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Leadership Thought #476 – Five Traits That Separate the Best Leaders From the Pack

May 16, 2018

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What are the traits of high-performing leaders?

Because of my line of work, I am fortunate to spend time with many successful people and study and research the topic even more. One theme that runs through of my experience/research is that financial success (while important) is not the primary driver of an individual business leader’s success. It is more of an outcome for doing something else well and caring about how you do it. Of course, the money is nice (and well deserved), but it is not what gets most of them up and out the door in the morning. Five traits have emerged as indicative of a leader’s potential to separate themselves from the pack:


It may sound trite, but most people I know who the best at something are, tend to care about being the best. They are not okay with the concept of “good enough.” It is rarely a reaction to what their competition is doing, but more because they are hardwired for achievement. They can be their own worst critics and push those around them to excel. Work is not a 9 to 5 concept and never will be if there is room for improvement. Typically, the business they are in defines them in some way and reflects their core values. They do take success and failure personally and wouldn’t see it any other way.

Problem-solving is a key part of a leader’s responsibilities. Problems never go away. The best you can hope for, as one of my colleagues is fond of saying, is to “get better problems.” It is in solving the difficult problems that you separate yourself from the pack. Quite often the people I work with who struggle or only achieve moderate success are the ones who see problem-solving as onerous. If anyone can do your job, then there is nothing special about it or you. Thinking through and implementing solutions to difficult problems is hard work, but it is also joyful and rewarding work when done well. Leadership is not supposed to be easy. It is how we address our challenges and problems that define us in life and work.

Success shared with others is much more enjoyable than keeping it all to yourself. I’ve watched some of my clients and colleagues beam when they talk about the impact, they’ve made on someone else. They are big on using “we” and rarely use “I” when it comes to crediting results. This type of attitude is always infectious. It is as if they take more pride in seeing others benefit than reaping the rewards themselves. In today’s fast-paced, complex world, talent will always have options. Identifying, cultivating, and keeping talent is an essential skill that many leaders lack. Moreover, if you genuinely care about your clients and solve their problems, they will respond in kind. People get it when you care about them.

Leading others is no easy skill. Only a small minority of the population has any natural inclination towards it, to begin with. While we are all quick to criticize, few of us are willing to risk the scrutiny and pressures of leadership ourselves. The best leaders embrace this opportunity and see it as more a privilege than a burden. They are the first to volunteer their time/energy. The first to accept responsibility. And, the first to stick their neck out when everyone else is afraid to act. They enjoy marshaling the talents and efforts of other people. Rallying people around a common objective is what makes them tick. If you ask them about what they do, they will tell you they feel lucky and privileged to have the opportunity to do it.

Finally, the best leaders are never satisfied with the status quo. They are constantly pushing the envelope as to what’s possible (personally and professionally). Intuitively, they understand that comfort is the enemy of progress. They just keep moving forward. Professional development is a necessity not a luxury to them. They have a thirst for learning and growing and applying this information to the betterment of their organization. All great leaders understand that they set the performance standard and then must lead by example.

It makes me happy when a good leader wins big. They always deserve it. Paradoxically, the one time they are shy is usually when the spotlight is on them and what they have done. They are inclined to credit others. To them, the work is its own reward. They are prone to puncture their own bubble and avoid pedestals like the plague. They lead because they want to make a positive difference and leave their mark in an effective way. Personal wealth may be a scorecard of their business impact, but it is only one of many others they use to gauge their value.

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