What Makes a Successful Leader?

“As you met with world leaders, CEOs, and other people at the top of their field, what were 3 qualities you found to be in common with all of them?”

This was a question posed to me by a student when I was guest speaking in a marketing class yesterday. As I thought about the people I’ve encountered over the years, whether they were pro athletes, astronauts, or federal judges, I knew the “secret sauce” wasn’t in their morning routines or podcast playlist. It was an internal drive. This is what I shared with the class:

1) Radial optimism. When I talk about optimism, I don’t mean the ability to see a silver lining or to always be happy (I’ve known many successful curmudgeons); I’m specifically referring to the innate ability to see possibility. Radical optimists don’t get so overwhelmed by circumstances where they are unable to take action – in fact, it’s the opposite: the see crisis as an opportunity to pivot, to develop innovation and resiliency, and to find solutions.

2) Humility. The most successful people know that they don’t have all of the answers – but they know who to turn to or how to get them. That’s what drives their confidence. It’s important to understand the difference between meekness and humility. Bob Gaylor, the fifth chief master sergeant of the Air Force, says that humility is being open to the ideas of others. It’s related to radical optimism in that it’s difficult to see possibility if our own ego/views are blocking the way. This is why having diverse, contrarian views, is good – even if they only serve to test the mettle of our own ideas.

3) Learners. Every successful leader I’ve ever known is a lifelong learner. They’re like trees: they never stop growing. The day a tree stops growing is the day it dies. Same with leadership. As I’ve often said, you don’t learn anything when you consume information that you already agree with. Success isn’t an event – it is a journey. As such, it’s important to keep moving. It is having an inherent dissatisfaction with the status quo, especially with oneself in terms of our knowledge or skills. In that sense, it’s tied directly in with humility.

The great thing about these qualities is that they can be learned, developed, and refined like a muscle. There is nothing inherent, it isn’t about natural talent nor does it rely entirely on access to resources.

In any case, those were the three qualities I said in the moment. What qualities do you think all successful people share?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s