Photo by Miguel A. Padrinan
When people talk about leadership qualities, they often mention self-awareness, empathy, and social skills — traits associated with emotional intelligence.
But does the data really support that? Throughout your life, how many of the leaders you’ve worked for actually had those qualities?
There are just as many power-seeking, narcissistic, political-maneuvering experts who rise through the ranks.
So, do leaders need to be an introvert, an extrovert, or something else entirely? It really boils down to one thing.
The most important quality is conviction
Not the blind, zealous conviction of an ideologue, but conviction born out of analysis and examination. Everyone wants a leader who can analyze a situation, pick a direction, and communicate it.
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There are a few reasons for that:
People are really just looking for a point of view
Most people are analysts. They can examine a situation, develop a list of the pros and cons, and explain it to you carefully.
But they won’t tell you what to do next.
I used to be this way as well. I’m a very analytical person, and I always thought my best skill was analyzing and presenting information. I could tell you all the nuances and details of every situation. I knew the ins and outs of many different disciplines, and I could explain them well. I took pride in being faster with Excel than anyone else around by knowing 50 different Excel keyboard shortcuts—without having to touch a mouse even once.
That’s not what people need, though.
People don’t necessarily need all the details. After a while, they trust you’ve done the background work that’s required to make a decision. The question they need answered briefly is, “What do we do, and why?”
Being able to present information clearly is a good skill to have. But having a point of view and conviction about the next steps is much more valuable. The future is volatile and uncertain. Those who can point out a direction have a rare and valuable skill.
People avoid having a point of view because it’s risky
When you take a stance on an issue, there are really only two outcomes: you’re right or you’re wrong. There are shades of grey between the two, but people will always remember one extreme.
I know, because I’ve been wrong before. After I got my MBA, I was working in business development for a pharma company. I wasn’t a discovery scientist, but I started a drug discovery project. It was something I believed in, and I convinced people there was an opportunity there.
It didn’t work out.
It’s tough when something you push for ends in failure. This fail didn’t feel great, but I tried not to beat myself up for too long. The project actually turned out to be valuable later on, and it had an indirect hand in helping another project move forward.
The truth is, there’s inherent risk in conviction. If you do turn out to be wrong, there may be consequences. And once you develop a point of view, people will attack it. Some people will vigorously dispute your stance, and you’ll be forced to defend yourself and your position.
Consistently taking a point of view means you’re going to be wrong at some point. The thing is, you’re going to be right in a big way sometimes.
You have to subject yourself to criticism if you want to accomplish anything
When we take risks, failure is possible. But so is success. It’s not the number of times you’re wrong that matters—it’s the magnitude of the upside that matters. Maybe the company develops a new drug. Maybe you get promoted. Or perhaps you just feel good about accomplishing something you pushed for.
Whatever the case, you can’t succeed if you never put yourself out there.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with being an analyst, but leaders have to take a stance at some point. And as you start to do it more often, you’ll begin to hone your decision-making skills. After you fail, you’ll adjust. You’ll be a little sharper the next time around.
Yes, you’ll still fail from time to time, but you may also have some spectacular successes.
So, try to worry less about your personal strengths and limitations, and get in the habit of taking a stance on issues. Being able to communicate your conviction advances what you’re trying to do just as much as—if not more than—your personal characteristics.