Occasionally I read a brief article with a big message. A few weeks ago my partner Jeff sent me one of Fred Wilson‘s posts from Musings of a VC in NYC, about what happens when the CEO of a start-up loses the team’s confidence. I especially love these sentences:

If I think about the times I have had to remove a CEO, by far the most common reason was the loss of confidence of the team in the CEO. You get the call from one of the senior team members. They tell you that they are going to leave and so is everyone else on the senior team unless you do something about the leader. It is a palace coup. No guns are fired. But the boss has to go.

Wilson’s talking about the bosses of start-ups, but there’s a similar phenomenon in larger companies. It happens more slowly, and often less overtly, but it happens. In the big company version, the team gradually loses confidence in the boss, and they start comparing notes with each other in back rooms with worried voices. “Have you noticed that he’s…?” “What happened with that project that she…?” ” Is it just me, or does he…?”

Over time, they withdraw their support. Some of them leave for other jobs. Those who have relationships with board members start mentioning their unease. The CEO begins to find that when he or she really needs the team’s full attention and allegiance…it’s not there. Eventually, it becomes impossible for the CEO to succeed. Sooner or later, he or she gets fired.

As Wilson says, too many CEOs don’t seem to realize this. They seem to think that their only real constituency is the board. That is, they believe if the board supports them, they’re safe. But if they don’t get good business results for long enough, the board will stop supporting them—and without a strong team, it’s hard-to-impossible to get good results.

The sad thing is, this whole situation is generally avoidable. It’s possible for most CEOs to become followable, to become the kind of leader others will follow fully.

The key to making this shift lies in our history. Until fairly recently, who we accepted as a leader was a life-and-death decision. With a poor leader, you were much more likely to starve to death, or be overrun by invading hordes, or fall prey to lawlessness within your own tribe. Given that, it’s fair to assume that the ability to tell good leaders from bad is a group survival mechanism, wired into all of us. And the code for that wiring lives in stories. Think of it this way: stories are the library of a preliterate society. If you can’t read (and most people couldn’t until the past few hundred years), stories are a great way to pass on wisdom about how to survive and prosper; they’re memorable and easily replicated.

Every society in the world has “leader stories”—stories in which a young hero has to demonstrate a handful of attributes in order to slay the monster, win the princess, become the king—and live happily ever after. And these stories have an astonishing degree of consensus, all around the world, about what those attributes are. Think of these stories as our looking-for-leaders wiring made explicit: they are saying, in effect, “Only allow those people to lead who demonstrate these qualities.”

The qualities that show up, again and again in these stories are: far-sighted, passionate,courageous, wise, generous and trustworthy.

That is, we require leaders who share a compelling and inclusive view of a future we can achieve together (far-sighted); who remain committed to that vision and to us and the enterprise through adversity and challenge (passionate); who can make difficult decisions with limited information, even when that’s uncomfortable for them (courageous); who reflect on their experience, learn from it, share their learning and make the moral decisions (wise); who believe in us and share what they have—knowledge, power, authority, and resources (generous); and who—most of all—can be relied upon to keep their word and do what they say they will do (trustworthy).

Fortunately for us, these qualities are observable and developable. CEOs can find out if they’re seen as this kind of leader—and they can do something about it if they’re not. The foundational requirements for developing these attributes are an honest self-awareness, a real openness to feedback, and the ability to listen. If someone can be accurate about where he or she is now as a leader, and open to learning, that leader can develop the attributes he or she lacks—and become the kind of leader around whom others coalesce to do great things.