I had the distinct pleasure of recently asking Ann Herrmann-Nehdi, of Herrmann Whole Brain Model fame, the most-asked question in the history leadership development: Are leaders born … or made?

In a manner that one might expect from a time-tested source of industry expertise, she responded almost immediately (and with conviction): “Yes!”

Her response confirms what we have all come to realize: It would be naïve beyond reason to counter the notion that some are simply born with more natural talent or potential to lead. On the other hand, it would be equally naïve to assume that natural talent automatically translates into peak performance. We have the irrefutable research of psychologists like Anders Ericsson and Angela Duckworth, among others, to thank for that. Fulfilling your potential as a leader in a constantly changing world is a function of hard work and personal resiliency.

When you identify proven leaders  — from any industry or from any walk of life — one of the first things you come to grips with is how different they all are! Unique people from highly diverse backgrounds that have developed a passion for effectively influencing others in pursuit of meaningful results. But, despite their undeniable distinctions, great leaders also consistently exhibit characteristics of commonality. Here are three for your active consideration:

1. Leadership Styles

Great leaders figure out, usually early on in their careers, that it’s not about them. This sounds simple, but it really isn’t. Each one of us is hardwired with a preference (a.k.a., strength) when it comes to leading people:

  • Some of us are natural facilitators. Our inclination when influencing others is to find out what is on their minds, discuss it and arrive on some sort of negotiated path forward.
  • Some of us are natural delegators. We trust that the people we lead can solve problems and deliver results on their own.
  • Some of us are naturally directive. We are convinced those we lead will benefit from our personal experience and the intuition we have derived from it.

Great leaders understand there is nothing inherently good or bad about any of these leadership stylesregardless of their personal comfort level. Each of these approaches works  and each of them doesn’t! It depends upon the unique circumstances of the situation the leader is attempting to impact. Which is why great leaders hardly ever “get the cart before the horse” (i.e., they diagnose each situation before they determine the approach with the highest probability of success). 

2. Power

Great leaders also understand the symbiotic relationship between leadership and power. If leadership is an attempt to influence, power is influence potential. It is literally the flip side of the very same coin. Power emanates from two highly interdependent sources:

  • Legitimate Power: This is the influence potential that comes with your position in your organization. When you are “in charge,” there are decisions you are expected to make and an authority you are periodically required to enact. Consider the operational dynamics of accountability. When a contributor on a team is neglecting their responsibilities, it is typically up to the formal leader to investigate, intervene and address the performance slippage.
  • Referent Power: This is the influence potential that comes from establishing trust. When the people you are attempting to influence trust you, they tell you the truth — whether it’s good or bad. When people tell you the truth, the complications associated with leadership are significantly reduced.

Great leaders exercise their Legitimate Power in a manner that tends to enhance their Referent Power with those who are truly invested in the team’s success. They also intentionally invest in building the bonds of trust every chance they get with everyone around them.

3. Emotional Intelligence

Great leaders are aware. First and foremost, they are aware of themselves. They have taken time over the years to understand their emotions, the events that tend to trigger those emotions and the consequences associated with simply letting those emotions dictate a response in the absence of thoughtful consideration.

Great leaders are also aware of others in a manner that is distinguishable, and frequently remarkable, compared to the rest of us. Sometimes it seems like they know what others are thinking, and they demonstrate that capacity by prompting them to articulate and expand upon those thoughts so that insight can be “on the table” for active consideration.

Beyond all that, great leaders increase the emotional intelligence of those around them. They routinely pull the “hard-charging; results-oriented; we’ve got to win and win now” members of their teams aside and provide them with feedback on how their well-intended drive to succeed is alienating other team members and, at least potentially, compromising the targeted objective. Likewise, they will point out to the more introverted members of the team the consequences of not “standing their ground” or “taking the initiative” to ensure their perspective is both heard and considered before decisions are made and a path forward is determined.

Consider that it is virtually impossible to develop depth in any of these areas without experiencing setbacks, failure or, at a minimum, disappointment. At the end of the day, leadership is very much a contact sport. There is no way to distinguish or improve yourself as a leader without launching yourself into the fray, taking thoughtful action and objectively embracing the outcomes of your efforts in preparation for your next opportunity. To quote Ann Hermann-Nehdi one more time, “Leadership and lifelong learning are joined at the hip!”