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The one quality all leaders must have

January 11, 2015, 4:00 PM UTC
Courtesy of China Gorman

MPW Insider is one of several online communities where the biggest names in business answer timely career and leadership questions. This week we ask: What advice would you give someone going into a leadership position for the first time? The following answer is by China Gorman, CEO of Great Place to Work Institute.

Taking on a leadership role can be quite a heady experience. At first, your mind brims with ideas and possibilities. There’s so much you want to achieve and so much to accomplish. Sure, you may be inheriting some issues along with the new title, but you’ve read enough business books to know that all issues are really opportunities to show the world what you’re made of. So what are you made of?

Now, before you answer with a list of strengths and weaknesses, I would challenge you to think outward, not inward. As a leader, you are leading people, and ideally you want those people to follow you, hopefully to new heights. Think of your direct reports as the building blocks of your leadership. They are the ones who are going to help you accomplish everything you want to do. Thus, you need to cultivate positive and trusting relationships with each and every one of them.

As legendary author and leadership speaker John Maxwell stated in his opening speech to the United Nations, there are three questions every follower asks of a leader:

  1. Do you care about me?
  2. Can you help me?
  3. Can I trust you?

Maxwell purports that in every culture, society and nation, people ask those three questions of their leaders, and they do so continually.

Before you set your first goal or write down your vision, (and mark my word, you should engage in both of those activities on a regular basis) you need to set an appointment with your direct reports. Start by scheduling a couple of hours with each person, just to talk. Perhaps you can take them to lunch. Get to know them. Find out what their strengths are; what their goals and desires are; and what they need from you to be successful. As you carefully create, nurture and develop real and distinct relationships with each of your direct reports, they will in turn learn to trust you, and more importantly, they’ll strive to be someone you can trust.

Trust, more than anything else impacts your success as a leader. The more trust you cultivate, the better you lead, the more you achieve, and the higher you climb. There’s a big difference between having someone on your team who works for you and someone who works with you. The former is just doing a job; the latter is on a mission to do something great.

Years of intensive research at the Great Place to Work Institute has led us to the finding that a great workplace is created in the day-to-day relationships that employees experience with their leaders, their work and with each other. And in all of those relationships, the most critical variable is, you guessed it, trust. Trust between you and your employees will develop organically over time as they experience your leadership. It’s a marathon, not a sprint, so settle it in your mind that you are willing to invest the time because the rewards will be well worth it.

In short, it doesn’t matter what industry you are in; what resources you do or don’t have; your level of experience; or number of degrees. What is essential to your success is your ability to build trusting relationships with the people under your authority. Work on it every day and never stop. After all, now is your time to show the world what you’re made of.

Read all answers to the MPW Insider question: What advice would you give someone going into a leadership position for the first time?

3 lessons every new leader should know by Sally Blount, Dean of Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management.

Barbara Bush: 4 tips for aspiring leaders by Barbara Bush, co-founder of Global Health Corps.

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