Being in management for 30 years has taught me one golden rule. It has formed the basis for everything I believe to be the ultimate key to success in a company.

There are obviously quite a few opinions on this. I've read books about how being a servant-leader is the key, and how you really have to give feedback.

Of course these books are absolutely essential, and they will help you in countless ways. Great leaders use all of the tools in the toolbox, and leaving one or two out--say, not leading by example, or acting selfish when it comes to career advancement--can spell disaster, even if you master the other tools.

Still, in my experience, there is one major differentiating key.

For anyone in leadership, you have to find out what is really motivating people. What lights their fire? What makes them get up in the morning? Once you know what is driving them--why they are on your team, what they hope to achieve--then leading becomes much more fluid and natural. It's the difference between trying to pedal a car on your own (say, using extra charm or direct commands) versus letting the engine do the work. It's the difference between a company that is run efficiently and one that is built on an underlayer of your own personal effort...and maybe how much you pay people.

The reason this is so important is that, as a leader, if you can tap into the right motivations--a process that requires time, empathy, communication, and awareness--then you unleash something utterly foundational and core to great leadership. It's why an employee wants to do the work. It's the true driving force, their inner passion.

That question about "why" is all about motivation. And, motivation is tied closely to the best skills and talents of every employee. What you focus on is where you will find your greatest success. Integral to that: What motivates you is what you will focus on.

Great leaders know how to tap into motivations and passions, long-term dreams and lifelong aspirations. They know how to make sure employees are doing the work they are most passionate about, and where they have the most talent.

Moving people out of drudgery into a dream role--that's our job as leaders.

I experienced this recently. I know someone who is driven to make a difference with the written word. I've worked with this person for years, and it took me a long time to realize--for her, it is not about money. It is not about prestige or power. What's really driving her is a desire to connect with people using the written word and impact her readership.

Once you know what drives people, once you spend the time to communicate with someone and discover their true motivations, it unleashes a wildfire. All management tasks become easier. Every meeting is painless.

What about the alternative? Look out. We tend to think a "toxic" person is an employee who has a crabby attitude or lacks intelligence. Not always. The most toxic person might be stuck in a job that doesn't match up with his or her motivations in life. And that creates all kinds of management problems--long meetings, constant conflict, and a dark cloud.

What you can take away from this concept of finding inner motivation is simple. You have to take the time to find out. It has to become a core value of all your leadership. Is that graphic designer on your team motivated to make an artistic impact? Is your accountant motivated to show she has brilliant math and analytical skills? Often, people are not actually motivated by power or money--that's a ruse. Life is so much bigger than a paycheck or power. They want fulfillment, recognition, achievement, and respect.

Your job as the boss is to unleash that.

The best leaders in the world--the ones who change the world and start companies and stand the test of time--are the ones who know how to motivate. Think of the best Steve Jobs keynotes, or the interviews you've seen with Elon Musk. Think of the remarkable company that Mark Zuckerberg built, starting in his dorm room. The thread that ties them all together?

They all know how to motivate. It's the ultimate key to success.