This one leadership quality will make or break you

by jeffhilimire on December 23, 2011

@gumboshowjoe passed me an article yesterday titled, “This one leadership quality will make or break you.” Of course I loved this title as I write a lot about leadership on this blog.

As I often do, I decided to write a blog post as if that was the title, before reading the article, to see where I land compared with the original author. So…

The one leadership quality that will make or break you

The answer to this one was tougher to get to than I originally thought. I had several ideas but then as I thought through them I realized that they probably weren’t correct.

Flexibility / Adaptability ~ This was one of the first thoughts I had but then I realized that in certain areas of leadership, such as the military, flexibility isn’t necessarily a quality you need to excel at in order to be successful. As an entrepreneur I think its a must, but for leadership across the board, probably not as much of a requirement.

Positive attitude ~ I talk about this a lot. Being a positive person is one of my mantras, in fact. And I believe you can’t really be great at anything if you don’t have a positive attitude. However, I’ve known people that have been very successful in leadership that haven’t been particularly positive. This is another one that I think I mix up with entrepreneurship. I’ve never met a successful entrepreneur that wasn’t also a positive person.

Others that made the list but had reasons why they didn’t work: Work ethic (I’ve seen lazy people that somehow lead a great team), Not Being a D-Bag (unfortunately I’ve seen plenty of D-bags lead successfully), CollaborationExpertise, and Making the Tough Decision (like I mention in this Netflix post).

All of these, unfortunately, were wrong. Good qualities for a leader to have, but not the make or break quality I was looking for.

So then I started thinking, where have I seen leaders fail and what caused them to be unsuccessful? And then it hit me.

The Ability to Delegate ~ This is the one quality that I believe will make or break leadership. The very essence of the word, leadership, involves that you have people to lead. And you can’t lead people without being good at delegating responsibility.

I’ve seen many leaders who can execute their trade to an incredible level – build the product, deliver the service, etc. – who then have an extremely hard time teaching and trust others to do the work.

But delegating isn’t simply about pushing work down that you don’t want to do yourself. The beauty of effective delegation is that it accomplishes what I think are two of the goals of leadership – actually leading toward the future and developing the skills of your team.

First, it frees up the leader to effectively run the team. When a leader is too deep in the weeds it is hard for them to make sound, long-term decisions. By having people under him/her to make these decisions, the leader can concentrate on making sure that the team is focused on the goals and moving in the right direction. This is CRITICAL to any team’s success.

Second, in order to delegate, you must have capable people to delegate to. Which means you inherently have to be good at hiring the right people, and training and mentoring them in order to get them to a place where they can take on more responsibility.

And sometimes you have to push people to grow on their own; to be able to overcome obstacles by taking matters into their own hands. A good leader doesn’t simply show someone the answer.  Sometimes its better if the team member gets there on their own. It’s one of the things I do as a leader that often pisses off my employees. This is another form of delegating – you’re delegating the decision-making process to your team member so over time they can build that skill themselves.

So what did the original author say was the one leadership quality that will make or break you? Pursuit. It’s a well written article and I can’t argue too much with his logic, but I feel like pursuit is too generic and applies to pretty much everything. That’s kind of like saying “Excellence” – excellence at delegating, excellence at decision-making, excellence at mentoring… Feels like a cop out to me, but I can’t disagree with what he writes in his article.

PS – As I reflect on this post, I like where I landed. I honestly didn’t know where I would end up until I got mid-way through writing this. However, I believe I could have gone another route and landed at this: Putting the right people in the right job at the right time. I have many thoughts on this particular quality, so I’m going to have to explore that in another post. For now I’m sticking with The Ability to Delegate as I think its the killer skill set of an effective leader.

  • Anonymous

    As your first development “manager” over a decade ago, I concur that delegation is the key skill. I was just reading eMyth which defines delegation as assigning authority without abdicating responsibility, I like that.

  • Thomas L. Strickland

    Pursuit is a curiously flawed recommendation. A dog can chase its tail all day, after all.

  • Joe Koufman

    I still like the authors original post.  Pursuit can be vague, but when applied to business, it means that one has the tenacity to overcome obstacles.  

    You embody this characteristic, and have since I have know you.  You pursued your first clients at NBN Designs back in the UNC Charlotte days with Raj.  You pursued the next phase of growth as you moved from a two person partnership into a viable company and rebranded to become Spunlogic.  You pursued progressively larger offices as the company grew in capabilities and headcount.  You pursued what became the DIG (Digital Innovation Group) team as you saw digital marketing and marketing in general changing.  You pursued an acquisition partner who would be complimentary to the Spunlogic philosophy and culture (Engauge).  Then finally you pursued the presidency of Engauge when you realized that you were not challenging yourself enough in your previous position.  You have embodied the leadership trait that the author highlighted in his story.  

    Are you a good delegator, yes.  Is this your most important quality as a leader?  No.  

    I know great leaders who do not delegate well.  They make good decisions and set an excellent example, but they are not focused directly on building a team.

  • http://www.jeffhilimire.com Jeff Hilimire

    I agree TS, you nailed it. Pursuit is great but its too general and you could argue that the pursuit of the wrong things (greed, power) are the opposite of what makes a great leader. It’s why I feel that you can’t just say “pursuit”, its too vanilla and ambiguous.

  • TS

    TS.   Not TS.

  • http://www.jeffhilimire.com Jeff Hilimire

    LOL, I thought of that as soon as I wrote TS…should have done TLS ;)

    Go Hoosiers!

  • http://www.jeffhilimire.com Jeff Hilimire

    Thanks @gumboshowjoe:disqus, appreciate it. So building on your belief that pursuit is the ultimate characteristic of a great leader, is there a way to be more specific around that? Because to me the general word “pursuit” can go in a negative direction, as I mentioned above in reply to TLS. One could pursue greed and power.

    So, the pursuit of…

  • Joe Koufman

    Pursuit of badassness for the entire organization.

  • Anonymous

    I like tenacity — I relate to that comment. I recall in one of the annual evaluations for 2010 that Travis (@shadowspires) mentioned to me that fel it was one of my best characteristics. :)

  • Joe Koufman

    Pursuit of badassness for the entire organization.

  • TS

    Go Hoosiers, indeed.  Your favorite adopted college bball team is relevant again  (and there was much rejoicing in Hoosier Nation)!  You should feel a strong sense of pride that your dogged determination and general tenacious pursuit has undoubtedly helped to push them back on to the map of the college basketball landscape.  :)

  • Dave Williams

    A great leader can visualize the future for the business/industry and bring together the right mix of resources, tactics and strategy to realize the opportunity and vision.

  • http://twitter.com/lizazzolino Lizzie Azzolino

    Great article, Jeff. A lot of people delegate, but not necessarily well or for the right reasons. Very good quality to perfect.

    I’d add “being honest” to the list. Honest with yourself (knowing the right thing to do, to make the tough decisions), and honest with those you lead (which gains incredible respect).

  • charlie richards

    Gotta disagree with your assessment of flexibility/adaptability, Jeff.  I don’t disagree with your ultimate conclusion about the ability to delegate, but any leader needs to be flexible and adaptable, including (and perhaps especially) military leaders.  

  • http://www.jeffhilimire.com Jeff Hilimire

    I can absolutely see your point here. I guess the difference I was seeing, perhaps incorrectly, is that there are times when if a military leader decides to take a risk, and not to use the famous line from A Few Good Men, but “people die”. So in the military there must be more conformity and protocol than in business leadership, which is why I was thinking that those skill sets are less important than delegation.

    Btw, I should also point out I talk a lot on this blog about the benefits of being flexible, nimble, adaptable, etc. This post was more focused on what the #1 leadership characteristic is, if you had to pick just one.

  • Lindsay Reene

    Great post. Love that it’s both sharing the knowledge to empower others as well as teaching them to grow so that they are capable. However, one of my memorable learnings from your blog is about aligning people in the right place at the right time. I’ve personally experienced what it can be like before and after that transition (of finding the right place for an individual), and the difference was stunning to see that individual come alive. Appreciate your perspective, as always. Thanks, Jeff!

  • Lindsay Reene

    Great point, Lizzie. Honest with others and (even more difficult, sometimes), honest with oneself. Boils down to integrity :)

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