What Makes a Good Leader? | CLS

What Makes a Good Leader?

In a world where many try to jump into the spotlight and create the false impression they have discovered something that nobody before them has ever considered, Angela Duckworth provides a welcome alternative. First off, she is one of the best communicators on the planet. Second, her book “Grit” is a New York Times best seller for a reason. And third, it is both classy and comforting to see how much credit for her success she attributes to the contributions of Anders Ericsson.

Both Ericsson and Duckworth confirm (irrefutably) what we have known in our hearts all along about peak performance: It has almost nothing to do with natural talent for a given field of endeavor and almost everything to do with passion, drive and determination (a.k.a. grit!). Tiger Woods didn’t become Tiger Woods simply because he was naturally gifted and destined to golf greatness. Tiger Woods became Tiger Woods because he was obsessed with becoming Tiger Woods! In Anders Ericsson terms, Tiger Woods had probably invested 10,000 hours honing his craft before the age of eight.

We (The Center for Leadership Studies) had the opportunity to conduct a research project with Anders Ericsson a few years back (before his untimely passing). In essence, we sought to evaluate the impact of Deliberate Practice (as defined by Ericsson) on becoming a better leader. Here is an article that encapsulated our findings: Practice Doesn’t Make Perfect … Perfect Practice Makes Perfect: An In-Depth Study of Virtual Leadership Development

Beyond those published conclusions, and in brief, here are three interdependent elements of leadership that great leaders “get gritty about” as it applies to the effective influence of others in pursuit of breakthrough performance:


Great leaders figure out (usually early on in their careers) that it is not about them. 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
  • Some of us are natural delegators
  • Some of us are naturally directive

Great leaders understand there is nothing inherently “good or bad” about any of these leadership styles. Each of these approaches works—and each of them doesn’t! It truly depends upon the unique circumstances of the situation the leader is attempting to impact. Great leaders work hard to develop proficiency with every available approach.


Great leaders also understand the reciprocal relationship between leadership and power:

  • Legitimate Power: This is the influence potential that comes with your position in your organization
  • Referent Power: This is the influence potential that comes from establishing trust with others

When the people you are attempting to influence trust you, they tell you the truth (good news and 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. They also intentionally invest in building the bonds of trust every chance they get with everyone around them.


Great leaders are distinguished by their Emotional Intelligence. 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 give way to an impulsive response.

Great leaders are also acutely aware of others. Beyond that, they increase the Emotional Intelligence of those around them by acting on that awareness. They ensure the “hard-charging” members of their teams understand the potential unintended consequences associated with their unbridled drive, while also making sure the more introverted members of their team come to grips with the potential consequences of withholding their perspective.

In conclusion, it would appear that regardless of the amount of natural leadership talent you were born with, becoming a great leader is akin to becoming great at anything else! You have to have passion for it. You have to engage in it (every chance you get). And you have to go out of your way to receive both feedback and feedforward, from an invested stakeholder.