What Separates the Best Leaders from the Rest? A Call to Rethink Our Thinking

By Gary Heil and Ryan Heil, Ph.D.

What Separates the Best Leaders from the Rest? A Call to Rethink Our Thinking

Leadership is in crisis. From the capitals of government to the hallways of our educational institutions to the executive suites on Wall Street, effective leadership is in short supply. We know it. We can feel it. 

It no longer surprises us that, according to the World Economic Forum, more than 80 percent of the respondents to the Survey on the Global Agenda agree that we’re in the midst of a leadership crisis. We experience the dearth of good leaders despite the fact that, in North America, we spend more than $50 billion a year trying to develop better leaders with little to show for it. 

It seems clear that we’ve underestimated the challenge and looked for answers in the wrong places. To be effective in meeting the challenges posed by this crisis, we’ll have to move beyond debates about styles and tactics and help leaders challenge deeply held beliefs about how to influence people and gain commitment.


We may be unconsciously wedded to the past

For decades, we’ve had a front-row seat in efforts to help leaders develop cultures that create successful outcomes while supporting people’s endeavors to reach their potential. Like many who came before us, we’ve been frustrated by our inability to significantly impact leader effectiveness and follower engagement. Our work has, however, given us strong hints as to why leadership development remains difficult and how it can become more effective.  

What are the characteristics of the most effective leaders? What separates the best from the rest?

We have posed these questions to a wide variety of leaders. We asked them to respond using a construct adopted from Blake and Mouton’s 1964 Grid Research. As in this study, we asked people to rate the best leaders on two factors—a concern for people and a concern for the task—using a 0 to 9 Likert scale. More than a half-century after the Grid research found that the best team leaders had a maximum concern for both people and the task, few leaders we interviewed identified a 9-9 team leader as most effective.

Surprisingly, in our conversations, most still talked about the need for balancing the “opposing” interests of people and organizations. Some favored a greater focus on people, noting, perhaps correctly, that people are the source of almost all value created in organizations. 

Others professed to be bottom-line leaders, strong in their belief that the purpose of the organization is to produce results. Most leaders saw the choice as people or tasks—a trade-off. Sadly, just as was the case more than 50 years ago, few articulated a belief that a maximum concern for both people and the task is required to be most effective.


What do interviews with more than 700 leaders reveal?

Our frustration with these deeply held leadership assumptions led us to interview more than 700 leaders to understand why leaders continue to view the world in ways that render them less effective. Our findings will not be surprising to most. Similar assertions have been made for decades. 

Our data suggest that we overvalue the effect of a leader’s individual characteristics and underestimate the impact of the culture in which that leader operates. In other words, culture often trumps character. 

As is the case in most cultures, the shared values and beliefs of the past tend to outlive the individuals in the organization. Too many of the leaders we interviewed had become prisoners of their cultures. Yesterday’s leadership beliefs had become tomorrow’s, notwithstanding the compelling logic of their ineffectiveness and the time and treasure spent trying to change them.


Exemplars show us what is possible

What was unmistakable in our study were the exemplar leaders and teams we met in the process. They were different. You could feel the difference the moment you walked through the door. They refused to be co-opted by the past. They had clearly chosen to blaze a road far more effective and far less traveled.

In-person, they exceeded what we envisioned when we thought about a 9-9 team leader in the Grid study. “Maximum concern for people and the task” didn’t capture how they led nor the effect they had on their teams. When you meet these leaders, you quickly realize they don’t do two or three things differently—they do a thousand little things differently because they think and believe differently. 


Exemplary leaders lead with love

The exemplary leaders we interviewed loved the people on their teams and encouraged others to do the same. Yes, loved. It’s the first thing you notice when you are with these teams. 

We were initially surprised by how unabashed these leaders were in the use of the term. To be with their teams is to experience the power and infectious nature of positive emotion. To be in their presence is to get a glimpse of what’s possible when fear on a team is reduced, and people feel free to engage and create. 

In these cases, love was more than a positive emotion. It was a lens through which these leaders saw the world. These leaders were not a little different. They were transformative in how they built relationships, which may give us insight into why these kinds of leaders remain rare.


Exemplary leaders lead with passion

These leaders were also unmistakably passionate about what they were trying to accomplish. You could feel that passion before they ended their first sentence, and by the end of their first paragraph, you not only understood what they were trying to do—you also were ready to enlist.  

They didn’t have visions; they had causes and callings. Most loved to win, but winning was more often the result of doing the extraordinary extraordinarily well. Today, it’s become too common to be “committed” to goal attainment but not emotionally engaged in being the best. In these cases, leadership is more difficult. 

People want to engage in enterprises that add meaning to their lives. They want to be the best. They want to solve big problems and make a difference in the lives of others. They don’t want to be average, achieve what they don’t care about, raise test scores two points, or make a company five more cents in EBIT. If we are honest about the number of leaders who are not passionate about what they’re doing, we’ll see how big a leadership hill we are attempting to climb.


Exemplary leaders lead with curiosity

We also found that the best leaders had a seemingly insatiable curiosity for information from any source that might help them learn and improve faster. To the average person, they were smart and driven. They had egos—healthy ones. But they were also willing to be vulnerable and mindful. They had confidence in their abilities and a commensurate belief that they didn’t have all the answers. Most had well-honed learning skills. They held strong opinions but were on a continual search for any idea that they might repurpose to their benefit. 

We were surprised by how many of the best were more interested in asking us questions about our study even as they were teaching us lessons that often left us speechless. 


Leadership is a reflection of who you are

Love others and build an environment where others will do the same. Have an infectious passion for what you are trying to do. And stay curious even as success grows, and make others accountable for learning. These are simple principles in concept, but they aren’t easily taught. In cases where these traits don’t come naturally, they require a significant change in the way leaders live. Leadership is not, and has never been, a set of techniques or styles that a person adopts to influence others. Leadership is a reflection of who the leader is and what he or she hopes to accomplish.  

If we are honest, we’re asking leaders to look at the person in the mirror and decide to change what they see in fundamental ways. We should not underestimate, nor shrink from the challenge.


Gary Heil and Ryan Heil, Ph.D., are internationally acclaimed experts in the fields of leadership, management, and organizational culture. Their work has helped some of the most prominent leaders and companies in the world—including former presidents of the United States, Fortune 100 companies, and professional sports coaches—become more innovative and culturally vital. They share their wisdom in the new book Choose Love Not Fear: How the Best Leaders Build Cultures of Engagement and Innovation That Unleash Human Potential. Learn more at garyheil.com.