The Most Important Skill Every Successful Leader Must Have


Many young entrepreneurs and business owners think that innovation, marketing and financial know-how are the keys to the success of a business. Those are all important factors, but there is a single, more important factor.

Entrepreneurs and business owners spend a majority of their time talking to people: explaining ideas, directing others, helping, listening, speaking, networking, and taking advice. However, even though everyone talks, not everyone is a good communicator. Plato famously said: “Wise men speak because they have something to say; Fools because they have to say something.”

When you look around at successful entrepreneurs and successful people generally, you typically discover that the best leaders are also terrific communicators. In fact, strong communication is a key to the success of both individuals and teams. (If you want to read more about building great teams and the importance of communication, I recommend you read: The New Science of Building Great Teams in the Harvard Business Review).

Brian Tracy, a successful author, speaker, and CEO of Brian Tracy International, says, “Your ability to communicate with others will account for fully 85% of your success in your business and in your life.” Tracy built his platform of helping other business owners succeed based on the idea that effective communicators are more successful because they are able to be more persuasive, take advice, build relationships, manage and lead better, and just overall be more effective in the role they have in their companies.

Research conducted at the Carnegie Institute of Technology showed that only a mere 15% of financial success came from technical skills or actual knowledge. The rest (85%) came from the ability to effectively communicate with others, both when speaking and listening. Award winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman agrees:

People would rather do business with a person they like and trust rather than someone they don’t, even if the likeable person is offering a lower quality product or service at a higher price.

Why are some people great communicators, and others are ineffective?

The secret lies in how the person with whom you’re communicating perceives you. In one of his seminars, Dr. John Lund talks about the three most important things the other person wants to know in a conversation:

  1. Is this conversation going to be painful?
  2. How long is this conversation going to take?
  3. What do you want from me?

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Sound familiar? It probably does – because these are the same questions you ask yourself before the start of a conversation – especially in business where everyone seems to want something. Once you understand that the other person is mainly concerned about these three things, you become a good communicator when you address them right away. By getting those questions answered, the other person can focus on the conversation and it becomes a productive use of time.

For the first question, check your tone and medium of communication. After all, there are varying levels of conversation intimacy. Much like body language, the medium you choose to use tells the other person a lot about what they should expect. For example, if you’re using email or are speaking in a stiff manner when you’re usually relaxed, the other person will expect that the conversation will be painful. You also should anticipate the other person’s views and feelings. Doing so will help you to put them at ease.

Remember too that listening is as important – and probably more important – than talking. According to Peter Drucker (a famous writer, professor and management consultant), “[t]he most important thing in communication is hearing what is’t said.”

To properly answer the second question (how long is this conversation going to take?), you may first have to answer the third (what do you want from me?). Once you concretely say exactly what you want or aim to get, the other person is able to gauge how willing they are to help you or give it to you. This allows them to also estimate the time it will take for you to reach an agreement.

When you cannot answer these question right away, the other person will do their best to avoid you.

Think about it, you always ignore a salesperson that has no direction, or an entrepreneur that is blindly fishing for favors. People don’t like to waste their time, especially in business. Being a good communicator is being precise and concrete, and knowing the different patterns and channels for communication which are appropriate depending on the situation.

Importantly, always put yourself in the other person’s shoes. It’s not just a throw-away expression. By understanding how you would react if you were listening to yourself, you can learn to communicate better.

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