The leadership development industry has long relied on two things:

    • Leaders: the people whom an organization can consistently count on to achieve significant results, through the efforts of others, in a manner that bonds those others, as well as the leader, with the results.
    • Access: the researchers and authors who gain an audience with those leaders and ask them a series of questions about the results they achieved and the methods they employed to achieve them.

I had an opportunity recently to play the researcher and author role in collaboration with Marshall Goldsmith and Kathy McDermott to gain access to 15 leaders, who told us their stories. Some of these leaders’ accomplishments have been chronicled in the public domain, while some made their marks “in the trenches.” The latter leaders have distinguished themselves in settings that may not have attracted the bright lights but were no less impressive. We have all witnessed this reality repeatedly as we have responded to COVID-19: Disruptive change provides leadership opportunities indiscriminately to people with and without the formal authority of elevated positions.

The spectrum of realms of leadership we canvassed includes civil rights, the military, religion, business, sports, politics, and learning and development (L&D). What did we find? Striking similarities and undeniable differences:


Leadership Training

When talking with leaders who embrace their role, it quickly becomes clear that they cannot learn enough about the art and science of effectively influencing others. They read, they search and they actively participate in leadership training. They welcome coaches, actively solicit feedback, process that feedback and make behavioral changes to enhance their value with the goal of improving all the time.

Referent Power

Effective leaders invest in the people they are attempting to influence. They realize there are certain things they control by virtue of their position in the organization, but — more importantly — they also recognize there are many things (like trust) that are controlled by others. They consciously invest with people to earn that trust and realize that trust can take a long time to earn and little time to burn! In other words, they demonstrate referent power.

Legitimate Power

The leaders we spoke with recognize the responsibilities that come with the positions they occupy in their organization — their legitimate power. Sometimes, difficult decisions need to be made. Effective leaders figure out not only how to make those decisions but also how to make them in a manner that enhances their integrity and contributes to an overall sense of belonging, inclusion and pride.

Expert Power

These leaders realize that at its core, leadership is messy, and it is a mess that is never cleaned up. Things are either getting better or getting worse; nothing stays the same. Because they realize this reality, effective leaders are thoughtful, mindful and intentional. They think before they do, and, as a result, they continually develop their skills and enhance their influence-related expertise, demonstrating expert power.

Differences: Leadership Styles

The most inconsistent thing leaders can do is treat everybody the same, and the leaders we interviewed unequivocally confirmed that position. The thoughtfulness an effective leader uses when assessing each influence opportunity he or she encounters results in approaches defined by following multiple leadership styles:


Successful leaders provide clear guidance and engineer accountability. With ever-increasing regularity, their direction is focused on the process (rather than the content) of their efforts. They orchestrate the “how” and leave responsibility for the “what” up to their teams. Many of the leaders we interviewed could be described as having an iron fist behind their velvet glove.


Successful leaders recognize they are a driving force of culture and that collaborative cultures are more likely to respond effectively to disruptive change. Transparency and a sense of belonging are the forces that drive inclusive collaboration. If leaders want collaboration, they must model it.


Successful leaders understand how and when to empower others using general guidelines including:

    • They do not empower people who do not have what they need to succeed. To do so would be setting those people up to fail.
    • They recognize that true empowerment is uncomfortable territory for both the leader and the follower. They are giving a talented contributor the autonomy and ownership to deliver a critical outcome, and that path will likely be fraught with uncertainty. Successful leaders avoid the temptation to remove accountability from the people they empower by reinserting themselves into the equation when obstacles, setbacks or barriers arise. They recognize that allowing their team to work through those challenges, however uncomfortable in the moment, is the path to mastery and a feeling of accomplishment.

As Marshall Goldsmith reminds us repeatedly, leadership is common sense, but it is anything but common practice! Recognizing and understanding who leaders are and what leaders do is one thing. When it comes time to jump into the fray on our own, too often, we see just how messy it can be and lack the instinct (or the self-belief) to dive in and start cleaning things up ourselves.

With that challenge in mind, when you find yourself in the presence of leaders, consider becoming a researcher (even if you have no intention of becoming an author). Ask them some questions with the objective of seeing if there is anything they have done that you could replicate. Further, see if their answers confirm or challenge the overview provided here.