John Gardner has a wonderful quote about leaders: “We have all occasionally encountered top persons who couldn’t lead a squad of seven-year-olds to the ice cream counter.”
It’s natural for each of us to look for good leaders in our businesses, churches, schools, communities and sports. When we witness courage and integrity—and a vision for the future we can rally around—we get excited about what’s possible.
When we take a closer look at what we’ve learned about leadership—and what it means to be an effective leader—it turns out that, of the thousands of leadership books out there, only a minute percentage rely on both quantitative and qualitative data. Most are based on anecdotes or individual examples rather than an evidence-driven approach to understanding great leadership.
We, too, have fallen into the habit of using individual examples and reductionist models in our work instead of recognizing that leadership is messy, complicated, constantly evolving and contextual. And while Shackleton or Dwight Eisenhower might be relevant for one company at one point in time, no single case is relevant to every organization all the time—there’s more to it than that.
Great leadership is purposeful leadership
We assembled a team of our consultants to sort fact from fiction, and tested our approach for real-world relevance—using data from our work with nearly a million leaders over the last 30 years. We combined the quantitative evidence with the experiential and anecdotal data, stories and experiences. We enlisted the help of over 100 clients and academic experts to help us unpack leadership, through the lens of what separates the great ones from everyone else.
And here’s what we found: great leaders and great leadership are purposeful—it’s about making and keeping these five commitments:
A great leader inspires hope and optimism for the future by directing energy toward a vision. They motivate their team to work passionately toward an exciting future and to successfully execute on shared goals. They think both big- and small-picture—distilling ideas into focused messages to galvanize support and infuse positivity into routine dialogue. Leaders who inspire have the courage to ask “what if” to challenge the status quo and imagine new possibilities around every corner.
Leaders invite engagement by communicating clearly and candidly with their teams, creating an environment where every individual feels valued, trusted and respected. They are clear on their mission and values—and invite collaboration and discussion. An engaged leader incites buy-in and helps others feel safe through consistent and thoughtful actions.
Engagement goes above and beyond inviting diversity of thought to intentionally recognizing what makes each and every individual unique—and demonstrating that you appreciate the value they bring to their role. It’s about creating a safe environment where everyone can focus on meaningful work, and feel as though their leader genuinely cares about them as an individual.
Innovating is about freedom of creation. It’s about guiding your team in a way that encourages them to reimagine what’s possible and evolve the business forward in a way that builds competitive differentiation. Innovative leaders not only explore and navigate new opportunities—they are fearless decision makers and are not afraid to change the game. Innovative leaders make connections between ideas and events, and think of better solutions to problems. They will not settle for the status quo and are always focused on creating real impact—even if it means pushing themselves and their team out of their comfort zone.
The best dreams, teams and innovations fade if they’re not coupled with a strong bias toward decision making and delivering results. Achievement-oriented leaders distill ideas into focused messages that foster support and instinctively build and connect processes within the organization. They consistently deliver on the commitments they make to themselves and to their stakeholders.
Leaders who excel in this area understand how to balance time, energy and resources in a way that keeps their team focused and on task. They develop processes that are repeatable, scalable and measurable, without getting lost in unnecessary activity or detail.
The commitment to be purposeful flows through and connects to the other four commitments described above. The purposeful leader exudes spirit, purpose, gritty determination and generosity. They are trustworthy and respectful—consistently demonstrating self-knowledge, commitment, courage and goodwill. They are mature in the face of setbacks, consider their own impact on others, and are acutely self-aware. They instill confidence in others, even when they’ve become disenchanted.
Perhaps most importantly, purposeful is never accidental. And it’s a developed skill that is built over time. The depressing and exciting thing about this is that a leader will never get to the point of being fully purposeful. Because all of us are human—it’s a journey, not a destination. Even the most purposeful leaders will at times be reactive. Getting there is a never-ending journey, and it is an aspirational one against which we can continue to make progress.
So, tell us… how purposeful are you? Take our two-minute quiz to find out.