The one quality only great leaders possess

This week I came across a post on a LinkedIn group that poses the question “What is the single most important aspect of leadership?”

This post has had over a thousand different replies, which all have valid points and opinions. This has stimulated a number of memories and thoughts – firstly with over a thousand different replies, how complex leadership can be… secondly of my own experience being a leader and a follower and thirdly of the research I have done with over 500 individuals over the last 3-4 years.

Watch the post on YouTube here:

With all of the people I have interviewed about the different aspects of leadership, I always asked two common questions… 1. What is the single most important part of being a leader? and 2. What is the single most important thing you want from a leader when you follow them?

The answers about being a leader are answered from a leaders perspective and have a variety of different answers, with vision setting, clear communication, supportiveness and listening being the most popular answers.

The answers from the followers perspective differ… Again with various answers, but TRUST being the stand-out answer.

Maybe then… when discussing leadership… we should take the followers perspective as the most valuable?

Leadership is never about the leader… It is always about the followers. Without followers you are not a leader. Followers are not automatically the people who work for you… They work for you because it’s their job… they will follow you when they decide too!

What has this got to do with autonomy?

Instead of asking ‘How can I motivate people?’ we should be asking ‘How can I create the conditions within which people will motivate themselves?’

Edward Deci

Everything, really… It’s about motivation. Real motivation. Intrinsic motivation. The type of motivation where the desirable behaviours last… Not just while they are being measured, not just while they are rewarded… They last because the people acting out these behaviours believe them to be right, believe them to be true.

This intrinsic motivation has other benefits too… effort and attainment.
You know the difference yourself… how much energy, passion and desire do you put into doing the things you like? The things you love?
Now think about how much energy, passion and desire you put into the things you are ordered to do? The things that you are forced to do? The things that you are commanded to do?

The answer, when doing the things you love, is easy… you put loads of effort in and you were probably really good at it too!

The answer to the second question is a little more complex… Either you will comply with the right amount of energy to deliver on the expectation (not more though… And absolutely not everything you can give) and only deliver on that behaviour while it is being measured.


You will rebel and demonstrate counter-productive behaviours.
Neither outcome is positive or good for the follower, leader, customer or company!

So… as leaders we need our followers to demonstrate desirable behaviours… Behaviours that our followers believe in, that they put in huge effort and they demonstrate these behaviours even when it’s not managed, commanded or rewarded!

Imagine that world… where your team puts in maximum effort and delivers maximum attainment… just because they believe it’s the right thing to do… because they believe in you!

Is that realistic? YES… here is the proof… think about when you were the most engaged, most motivated, put in the most effort, had the most fun and had the best boss…

Now answer the following… At that moment in time were you being controlled, micro-managed or pushed into a particular behaviour?


Did your boss trust you? Were you allowed autonomy to get the results your way? Did you believe in what you were doing?

I’m guessing you performed best in an environment of trust and autonomy… If you do, then your followers will too!


Is giving trust and autonomy too much to ask of a leader?

Let’s consider the following… autonomy DOES NOT mean independence… when working in an autonomy supportive environment followers still have rules, still have to work together and still have to aim for a specific vision… the autonomy comes because followers decide (within the remits) how to get to the vision.

Autonomy is the ability to choose HOW to achieve the desirable behaviours in creating the vision.

So… is it too much to ask of a leader?

Not if you want to be a leader… Not if you can communicate a compelling vision to all, not if you are prepared to ensure your followers understand the goals and the remit they can work in.

Your followers will become more than they imagined if you do… deliver more than you imagined too!

For the pessimistic out there… Yes, you might have some that don’t believe in your vision and try to take advantage of your trust… HOWEVER these people are a minority and will become extremely obvious very quickly within your highly engaged team, so you can support these individuals in the appropriate manner…

The alternative is you control your whole team… Don’t allow autonomy… reduce engagement, reduce potential and reduce performance… all the while those individuals who will never believe and try to take advantage (the ones you can identify in a highly engaged team) suddenly become less obvious… and slowly, quietly rot your team further from the inside… You know the saying… one bad apple…

So… trust and allowing autonomy is the most vital aspect to leadership… Your own experience demonstrates it is true…

It provides… intrinsic motivation, followers who believe what you believe, more engagement, more effort, more attainment, more than what is normally possible… and it allows you to ensure there are no bad apples.

Give trust… Give it for free… Give it with joy… Give your followers a leader!


Images courtesy of

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