necessary traits to make a great and successful leader. Regrettably, I was never able to give a response that I considered satisfactory.
If you ask any senior leader about this, they will correctly tell you there are many leadership characteristics and among them are: integrity, trustworthiness, passion, flexibility, good communicator, ability to inspire, positive attitude – or some variant of these. All these interrelate with one another, along with the leadership style of the leader and the environment in which the leader operates. These directly affect everyone and the best of leaders create a positive workplace where creative ideas and relevant risk taking are rewarded.
Rarely heard is that “caring” is the most important leadership characteristic. My personal belief is that caring is the cornerstone for any great leader. The leader must care about their organization (or country, or group) and the mission, and as well, care about their people. Ultimately it is people that must be the focus of the leader because they are the ones that make the leader successful … or not. People can also see whether the leader cares and act accordingly.
Caring, as a critical characteristic of a great leader, comes with a caveat. That caveat – or warning – is that caring can also lead to evil deeds by some leaders. Hitler, Mussolini, and Stalin are examples of senior leaders who cared a great deal about their country. Caring was insufficient to prevent evil and that is why caring must be accompanied by those traits mentioned earlier. Without some other personal traits, the end results are not predictable; only that those leaders will be successful (as defined in a narrow sense). Hitler, Mussolini, and Stalin were great at leadership (the mission) but also wrecked death and destruction on their own citizens and that of others (the people).
Thus, caring is the most important leader characteristic; whether a newly minted manager, mid-grade officer, or senior official … caring only when accompanied by other positive traits. If they don’t care, they will not be great or successful.
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