I am asked this question frequently. It is valid, and hard to pick a single quality, but let me give it a shot. There is a lot of literature on the topic – Adam Bryant’s 5 qualities of successful leaders immediately come to mind: passionate curiosity, battle-hardened confidence, team smarts, simple mindset, and fearlessness.

Here are some other qualities you will see tossed around: honesty, communication, delegation, humor, confidence, commitment, creativity, intuition, inspirational, positive, motivational, persuasive, persistent, patient, organized, flexible, people oriented, IQ, EQ, etc. There seems to be no end!

But is there something deeper? Something we can sense when we meet people that inspires followership and exists in almost all great leaders? I say yes – AUTHENTICITY.

To be authentic, you must have grown as a person, made your own mistakes, had your own successes – and be open and candid with others about who you are. You must understand your own journey and be comfortable with your own strengths and weaknesses.

I am a headhunter and for me, determining if a leader is authentic, is crucial. Testing for technical capability and particular skills can be relatively straightforward. Your resume and prior experience show it. But “how” you work – those qualities listed above – is what I am after. Is that really you, or are you wearing a mask?

Getting a candidate to take off the mask, and show who he or she really is, is what we strive to unpack during our interviews. I often ask candidates to talk about both successes and failures. Successes are great and are highlighted in the resume, but if you have never failed – you probably never took on big challenges where you really needed to step up and learn – not only about the task but more importantly about yourself. I am interested in how you have grown as a person – which doesn’t come out on the resume. What interests me are those big life events that often have nothing to do with work, events impacting relationships, finance, and health – the ones that can’t easily be swept under the rug. I want candidates to have reflected on their growth and development and to have an appreciation of self, such that they can be authentic with others. People get to know if you are genuine/authentic – either very quickly, or over time. Who wants to work for Mr. or Ms. Perfect? Those people don’t exist. In fact – the only people in the world who are not wrestling with “something” are those people you don’t really know yet.

Genuine people have taken a perspective on their lives, they spend time thinking about their industry and themselves, and are open. They are open to everything, especially about being wrong and not having it all figured out – which requires humility.

My Advice: Take on all the challenges you can – stretch assignments, overseas gigs, manage tasks outside your specialty, the stuff others are scared of. Push to see who you are, be self-reflective and humble, and you will develop an authenticity that will set you apart.

by Tony Leng, Managing Director, Practice Lead and OMP, Diversified Search