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The Most Important Leadership Skill of All

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businessman leading a team

“I’m the boss. This isn’t a democracy. It’s a dictatorship.”

When a friend of mine relayed to me recently that her manager had actually uttered that sentence in a staff meeting, the first thing I did was say “Ow!” Because my jaw had hit the desk, right on the corner—and dang, that hurt.

The second thing I said was, “Really?” Because other than once or twice in my career, I’ve had the good luck to be blessed with bosses who would never in a Pleistocene era say something so archaic, backwards and totally counterproductive to morale and job satisfaction.

Solving Workplace Problems One Lunch at a Time

A couple of other friends and I were chatting about that unfortunate sentence at lunchtime recently. In between browsing the sales racks and ordering salads, we started discussing what skills and traits make a really good leader.

While we could agree that slamming the “I’m the boss” hammer down was not among the best leadership traits, we came up with a list of essential boss skills that centered 100% around good communication:

  • One friend emphasized listening: “Really listening, not just sitting there hearing the first sentence and getting defensive and arguing or shutting you down. When you’re trying to give your boss feedback and they refuse to hear it, it gets really frustrating, and you stop trying.”
  • Another was more interested in message construction: “My boss sent me an email this morning, and it was really short and curt, and I didn’t know how to take it. She asked if I was aware of something on our website. Of course I was, but I didn’t know what she wanted beyond that. Did she want me to change it? Did she want me to take it down? Did she want me to enhance it? Did she want me to link it somewhere? Did she just want to make sure I actually did know it was there? I wish she’d have been more specific and concrete.”
  • The first friend chimed in with, “I wish I knew what my boss wants me to do to improve.” The second friend readily concurred.  “I never get feedback or constructive advice from my boss,” the first friend went on. “I know I could do things better from time to time, like be more professional in meetings, because I want to be taken seriously even though I’m a natural jokester. But even in my reviews, I never get that kind of feedback.”
  • Finally the second friend hit the nail on the head: “I think managers really need to keep an open mind. They have to constantly remain aware that they may not know everything. That they may not have the best and final opinion about everything. That they could be wrong about something—even about lots of things—and that’s okay, as long as they’re open to hearing alternative ideas and views and changing their opinion in the face of changing evidence.”

And with that, we three at lunchtime solved the eternal riddle:

What is the most essential leadership skill?

I submit to you that it is this and this alone: an open mind. Without one, every other possibility to grow as a leader evaporates.

The first, last and most important skill of good leaders is to admit—to yourself, to your employees and to your own bosses—that you may not (yet) be perfect. That you may yet have things to learn that will make you a better leader. That you may not yet have mastered every skill you need to become a great leader.

Communication skills can be learned through leadership training programs, but only after a leader opens his or her mind and becomes willing to hear feedback, opinions and input that may be uncomfortable to hear.

Now, if only somebody would invent a boss brain opener, so I could give one to my poor friend before she defects to a land a bit less…dictatorial.

Marie Bryson is a writer, blogger and humorist.

Brazen powers real-time, online events for leading organizations around the world. Our lifestyle and career blog, Brazen Life, offers fun and edgy ideas for ambitious professionals navigating the changing world of work.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=317752194950479 Alison Elissa Coaching

    “We came up with a list of essential boss skills that centered 100% around good communication…”

    I don’t know if it’s the most essential leadership skill, but the ability to communicate and the willingness to take the time to do so go a long way in my book.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=545176599 Georgina B. Bliss

    That’s good! I call that flexibility!

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100000179125267 Kristine Mickelson

    Before reading this I would have said “Listening”, but having an “Open Mind” covers so much more. This is definitely going to be my new mantra. Thanks!

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  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=612024358 Sylvia Kestenberg

    Not sure I could pick one essential skill… think there needs to be honesty; willingness to recognize, delegate;decide. A composite of skills in addition to an open mind.