Leadership: The Single Most Important Trait of Success

Lou Adler
The Adler Group • lou@adlerconcepts.com

Probably everyone knows this already, but it’s worth a reminder. There is one competency that overrides all others combined. I call it the master competency. In fact, during an interview you only need to assess a person for this one single competency to determine if the person is a good fit for the job. To make it even easier, you only need to ask one question to determine if the candidate possesses this trait or not.

Of course, the competency I’m putting on this grand pedestal is LEADERSHIP. But leadership has a lot of different forms, and this is where things get a little more complicated.

Up until recently, I put leadership on par with other important traits of success, but it wasn’t in my top three. Before now, my top three were competency to do the work, motivation to do the work, and team skills. From my experience, if a candidate could demonstrate that he or she had these three traits in spades, there was a 75% to 80% confidence level that the person would be a top-third performer. When I added leadership into the mix, the confidence level increased to 80% to 90% for a top 10% performer.

For definition purposes, competency to do the work means that the person possesses all of the skills and abilities required to do the work or has the potential to learn whatever is necessary. Motivation to do the work is even more important than competency to do it. This has to do with work ethic, drive for results, and interest. The most common mistake is hiring someone who is competent to do the work but not motivated to do it; that’s why motivation to do the work is so important. Team skills relate to all of the issues involved in working with others including cooperation, influencing, supporting, and listening, among others.

The reason leadership is the most important trait of them all is that it requires the collective combination of these three critical traits to pull it off. In my new model, competency, motivation, and team skills are a subset of leadership. You need them all to be a leader. If you consider all traits and competencies to be in a hierarchy, leadership would be at the top, and competency, motivation, and team skills would be on the second row.

Other competencies like organization and planning, creativity, problem solving, and decision-making would be on the third row. If your company has a competency model, you might want to develop some type of hierarchy like this. As you’ll soon discover, if you measure only leadership during the course of the interview you’re actually measuring every other competency and skill at the same time. And as those of you who have tried it out know, my one-question interview is all you’ll need to use to assess leadership skills.

Here’s the high-level take on how this is done. First, ask the hiring manager where leadership needs to be applied to be truly successful on the job. You’ll get stuff like lead a team, create a new product, overcome resistance to change, improve a process, implement a new system, solve a series of problems, or open a new territory.

For a retail floor position, leadership might be evidenced by the person meeting every customer who walks into the department. For a senior executive, it might be building a new team to change the company’s strategic direction. For an engineer, it might be leading the design effort on a new product. To be a top performer, leadership is required to some degree in every job at every level.

At some level, it’s taking the initiative to do more than required. So if you want to hire more leaders, the one question you need to ask them is where they¹ve taken a leadership role.

I’ve been doing a lot of interviewing of late for positions as diverse as a sales manager for a company that prints safety brochures, senior-level consultants for international financial assignments, and marketing executives in high technology. Once I knew where leadership was required in each job, all I had to do was ask the candidates to give me examples of where they demonstrated comparable leadership. In the case of printing safety brochures, it was developing and growing a team of super salespeople and opening up new distribution channels. For the consulting assignment, it was getting more business.

With the international investment banks and creating a new method of evaluating international financial risk. For high-tech marketing, it was leading the effort to create a long-term product road map and building the team to do it.

No matter what anybody else tells you, interviewing is easy if you know what you’re looking for. Just ask the person to give you a detailed example of something that person accomplished related to what you need done. I asked the candidates for the printing position to give me examples of where they led the training and development of a sales team. For the consulting candidates, I asked them to give me examples of where they built new business and how they evaluated financial risk. For the marketing executives, I got examples of the most significant product road maps they created. Of course, none of the people gave me the right answer right away.

Asking the question is easy; getting the answers requires a bit of digging. This is where fact-finding is critical. I needed to follow up to have the candidates give me specific details of the projects, when they occurred, the role they played, the results achieved, the plans they made, how and why they took different actions, the problems they solved and the ones they didn’t.

After digging for about 10-15 minutes, I got a good picture of how well the candidates led their respective efforts. I then compared what the person accomplished to what needed to be accomplished to determine fit.

What’s really interesting is that when asking about leadership, you get insight into everything that makes up leadership.

This is stuff like technical competency, motivation to do the work, team skills, commitment to succeed, drive for results, management style, cultural fit, attitude, personality, problem solving, decision making, tolerance for risk, communication skills, and potential for growth. Wow!

By asking the same leadership question for a variety of projects over different time spans in different jobs and with different companies, I could observe the growth of leadership over an extended period of time. You can do this if you’re hiring entry-level people for a retail store or a quick service restaurant. We did this for REI Coop, In-N-Out Burger, Chuckie Cheese, and Arby’s. We did something similar for the YMCA in hiring camp counselors.

Just ask your candidates for multiple examples of where they’ve taken a leadership role in any type of work or project. It could be school, church, charities, clubs, sports, or part-time jobs. The best people take leadership roles all of the time, whether they¹re 15 or 50.

From now on just look for leadership traits in the people you hire. Then hire those that have taken a leadership role in what you want done. The one common trait of all successful people is leadership.

To become a leader, you need to work hard, have the right set of skills and abilities, and work well with others.

However, working hard, having the skills, and working well with others doesn’t always mean you¹ll be leader. It means you’ll be a great employee.

That’s why looking for leaders who have accomplished something similar or comparable to what you need accomplished is the key to consistently hiring top people.

Leadership comes first. Everything else is second. Focus on this one trait using this one question and you’ll be as good an interviewer as you ever need to be.

The Adler Group is a training and consulting firm helping companies make hiring top talent a more systematic process (www.adlerconcepts.com). His Amazon best-seller, Hire With Your Head (John Wiley & Sons, 1997, 2002), started the performance-based hiring and selection movement. This was followed-up with the award-winning Nightingale Conant audio tape program, POWER HIRING: How to Find, Assess, Hire and Keep Great Talent (1998). His latest book project, The Future of Hiring (2005), describes how to combine technology, creative sourcing, and a great recruiting organization to make hiring the best a true business process. Adler is a veteran recruiter and founder of CJA Executive Search. His early industry career included general management positions with the Allen Group, as well as senior-level financial management positions with Rockwell International’s Automotive and Consumer Electronics groups. Adler holds an MBA from UCLA and a B.S. in Engineering from Clarkson University, New York.