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The One Quality That Defines Every Great Leader

December 5, 2015, 4:30 PM UTC
Dolby Lab executive in San Francisco, California, Monday, February 23, 2015. (Paul Sakuma Photography)
Dolby Lab executive in San Francisco, California, Monday, February 23, 2015. (Paul Sakuma Photography)
Photograph by Paul Sakuma

The Leadership Insider network is an online community where the most thoughtful and influential people in business contribute answers to timely questions about careers and leadership. Today’s answer to the question “What is the most important quality a leader should demonstrate?” is by Bob Borchers, senior vice president and CMO at Dolby Laboratories.

Over the course of my career, I’ve been lucky enough to work with some amazing leaders, including Phil Knight at Nike (NKE), Jorma Ollila at Nokia (NOK), and Steve Jobs at Apple (AAPL). I learned valuable lessons from each of them that have been instrumental to my career. But I’ve also learned just as much from my parents, my wife, the head of our local soccer league, and the organizers of local volunteer events. If you’re leading a school fundraiser, you can’t threaten to fire someone or offer anyone a raise. You’ve got to lead primarily through your influence. And that’s an important skill for the workplace, too.

If, like me, you’re interested in leadership, then you’ve probably filled a hefty toolbox with leadership tools: adaptability, decisiveness, tenacity, and authenticity to name a few. But what’s the one quality that defines every great leader? Knowing what tool to use at any given time. Many of us have worked for people who see every problem as a nail because the only tool they have is a hammer. Leading effectively requires you to stand back from yourself and analyze what approach will have the biggest (and best) impact at that time. This requires humility and the willingness to step outside of your comfort zone, because sometimes the unfamiliar path is the only route to success.

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Our development of Dolby Cinema is an example of the necessity to use different tools in different circumstances. The development of Dolby Cinema has been complex and required the Dolby leadership team to employ a number of different approaches. There are some parts of the Dolby Cinema experience – the sound and imaging technology and the theatre design – that we at Dolby developed ourselves, and had a fair amount of control over. My fellow leaders and I would delegate work internally and allow our colleagues to exercise their creativity. We only intervened to provide the clear decisions necessary to keep the project on course.

But there were other areas of the project that required the additional expertise of our partners. It’s important to argue forcefully for aspects of a project you’re passionate about but it’s equally important to know when to follow the lead of others. I knew that if we only incorporated one approach in the development of Dolby Cinema, the project would never have succeeded. So the next time you face a leadership challenge that you just can’t seem to overcome, I’d urge you to take a step back and ask yourself, “Am I trying to drive a screw with a sledgehammer?” There’s probably something lying untouched in your box of leadership tools that’s just the thing to solve your problem.

Read all answers to the Leadership Insider question: What is the most important quality a leader should demonstrate?

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