The One Characteristic Of All Great Leaders

“A leader is a dealer in hope.” – Napoleon, MaximsJT, publisher of AHP, pointed out to me the other day that I should have a placard behind my desk that reads, “Been there. Screwed that up too.” But I’ve never allowed ignorance or lack of experience 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 bully people. The only thing that takes is an advantage. A bigger body. A quicker mind. A position of authority. The great thing about great leaders is that they know how to get people they CAN’T bully to follow their lead.

Napoleon, for example, was a guy who had a lot of power. Napoleon could have run his campaigns by threat and force – and maybe he did. But he must have done more than that, because, according to the Duke of Wellington, the mere presence of him on the battlefield made his soldiers braver and stronger.

That’s got to come from something more than fear. My guess is that it has something to do with his vision. (We’ll have to do a little research on Napoleon one of these days to see if this theory holds up . . . but go with me on this for the moment.)

All great leaders do one thing in common: They put into the hearts of their followers a conviction that what they do (which is what the leader asks them to do) has meaning.

I don’t think there is anything else you can add to that. Some leaders carry positive messages, but not all. Some leaders have visions that are brilliant, but not all. Some leaders love their followers. Others ignore them. Some leaders understand exactly what they are searching for. Others have only a vague idea.

I have in mind a good example. But I won’t mention him by name today – I’ve flattered him enough already.

He’s built a large and successful business largely by getting very smart and talented people to work very hard for him. He isn’t, by conventional standards, an inspiring guy. He doesn’t make heart-stirring speeches or send out motivational memos. In fact, he hardly raises his voice. But what he does do is talk a lot about the quality of good ideas – and he allows his best people plenty of freedom to develop them.

If you work in an environment where good thinking is valued and the freedom to develop ideas is fostered, you are very likely to feel good about what you do. And if you feel good about what you do, you will work hard and smart.

Here’s another example . . .

ME, an important direct-mail publisher, has an entirely different leadership style. He is much more hands-on and dogmatic. Yet he gives his people the same thing: The feeling that what they are doing is good and worthwhile. In his case, it is less about creativity and more about quality. ME’s employees feel . . . and with some justification . . . that the products they produce are better than most of those they compete against. This kind of feeling can fuel a long and productive career.

There are obviously a lot of other things to be said about leadership. And there are probably plenty of things you can do to lead more effectively. We’ll talk about those as we go. But for the moment, I think it pays to ask yourself: “Do I give those around me the feeling that what we are doing is good and worthwhile?”

Before you answer that question, ask this: “Do I feel that what I am doing is good and worthwhile?”

[Ed. Note.  Mark Morgan Ford was the creator of Early To Rise. In 2011, Mark retired from ETR and now writes the Palm Beach Letter. His advice, in our opinion, continues to get better and better with every essay, particularly in the controversial ones we have shared today. We encourage you to read everything you can that has been written by Mark.]