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The One Quality That Defines a Truly Great Leader


The MPW 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: How important is likability when it comes to leadership? is written by Cassandra Frangos, VP of global executive talent and organizational development at Cisco.

Leaders need to be likable, but perhaps not in the way that you might initially think. Likability in leadership doesn’t add up to kindness or congeniality as it might in other parts our lives. In fact, I would argue that the proxy for likability in leaders is respect. The two are essentially synonymous in the realm of leadership.

Just as it looks different in leadership, genuine likability can be cultivated in unusual ways. In fact, one of the most “likable” leaders I know grew in my estimation after she made the difficult decision to divest a number of legacy areas of her business. The act involved letting go some longtime leaders that no longer fit the future of her organization. It wasn’t the fact that she chose to realign the business that increased my admiration and respect for her; it was how she went about it. Many leaders manage to be likable in the best of moments, but only the most talented can create a connection when the times are toughest.

See also: The One Skill That Will Help You Make Better Business Decisions

Watching that situation — and many others — play out in a large organizational setting taught me that likeability in leadership is a combination of capability, humility, and emotional connection. These are the elements that add up to respect and, ultimately, followership.

It’s almost impossible to truly like a leader who is less than capable because their deficiency puts other people, and the organization, at risk. True capability, however, instills a baseline of respect. When my colleague made the decision that ultimately reduced executives, that daunting move effectively enabled the rest of the business to thrive. It paved the way for disrupters to drive change and rebuild better than ever. A less capable leader may not have stepped up in such a brave and bold fashion.

Leaders who are humble and authentic are always more likable, just as they are more effective in engaging followers. My colleague’s humility in a dire circumstance made her engaging in the eyes of the organization. She didn’t try to hide the reality—this was the most difficult thing she had done as a leader to date. Her honesty and openness throughout the process created greater trust. Conversely, narcissistic leaders — perhaps the least likable leaders of all — create distance and mistrust by thinking exclusively of themselves and leaving others exposed.

Emotional connection
This is the capstone of likability in leaders and the toughest of the three components to achieve. Connecting with people on an emotional level may mean that leaders need to be vulnerable themselves and admit their development needs out loud. This makes them relatable and increases their likability. Another way to create and strengthen emotional connections is by knowing what is happening in people’s personal lives and understanding everyone’s “story.” A number of years back, one of my peers had a son who became seriously ill and required ongoing care for an extended period of time. Our leader made it clear that she understood that his priority needed to be with his family and she helped him realign his responsibilities accordingly. Her understanding made her a more likable leader and increased loyalty among her employees.