What’s the one thing all successful leaders have in common?
For thirty years, I have been asked this question and for thirty years I didn’t have a satisfactory answer. I could have made something up, but it wouldn’t have been honest nor valid. Leadership, after all, is a special combination of unique qualities, the balance of which is a varied as the leader themselves.
In leadership development, generalities come to mind: inspirational, focused, innovative, brilliant, and, sometimes a bit nuts. But do any of these characteristics rise above the others?
Was Henry Ford more innovative than focused?
Was Steve Jobs more brilliant than inspirational?
Ask a hundred people and you’ll get a hundred answers. The reality of this leads to two possible conclusions: one, the question itself is rather useless, because no one thing defines a great leader; or, two, a singular identification of the one thing great leaders have in common is elusive and unknown.
The question also assumes that leadership is unchanging; that what made Ford a great leader isn’t so much different than what made Jobs one, too. As we’ll see, I do believe there is truth to the universality of leadership, but I remain skeptical that a resurrected Ford, without a penny to his name, could repeat his stupendous success in the 21st century – or that a time-traveling Jobs would be smoking cigars with the robber-barons of the 19th century. Not to take anything away from either leader, but things have changed and continue to change.
For these reasons, I have been honest when asked this question: I don’t know that “one thing” of all great leaders. I know leaders that did nearly everything right but who were remarkably mediocre in the results they achieved. I also know leaders who did much wrong but were able to achieve amazing results. Then, to confound things even further, I have known leaders who have achieved both amazing success and terrific failure. Same leader, wildly different results.
Then, I had an epiphany: No one ends up on the top of Mt. Everest accidentally.
The defining characteristic that all successful leaders have in common is intentionality. In other words, a climber takes consistent action to get to the top of the world. Likewise, great leaders act consistently to achieve their goals. Mediocre leaders might have a goal, but act inconsistently to get there. Then there are the bad leaders, those with no goal and no consistent action.
The full story is available in my newest book, The Intention Imperative: Three Essential Changes that Will Make You a Better Leader Today, available October 15, 2019.
Mark Sanborn is an award winning speaker and Leadership Expert in Residence at High Point University, the Premier Life Skills University. For more information about his work, visit www.marksanborn.com.