Article: The secret life of great leaders


The secret life of great leaders

A remarkable leader transcends the conventional definitions of charisma and confidence. True leadership extends beyond these surface attributes, requiring qualities that are often overlooked.
The secret life of great leaders

Don’t get misled by the title of this article. This isn’t about some clandestine work done by great leaders. It’s the opposite. It is about the altruistic mindsets, actions, and behaviours of these leaders that often go unnoticed. In our hypercompetitive and social media-influenced world, the qualities that get spotlighted most are charisma, chutzpah, and self-confidence.

While these are certainly good qualities to have, wouldn’t it be interesting to dig a little deeper and explore some other seemingly invisible qualities and behaviours that make a leader and their team successful? These quieter actions might not lead to immediate recognition, visibility, or short-term results for the leaders. On the contrary, these behaviours often require delaying instant gratification for results, rewards, and recognition. 

Research corroborates it. Dr. Robert Hogan, President and co-founder of Hogan Assessment says, “Research provides overwhelming evidence that subordinates want to see four key characteristics in leaders: integrity, competence, good judgment, and vision.” He goes on to mention that compelling findings show that subordinates prefer competent, trustworthy, and unassuming bosses. He quotes a study by Fred Luthans in which it was discovered that the high performers fell naturally into two groups: the Emergent and the Effective. Luthans determined how the two groups spent their time at work, and not surprisingly, they spent their time differently. Managers in the Emergent group were primarily involved in managing — networking, building relationships with bosses, projecting confidence, and playing politics. Managers in the Effective group were primarily involved in managing down — working with their teams to improve performance, removing barriers that impede success, managing conflict, and following through on commitments. Data confirms that the Effective profile reflects people who are concerned with getting the job done — focused and process-oriented. Companies would benefit if they take heed of this research and pay attention while selecting, promoting and rewarding their leaders.

Through this article, let’s shine a spotlight on the second category of humble leaders who perform a lot of hidden work towards making their teams successful but might not get the visibility and rewards that their networking counterparts typically get. 

Authenticity: There are a whole lot of things these great leaders do themselves called inner work2. They practice what they preach before they expect their teams to follow suit—be it developing higher self-awareness, self-management, a growth mindset, developing competence and depth, being selfless when it comes to growing their team, being aware of their unconscious biases and letting them go, or developing an open mindset and challenging their world view by really listening to others. This inner work is constant in progress, and much like an asymptote, they strive for mastery while knowing it might be elusive. Their actions speak louder than words and their very being inspires trust.

This is very difficult to accomplish as a leader as attested to by research called the “power paradox”,  study3 by Dacher Keltner, professor of psychology at the University of California, Berkeley. According to his research, people with power tend to behave like patients who have damaged their brain’s orbitofrontal lobes (the region of the frontal lobes right behind the eye sockets). This condition seems to cause overly impulsive and insensitive behaviour. Thus, the experience of power might be thought of as having someone open up your skull and take out that part of your brain that is so critical to empathy and socially appropriate behaviour.

Given this insight, it makes it doubly laud-worthy, when leaders can go against the tide and still preserve their authenticity.

Betting (on their team): Great leaders take calculated risks for their people. To be able to do so, they invest considerable time and energy in observing and understanding their people. They often give them a variety of tasks and see which ones they show potential in. They assess what motivates each member of the team; and what interests them. They try to understand and extrapolate from their observations what their people are capable of and what they can grow into. They focus on the potential in their people and give them a chance to prove their mettle. In effect, they set them up for success and end up becoming a talent multiplier. People on other teams might vie to be on the teams of such leaders because they share the credit and often take the blame onto themselves when things go wrong. 

A great example is from 1979 when Dr. Satish Dhawan was the Chairman of the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO), and Dr. A.P. J Abdul Kalam was the program director of a satellite launch which failed. For the press conference, instead of sending Dr A.P.J Abdul Kalam who was feeling very disappointed, Dr. Satish Dhawan himself went for it and despite this failure, he expressed complete faith in the abilities of his team and shared that he was confident their next attempt would succeed. The second satellite launch was successful. Now for this press conference, Dr. Satish Dhawan stayed in the background and focused the spotlight on the team led by Dr. A.P.J Abdul Kalam. He was an exemplar who led from the front and gave credit to the team but took failure upon himself.

Culture of coaching and collaboration: We should not think that great leaders live in a kumbaya world and are people pleasers – that is far from the truth. They believe in tough love – to provide corrective feedback and reinforce feedback as necessary and on time. They coach their people, they create a culture of coaching, collaboration, and mutual respect, and learning in their teams. They provide psychological safety to their team members to dissent and as a result, there is healthy debate, timely resolution of conflict and a sense of transparency, camaraderie, and mutual respect.

According to research, over the past two decades, the time spent by managers and employees in collaborative activities has ballooned by 50% or more. Unsurprisingly, Google’s People Operations department’s study5 on which traits the best managers share indicates that good communication and avoiding micromanaging is critical.

To sum up, the secret work of great leaders requires self-awareness and high emotional intelligence, delaying the need for immediate gratification, a servant leadership orientation, humility, and a strong sense of compassion and empathy for one’s team. 

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Topics: Leadership, Leadership Development

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