What Some of the Best Leaders Have in Common

These are times of incredible change in the world and many of these changes are happening at an exponential rate. For some, that’s a good thing because they view change as an exciting opportunity. For many of us, though, change can bring feelings of uncertainty and concern.

In times like these, leaders are needed more than ever. So how, as a leader, do you help your family, your employees or your community thrive in these turbulent, yet opportunity-rich, times?

Maybe I can help. Leadership has always fascinated me. I’ve read everything I can about it over the past 20 years. But my “master class” on the subject came during my time as international chairman of the board for Young Presidents’ Organization, or YPO, the world’s largest organization of CEOs. Throughout 2017-2018, I met, interviewed and traded thoughts with outstanding leaders the world over. People like Hillary Clinton, Justin Trudeau, Kofi Annan, tennis great Billie Jean King, London Mayor Sadiq Khan, corporate strategist Orit Gadiesh, author and philosopher Yuval Harari, and many others.

These are all very different people from vastly different backgrounds. But they all seemed to share certain qualities and habits that were fundamental to their success. I’ve distilled a few of these traits into the following list. In my experience, the best leaders and most successful people:

  1. Are habitual learners. They make learning a daily habit and are insatiably curious. They don’t pretend to have all the answers. Instead, they go find them. They’re smart enough to know that their knowledge and worldview can probably be upgraded, especially in these fast-moving times. True leaders ask more questions than they answer, and they’re constantly seeking out others who challenge their views. They want feedback. You know you’re in the room with a good leader when you hear them ask, “How could I understand this better?” or “Could my perspective be broadened?”
  2. Build strong trust networks. Building trust networks isn’t about having loyal friends or joining an association. It’s about actively and intentionally building networks of people with similar and dissimilar perspectives. Why? Because of everything I said in trait no. 1: Strong leaders cultivate the widest possible worldview so they don’t end up stuck in the echo chamber of their own minds. You’ll hear them ask, “Can we talk?” and “Can you meet with me? I have some questions to ask you.”
  3. Give compelling context. The best leaders help frame goals. They say, “Here’s what success looks like and this is what we need to do to get there.” Sounds easy, but it’s not. Those who are the best at it are great storytellers. They show rather than tell. They communicate, educate and bring people along with them on the journey to success rather than dictate.
  4. Seek maximum impact. Time and resources are limited for everybody. Great leaders and effective human beings make the most of both by seeking maximum impact, not settling for incremental progress. No matter how much progress they make they ask, “How can we make this even better?” and “Is there anything here we can stop doing?” This trait is why people who shoot for the moon often reach it.
  5. Constantly build up others. Recognizing the good work of others is a true superpower of great leadership. I don’t mean empty, blanket praise, as in “Wow, you’re doing a great job.” True recognition is specific: “You did a great job when you did that.” Why is this important? People want to be seen. They want to know that you see them as a real person. When we recognize people in this way, we help them find their path to success. And when they find it, success has a way of finding you, too. Great leaders always ask, “How can I help?” and “How can I help you be more successful?”
  6. Are adaptable. And help others adapt. This is important in times of change. Modern leadership is not about having all the answers. It’s about asking the right questions. The only way we can be effective as leaders is by helping others adapt to changing circumstances. Adaptable leaders encourage adaptability in others by asking, “How might we do something better?” and “Is there a different perspective we should consider?” and “How flexible can we be as people or as an organization to adapt to the change at hand?”

I hope you find these traits helpful on your leadership journey. I would love to hear what works for you in your life. You can send your thoughts to me at mhagerty@hagerty.com. Onward and upward!

McKeel Hagerty is the CEO of Hagerty, a specialty provider of classic vehicle insurance, headquartered in Traverse City.