What is the most important quality of a leader?

I recently read an article along with the comments in a discussion forum on the most important qualities for a leader to possess. There were over 28 different qualities put forth ranging from integrity to results oriented to vision.

In thinking about the list, I noticed they really divide into two categories: soft and hard qualities (for example, integrity versus communicator). It got me thinking that the hard qualities like results oriented or listener can possibly be learned skills. But what about the soft qualities like empathy, positive and inspirational? How do they develop?

Reflecting upon leaders I have known and worked with – those rare individuals that are able to inspire, are trustworthy and ethical – there is one quality they all share: authenticity – the ability to consistently be real and show up as they truly are. The Merriam Webster dictionary defines authentic as true to one’s own personality, spirit, or character. I believe that authenticity is the foundation for real leadership.

I propose that being real is intrinsically linked to self-awareness. This is critical to our ability to open up to seeing and developing other leadership qualities. Authenticity is key in developing our humility and courage. This includes being vulnerable and in turn being able to face failures, learn from them and move on. I once worked for a leader who publicly stated he made a mistake about a significant business decision. His ability to admit his failure demonstrated the truth of his character. That is inspirational. That engenders trust. That is leading by example.

From the foundation of authenticity we can layer on qualities like sincerity, purposeful and empathy. A leader who is real is likely better able to bring forth qualities appropriate to the situation. Layered upon the soft qualities are the hard skills like strategic, results oriented, communicator and listener. Don’t get me wrong; these are critical for a leader with corporate responsibilities. But they won’t inspire and motivate others to achieve greatness if they don’t come from a place of authenticity.

How do we become authentic? We choose it. We wake up every single day being aware of who we are and accepting our gifts and our faults. We let others see us in this real and powerful way. We listen carefully to and accept feedback. We are open to learning and don’t assume we are always right. We make it a priority to be compassionate to ourself and to others. It is our practice. We show up exactly as we truly are.

Are you showing up as you really are? Ask yourself these 3 questions:

1. What are my values and what is most important to me?
2. Do I show up at work holding those values front and centre or am I putting on a game face?
3. Am I choosing to share my gifts and failures with others?

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