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The First Two Qualities of a True Business Leader

A leader is not just anyone who people follow, for people may follow a person for many reasons. In business, a leader is anyone who can think out and set goals that are attractive to both businesses and employees and also can attract and influence followers to share those goals. The old school leadership version of command and control is good in the military. In a business workplace where the business's ability to attract and retain talent, and consequently profit, depends upon humans possessing extensive freedom of choice, a leader requires entirely different attributes.

The first two qualities of a business leader:
The First Two Qualities of a True Business Leader

Trustworthiness: This attribute unanimously tops the chart. Honesty and integrity in thought and action are at the core of leadership. Commitments made to others are more precious than personal gain, and when things go wrong, a leader does not attribute blame to others but shares the responsibility of failure. It is essential for a leader to maintain this image in the workspace.

How people assess trustworthiness is exemplified in this little anecdote from the life of Robin Hart, former chairman of Heublein and president of Colgate-Palmolive: In his early career, Hart used to sell adding machines to small stores. His employer did not provide any training, just gave him the samples and sent him straight to the field. He was too nervous to enter a store. Finally, close to the end of his first day in sales, he summoned enough courage to approach a store owner who was uninterested in the product. According to Hart's version:
“I asked, ‘Would you at least look at them?' So the store owner started asking me questions, and I kept on saying, ‘I don't know, but I'll find out.' Finally the owner agreed to purchase an adding machine. I was mystified, and asked him why he finally relented. He replied, ‘Anyone who has a salesman as honest as you are must have a good product.' That was one of the greatest things that ever happened to me. It's something that I never forgot – be honest and tell the truth.” (From biographical information provided for the Horatio Alger Awards television show, 1994)

Fairness: If you are not perceived as fair, you have no hopes as a business leader. You can still force people to obey your commands, but that's much different from what business leaders strive for. Careless or abusive use of authority severely undermines the value of that authority. A boss who is perceived as unfair is the one who has to get work done by threats and does not lead people by the heart. Both qualitative and quantitative productivity is bound to suffer where the person in authority behaves unfairly. This is particularly the case in modern America, though, in many underdeveloped parts of the world, this is not a concern. Americans are seldom known to forgive unfairness, though they forgive much.

Trustworthiness and fairness go together, and are the first two qualities followers seek in a leader and want to be assured of before giving their loyalties.

Reference: Marvin Bower, "Developing Leaders in a Business," The McKinsey Quarterly, no. 4 (1997)