What Qualities Make a Successful Leader?

Why do people choose to do business with one person and not another? What qualities make successful leaders? I was recently asked how what qualities people seek in a leader. The conversation went like this:

Q: “What makes us choose one individual over others for a leadership position?”

A: Various factors, depending on the position and individual circumstances. In general, however, here’s my short list:

  • “Ideology, bias confirmation, personal appeal. In rare instances, thoughtful analysis.”

Q: What do you mean by personal appeal? Charm? A work record in what area? What if none of the candidates had a leadership role before? What strengths would you look for?

A: Personal appeal = charisma. What I look for is an ability to lead and influence. That is:

  • Good at working cross functionally, empowering and inspiring reports to perform at their best, and a good communicator up down and sideways, internally and externally;
  • Strategic thinking with a focus on the customer and the key metrics of success;
  • Professional knowledge and integrity.

Q: Sounds like they would be confident, self-assured and focused then. I think what makes a person charismatic is their level of confidence and self-assurance, no?

A: I believe that’s a goodly component of it. But wouldn’t a person also need to be relate-able and persuasive, so as not to be perceived as just a smug fake?

Q: So you don’t think they’re being themselves? I mean, I read Bill Clinton’s autobiography and realized from that he had an extremely boring life. I mean, it was full of just political career preparation through out the whole thing. He was like a well-oiled machine for one task only. Out of the political sphere he was practically absent.

A: Bill Clinton is a career-driven/goal-oriented achiever for whom image making is just another important part of the job. However,  I think part of his appeal stems from the ability to project a sincere empathy and comfort around diverse groups of people (“I feel your pain.”) Barach Obama projects a similiar appeal, but it is dampened by a more introverted, wonkish image.

“Being themselves” is a good way of noting that beneath the carefully preparation, a sense of what the individual’s natural tendencies are emerges through a combination of verbal and nonverbal cues.

The Myth of Exceptionalism

One definition of influence is:

“a force one person (the agent) exerts on someone else (the target) to induce a change in the target, including changes in behaviors, opinions, attitudes, goals, needs and values” and “the ability to affect the behavior of others in a particular direction.” To influence, a leader uses strategies or tactics, actual behaviors designed to change another person’s attitudes, beliefs, values or actions.

But what does that working definition actually tell us about the qualities required to wield influence? Exactly nothing.

The conversation around leadership and influence tends to be vague and abstract like this, focusing either on the hard (technique; a set of skills that only the most empowered can bring to bear) or the soft (innate exceptional qualities that can’t be defined or reproduced.)

Framing leadership as either a hard or soft skill, with no gradation in between contains within it a specific fallacious premise of exceptionalism. Whether leadership is perceived as an innate quality or the quality of a rare self-made individual, leadership is still held beyond the reach of the common person. Whether a leader is anointed by heaven or self-made, (s)he is privileged to possess an exceptional talent of the ratified few.  Leadership is seldom presented as a worksman-like skill that any diligent, thoughtful employee can learn, practice and develop.

What is most unhelpful about this mythology of leadership is that it can lead to: arbitrary promotions based on personal connections rather than merit (which is detrimental to the organization); or disparagement of individual initiative, ambition and self-development (detrimental to the both the individual and the organization.

Bringing the Hard and The Soft Together

If we aim to create more effective organizations, we need to take the myth of exceptionalism out of management. We need to encourage, develop and reward merit rather than privilege and personal connections.

Influence and Leadership are not the domain of the ratified few but the product of hard skills, including organization, communication, and cross-functional project leadership, and soft skills, including interpersonal communication and, yes, that factor of personal appeal. This is why we judge some individuals in positions of power to be effective and others, not.

The aim of the organization should be to develop well balanced leaders who can bring hard and soft skills together.

The Soft Skills: Personal Appeal

Regarding the soft skills, the charisma factor need not, and should not, be a predominant component. As demonstrated by the example of ex president George W. Bush, who was elected partly because of the factor of personal appeal (“someone you could have a beer with”) but lacked the hard skills to make wise decisions when in office, it is a combination of hard and soft skills that makes for a well balanced leader.

What is personal appeal, and can it be developed? People tend to find appeal from the ability to identify with someone. This effect holds very strongly in business: people want to do business with people who are “like me.” For instance, Hispanic customers will wait long periods in a bank to do business with an Hispanic banker, and South Asian customers will come into a bank branch outside their communities to meet with an Indian or Pakistani representative.

This argues for diversity in the workplace, but it also argues that employees need to develop a diverse mindset – the ability to develop empathy and champion the customer – both the internal and external customers. The most successful marketers are the ones who represent the internal voice of the external customer.

For example, take Presidential Candidate Mitt Romney. His campaign has been hampered by the perception that he is privileged and out of touch with the middle class. There is a sense of stiffness and inability to relate to the common person. Still, entrepreneur Mark Cuban is willing to overlook these personal limitations because he senses that, as a businessman, he is “someone like me.” The effect is so powerful that, even though candidate Romney’s tax plan remains vague and muddled, Mark Cuban comes away with a favorable opinion of it nonetheless. In his article, My Opinion On The Governor Romney Tax Plan, Mr. Cuban explains the essence of Mr. Romney’s appeal for him:

I see some of me in him. When it comes to my companies, I know what i want to do and I have complete confidence that I will get to where i need to go. I might not always get there, but I tend to only get into businesses and battles where I am extremely confident I can come out ahead. My failures have never stopped me from having absolute confidence in how I approach business. I have the feeling that Governor Romney has this trait to a far greater degree than even I do. No failure will ever slow down Governor Romney’s confidence.

Mr. Cuban is willing to give a pass to Governor Romney’s vagueness on policy because he sees the measure of the man as the success factor.  Because “that’s how I am, and I see myself in him.”

I am not advocating mirroring as a qualification for leadership. Governor Romney has changed his position every which way the winds blow, and therefore appears to have a serious deficit in the area of integrity.   Manipulative gimmickry is no substitute for real empathy and the willingness to reach out, listen, understand and help people by focusing on their needs, rather than one’s own – a diverse mindset.


Personal appeal is not something that should be cultivated in lieu of hard skills, effort and integrity. But it has its place and impacts not just image, but performance. The key to soft leadership skills is that in the business environment, one must report up, as well as down and laterally by delivering the perception of value that each stakeholder wants. For the CEO, bottom line metrics on how a marketing campaign has moved the needle and resulting in increased acquisitions, engagement and retention are more important than how many clicks a site has garnered. For the CIO, it may be the opposite. Fortunately, soft leadership skills, like hard skills can be cultivated.

Marketing and leadership are commonly misunderstood as the projection of some kind of air of authority. In fact, both disciplines require that one meet customers’ needs. Whether you are marketing to consumer groups, or reporting to a CEO, you need to grasp what it is they expect and deliver accordingly.