10 Essentials of Extraordinary Leadership

Many executives who are good managers ask me how they can raise their game and take their leadership from good to great. As a member of the leadership team at Charles Schwab for almost a decade, then as an executive coach for nearly 15 years, I’ve made it my life’s work to observe, understand, and advance high-quality leadership.

I’ve watched people become good leaders and proudly witnessed them evolve into great ones. “Good” leaders can run a successful business, manage business details, and deliver good results. Extraordinary leaders go beyond the numbers and results. They’re able to inspire, transform, and lead an organization that can change their industry, if not the world. As one retiring CEO client told me, “I wish I had realized earlier that what meant the most to me was not the quarterly results, but the impact I had on my team’s careers and lives.”

You can lead in a transformational way by taking on these ten practices.  I’m not suggesting you try them all at once, but take a look at how you do each of them now, and therefore which one(s) need right-now priority focus:

1. Inspire. People want to feel like they’re making a difference. In fact, recent studies show that the majority of millennials prefer a job with meaning and purpose over one with a high salary. Show your team a vision, mission, and roadmap that they can care deeply about and use language that inspires them to do their best work. I once asked the CEO of a medical device-maker to stop using the word “customers” and replace it with “lives.” The company then shifted its goal from having “happy customers” to helping people lead “healthier lives.” The switch energized and inspired the staff. Try asking your people, “Do you find our mission both clear and inspiring? What can I do to make it more of both?”

2. Good is more effective than perfect. As Voltaire said, “Perfect is the enemy of good.” Great leaders ratchet back their perfectionism to a more reasonable standard. One of my clients had a tendency to do her staff’s work for them. When challenged she said, “If I want something done ‘right’, I need to do it myself.” Our coaching work then turned to her lack of scalability as a leader—since she was spending so much time trying to do everything perfectly herself, she was unable to delegate and manage others so that the organization could grow. Notice how “good” is a more effective standard than perfect and guide others to do well; you’ll not only lead more effectively, you’ll create a more empowered, engaged team.

3. Have a smart dive compass. Find a healthy balance between your need to be “informed” versus “involved.” Almost every leader I coach is working on this—how to know when to be hands off versus hands-on, how to keep this consistent, and how to respond rather than react. Take an inventory of what you’re involved in and see if you can decrease your involvement. Refrain from diving into things that are merely fun, interesting, or in crisis. Do the same for tasks you’re staying out of, and see if you need to spend more time on those. Ask your staff for input: “What am I paying too much or not enough attention to? Where am I diving in myself when I should instead put the right people on the job?”

4. Ask your staff to think like owners. Allow them to try, fail, learn, and succeed on their own. When they come to you for solutions, ask them questions that help them find their own answers, even when telling them would be faster—questions like “If you owned this place, what would you do?” Reward and applaud them as owner-thinkers, and thus effective, independent leaders.

5. Make a clean break with your chronic underperformer(s). Leadership means letting go of someone who’s no longer an effective contributor after you’ve given him or her support and every reasonable opportunity to change. It’s important to ultimately recognize that the apple tree is only going to produce apples, no matter how much you wish it could make an orange. Keeping the wrong person, or keeping someone in the wrong role, causes pain to both that person and the organization. (See also, Why (and how) to Let Problem Employees Go)

6. Take responsibility for failure. Great leaders own inevitable errors and failures, even though fear or stress would tempt them to distance themselves from them. Don’t hide from what’s embarrassing, difficult, or ugly. Everyone makes mistakes, and disavowing this truth simply distances you from being a compelling, engaging leader. That’s because we connect with each other based on our shared imperfections; pretending they’re not there only makes us seem distant, dishonest, or arrogant. On the flip side, owning a mistake and then transcending it often leads to greater followership, because people relate better to leaders who are just like them—fallible. The next time something on your watch goes awry, practice “owning it” even if it feels awkward, and track the resulting outcomes.

7. Innovate. Leadership in innovation means bringing your creativity, a fresh perspective, and a flash of courage to what may seem ordinary or unchangeable. You can’t find true innovation in a method, process, book, or workshop. Rather, it’s a mirror of your imagination, your creative child channeled into the adult world. As one client mentioned, “I was stuck on a product idea until my 4-year-old started playing with the plastic prototype. She asked me why it didn’t roll around like a ball, and that was the aha moment we’d been waiting for.” Get in touch with the power of possibilities. Make sure you have time every week to be in your creative space–whether that’s listening to music, doing something artistic, or playing with your own kids.

8. Create a culture of candor. Great leaders ask for feedback, create a culture of candor, and use all that honesty and humility to evolve as a leader. Try this question from time to time: “What do I need to know that people may be reluctant to tell me, even difficult for me to hear, but constructive for me to know and work on?”

9. Be a world-class listener. Leadership means asking and listening, rather than “telling.” It’s trusting that the people who know what’s needed in your organization are often the ones actually doing the work, rather than the people in the c-suite. (And often they’re your customers.) Monitor your transmit-to-receive ratio every day for a few weeks. What do you notice? Are you creating airtime for others, or dominating it?

10. Mind your impact. Extraordinary leaders make positive impact, and diminish negative repercussions, on individuals, communities, natural resources, and economic and political ecosystems. Your achievements as a leader will ultimately be measured by that impact. As one CEO told me late in his tenure, “Looking back, I wish I had realized early on that what truly had meaning for me was the impact I had on others, not on how well we did in any particular quarter or year.” Ask yourself, “Where am I or my organization making unwanted impact? And what are we willing to do about it?” (See also, “What’s Your Leadership Impact?”)


David Peck is a Partner and US Lead for Executive Coaching at Heidrick Consulting. He’s been published extensively and is the author of Beyond Effective. Twitter: @coachdavidpeck

One thought on “10 Essentials of Extraordinary Leadership”

  1. A fantastic and well-researched piece. I will be sharing this widely. Thank you for these important and refreshing insights.

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