5 Things That’ll Make You A Truly Exceptional Leader
People have many different ideas that come to mind when they think of leadership. Whether it’s simply the highest ranking person in charge, a charming, top-dog schmoozer who wins people over, or an impassioned Napoleon Bonaparte shouting at a fleet of troops from atop a hill, ‘leader’ can mean a lot of different things.
A quick Google search for ‘what is a leader’ will yield thousands of articles—many of which are merely lists of quotes from great historical figures defining leadership. While there’s certainly a lot of talk out there on what makes for good and bad leaders, there is one important truth to note:
Leadership is not just a position or title.
It’s a skill set.
The presence of people to manage does not make one a leader. Rather, a true leader is someone who can bring elements out of people that wouldn’t exist, and elicit contributions that they wouldn’t give otherwise. More effort, more ideas, more engagement, more fire. Leaders inspire people to be better versions of themselves in service of a common goal. They enlist the action and help of others, and are constantly on the lookout for ways to tap into the drive and passion of people around them.
In short, a leader’s primary function is to inspire and motivate their people. John Quincy Adams said it in beautiful, simple terms:
“If your actions inspire others to dream more, learn more, do more and become more, you are a leader.”
So what’s the secret sauce? Let’s dive into what separates the diamonds from the coal when it comes to great leadership:
What does it take to be exceptional?
There’s no exact mold per se; I see leaders with wildly different approaches to leadership that are all successful despite their diverse styles. However, these are the five elemental truths that I find to be the hallmarks that distinguish truly exceptional leaders:
1) They prioritize team culture.
Great leaders are intentional about defining what it means to be part of the team, how people show up, and what's expected of them. They don't just dictate standards but rather embody them in their own behavior. They are sincere and forthright in their desire to create a space where everyone feels valued and engaged. Benjamin Hardy talks about this in his Medium post on “10 Things That Happen When Real Leadership Shows Up”:
“When you decide to lead, you provide a clear standard of excellence. Your standard of excellence becomes your point of reference, keeping you honest and consistent in all circumstances.”
2) They understand how to bring out the best in each person.
The best leaders can inspire people to contribute more and aim higher than they would otherwise. They inherently understand situational leadership; adapting their leadership style and dynamics based on who and what they are dealing with. They comprehend people and personalities in a way that allows them to apply the right approach in the right situation. Aka they’ve got highly intuitive emotional intelligence.
3) They’re cool under pressure.
Great leaders know how to navigate difficult situations not because they’re necessarily more knowledgeable than anyone else, but because they’re able to keep a cool head when the chips are down (and failure is inevitable, after all).
The only way to know how a car holds up in an accident is to crash it, and the true test of a leader to their team is how they behave when things go wrong. Do they fly off the handle and blame when mistakes happen, or do they step in to support, take ownership, and correct problems? You can’t expect soldiers to keep fighting in a battle if their commander freaks out and runs away in retreat.
A true leader manages to remain poised, stay focused, and is able to provide direction and an emotionally stable environment when things go to hell.
4) They appreciate and make people feel valued.
Excellent leaders are generous with praise and take the time to acknowledge people's contributions. They praise whether a person lands a big contract, or they put a lot of work into a contract that they don't land. If you are grateful for the effort your people give, they’ll want to give you more. The best leaders don't feel like bosses, but rather like another member of the team whose investment in other's success equals their own. They ask for and utilize opinions from their teams, collaborate about situations and solutions, and trust people to do great work without micromanaging them.
5) They’re real and they care.
They show up authentically and hit the balance of knowing what to do and inspiring confidence, with knowing how and when to be vulnerable. They don’t rely on title or power to elicit performance from their teams. They earn trust, loyalty, respect, and discretionary effort by proving first that they care about people as individuals and have their backs. Great leaders know better than to demand things that can be only given at will, instead they seek to earn them through their actions. The Search Inside Yourself Leadership Institute nails it:
“Leaders don’t lead by telling people what they have to do. Instead, leaders cause people to want to help them. A key part of this is cultivating your own desire to help others. When others sense that you want to help them, they in turn want to help you.
What qualities do you think made for good leaders? Share your thoughts with us in the comments below.