The Single Most Important Quality of Leadership


A little girl was born in a small village in Albania on Aug 26th 1910. She was given the name Agnes by her parents. When she grew up she became a teacher and taught at a school. At the place where she taught, she would often hear cries on the street outside the school walls. Later she found out those were the cries of the poor on the streets. One day, she decided she wanted to help the poor and set out into the streets and made a little make-shift hut. She knelt in the dirt and used a stick to write the letters of the alphabet on the ground. Becoming curious, the poor children came over to investigate what this little lady was doing in the dirt. Slowly, the children came to learn. Soon, there were thirty children crouching on the ground beside her, learning to read and write.

After she taught them, she would beg for food to feed them. Some who had been her students at the school where she used to teach came to work with her to help the children. They would go to stores and ask for leftover food that would otherwise be thrown away. Soon, more and more people came to help – some would offer a place to stay and some gave medical supplies. Agnes had sparked a movement that got the attention of her superiors at the school, and it went all the way up to top management. Management having seen what she had done decided to give her the resources so that she may set up a proper support and structure to help the poor.

She later on came to be known as Mother Theresa and she made it her mission to help the poorest of the poor in India.

What is it about Mother Theresa that made her do those things she did and attracted others to follow her and help her in her cause?

She has what I would call personal leadership. Personal leadership, not positional leadership. She has no formal authority from a position she holds. She’s a regular person like you and me, working in a place, a school just like any organization out there. She is not a manager, she is not a team leader but make no mistake, she is a leader. She exercises her personal leadership. This is something that all of us have and we have a choice whether to embrace it. When we exercise our personal leadership, we are just simply being ourselves, we are just behaving naturally and our focus is to genuinely help others. That’s it. Personal leadership is about helping others, about looking out for the person to the left of you and to the right of you. It’s about caring for your colleagues. When we do this, something magical happens. Trust comes about. When people feel that you genuinely care about them and look out for them, they feel safe. When they feel safe, they start to trust you. When they trust you, they come to you for advice even if you’re not offering it. They listen to you. They would follow your lead. It works the other way too. If you feel your colleague genuinely looks out for your interest, you would trust them too, and follow their lead.

So, trust comes about when people feel safe. And they feel safe if they know and believe that you are looking out for their interest.

I’m sure you have friends that you trust or you trust your family members. Why? Because you know that they will look out for you – you feel safe to tell them things, to share your sorrow and your joy. That family member of yours whom you listen to is exercising his/her personal leadership.

I have a good friend whom I see exercises her personal leadership but she tells me doesn’t see herself as a leader and she has no interest whatsoever to be a leader!

So I asked her, those friends of yours – they always come to you for advice on what to do with their challenges – they seek you out for advice. She says “Yeah, they always do, I don’t know why. They like to come to me”

I said to her “Do you know why? It’s because they trust you! They know you have their interest at heart and would genuinely help them out where you can”

That’s leadership!

Trust is a funny thing – you can’t ask for it. You can’t ask someone else and say to him “Give me your trust!” You cannot go to your team and say “Trust me, this will work out” That’s not how it works. Trust is a feeling… it is an outcome – Trust has to be earned and trust comes about when people believe you genuinely care for them and look out for them. Then they feel safe and then trust develops. I believe that a person’s intention to genuinely help and care for others is the single most important factor that builds trust with another person – and when someone does that he/she is exercising his/her personal leadership. I believe care for others is the single most important quality that makes a person a leader . Different studies have shown this to be the case (follow my Twitter feed @cchewns or FlipBoard topic Personal Leadership to read the research and findings about this).

Another useful concept is to think of trust like a bank account. Do things that increases the trust such as being reliable and your trust with others will strengthen.

You can also disclose more about yourself, your interests and other aspects of yourself besides work so that others get to know you more intimately as a person. This will build greater trust because when you open yourself up to others, others will start to open themselves up and greater trust develops. Let’s call this Intimacy.

Know your stuff – really know what you do well because when you help someone who comes to you or who follows what you tell him, you’re giving you solid advice based on what you know, not what you don’t know or what you think you know but not very sure. We can call this Competence.

There is a useful trust equation from Charles Green that captures this nicely

Trust = Competence + Reliability + Intimacy


Self Orientation

Focusing less on self (i.e. self-orientation) and caring for others will increase trust dramatically.

If you are in a formal position of authority say a team leader or manager, doing things that show you care and look out for your people, doing what you said you would and being open and personal with your people will help create strong bonds of trust and cooperation. This is truly what is at the heart of leadership – if you take care for your people, your people will reciprocate and take care of you, the team and the organisation. The saying that ” People don’t care what you know until they know that you care” applies here – People don’t really care inside even though you are a their formal leader until they know that you really care about them.

I believe that if every one of us, whether we are the most junior worker, manager, director or CEO, if we embrace and exercise our personal leadership, there would be this circle of trust and safety at the workplace – and the organization would be so much more effective. Staff will be so much more engaged and so much more fulfilled at work.

I’ll leave you with a final thought:

Every single one of us, you and me has inside of us, this capacity for personal leadership – it’s not about being the boss or someone with authority. It’s simply being ourselves and nurturing or developing our very human instinct to genuinely help and care for the people around us. I urge you my friends, embrace your personal leadership.


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