What’s the most important trait for business leaders?

Picture from AnderCismo via Flickr

Picture from AnderCismo via Flickr

I had a great discussion the other day in one of my Peer Group Advisory Boards. The question for the group was – ‘What’s the most important trait for a successful business leader?’.

A great case was made for Honesty and I wouldn’t say it’s a wrong answer – if I can’t trust you I’m not going to follow you (and therefore you’re not a leader). The problem is that it’s not a very actionable trait – you’re likely honest and have integrity…or you’re not, and hearing advice or a tip that you need to be honest and trustworthy probably isn’t going to change how you’re wired.

Of course there are many others, here’s a short list of possibilities, a great leader needs:

  • To be empathetic
  • To be decisive
  • To be able to see the big picture at all times
  • To be clear – in generating a vision and in communicating with others
  • To have passion and commitment
  • To see how everything fits together (and how to build systems)

All of the above are critical to long term success, but I believe there’s an additional trait that stands above the others…and ironically if you don’t have this trait, it’s unlikely you’ve read this far.

What’s the trait?


Initially curiosity may not seem to have the heft that Honesty or Empathy have, but there’s a lot of depth to curiosity – especially in a business setting.  For starters, it’s kind of unusual – it’s a great trait that unfortunately is often systematically beaten out of students in our educational process…you’re not supposed to ask questions, you’re supposed to give answers. So a genuinely curious person, one without an agenda, will really stand out and grab attention.

Take a moment to think back to some of the leaders you’ve been around, both good and bad. What set them apart? What made them different?

In my case, the worst leaders I had in the corporate world were those who strongly believed in a specific way of doing things…that might be based on tradition or it might have just been that their way was the only way to do things. In either case, anyone asking questions was inherently criticizing the organization and causing problems.

The best leaders I worked with were just the opposite. They approached every meeting and every interaction with a positive questioning – how can we do it better? What if we tried something else? Why are we getting stuck? They were challenging to work for, in a good way, but I did far more and learned far more under those leaders than everyone else combined.

The Essence of Leading – Driving Change

Here’s another way to look at it – if everything is great, if it can’t be any better…then you don’t really need a leader. You might need a manager just to keep the status quo, but if there’s no need to change, there’s really no need to lead.

However the world isn’t perfect and  you are almost never going to be in a situation that’s perfect…and expect it to stay that way for any length of time. The world has a nasty habit of surprising us with curve balls, bad weather, unexpected outcomes, competition and lots of other challenges. That’s when you need a leader…that’s when you need someone asking the tough questions – questions driven by a healthy, positive curious mind. Change happens when someone recognizes an issue and asks ‘How can we solve this issue?”. Curiosity not only helps to propel change, but it also enables an open mind…fostering innovation and possibilities.

How do you cultivate Curiosity?

Some people are just naturally curious, but most of us could probably develop a stronger sense of curiosity – here’s a few ideas on how to do that:

  • Lead with a question – it seems obvious, but how often do you feel like you need to prove how smart you are by telling someone something. Next time try asking a great question and get them to open up.
  • Study something you find cool – Dig deep on a topic that you inherently find interesting…even if it doesn’t have an immediate practical application. Consider the number of fascinating classes you can choose from in an online masters in organizational leadership program. This way you can feed your natural curiosity while learning information you can use in the business world.
  • Accept…even encourage failure – Work with your team to purposely try experiments and make sure they know that failure is a great outcome (just ask Edison).
  • Read a lot – It’s often been said that leaders read and readers lead, too often the internet is driving us towards the quick fix, the shallow answer. A great book will challenge you to think much more deeply.
  • Read outside of your business / industry – The naturally curious find interesting ideas in all sorts of places. Try reading a book or a magazine that you wouldn’t normally read.
  • Take the scenic route – Slow down and purposely drink in what’s around you. Notice things you normally would pass by. Literally take a different route home tomorrow.

What do you think? Are you naturally curious? How has your curiosity (or other’s) impacted you? Am I just full of it? Share your thoughts, comments…and especially questions below, I’d love to hear from you. I’m curious what you might have to say!  😉

Shawn Kinkade  Kansas City Business Coach    


2 thoughts on “What’s the most important trait for business leaders?”

  1. JBS says:

    How’d you get so insightful? How do find time to read so much great stuff? And how did you become such a good writer? Your work is compelling and smooth!

    I agree with you 100%. You also may notice that the people you most enjoy being with are curious about you. They ask you questions that open your mind and help you come to your own conclusions. This is a trait I have studied and tried to emulate — and will probably have to work on the rest of my life!

  2. Julie – it’s great to hear from you, thanks for the great comment (and compliment!).

    One twist on your comment – I do enjoy people who are curious about me, but even more, I just enjoy people who are curious in general…people who like intellectual challenges, puzzles, exercises, etc. I think it demonstrates a level of engagement you don’t get very often…or does it mean something else?

    I’ll have to give it some thought! 😉


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