The Rare Qualities of Leadership

 There’s a difference between a great leader and a notorious leader.

Lao-Tse, the great philosopher, said ‘the greatest leader of all is when the people say they did it  themselves’. A good leader needs to have four essential qualities – to be a good role model, be authentic, be a realist and be an enabler. Rare in combination, these aren’t tools or mindsets or prescriptions – they’re a foundation upon which to build a successful leadership style of your own.


First, you need to be a good role model. If you’re asking someone to do something really tough, would you be willing to do that yourself, have you done that yourself? Would you submit yourself to the very thing you’re asking someone else to submit themselves to? You must understand what they’re going through so you know when they need support, when they need consideration, or when they need a kick up the arse.

In the corporate world, people can achieve great results, but you can do so and trash the environment, trash the community or abuse privilege, so it’s actually easy in many ways to be successful, but to do so in a way that displays character and fine ethics and morals, what people would call the triple bottom line, is harder. Financially, environmentally and socially are the three bottom lines. Share price is determined not just on return on investment, but also on your reputation. If you want to be really mercenary about it, the moral side to business actually makes solid financial sense.

Environmentally and socially sound is financially sound. Especially in the long term. I don’t use notorious leaders as role models, because no leader is perfect. Any leader that is a good role model for someone may not be a good role model for someone else. Leadership is in the situation. There are going to be situations where you’re not a great leader. Leadership is fundamentally context dependent. Take for example, Rudy Giuliani, who emerged in the aftermath of 9/11 in a way that he’d never done before. His leadership came from an authentic love for his home town, at that moment.


Knowing who you are, understanding the good bits, the bad bits, the compromising bits and how you look through other people’s lenses and how that impacts them is crucial to good leadership. I don’t think Kerry Packer has any doubts who he is. He accepts the consequences. It’s when you don’t know who you are and you don’t accept the consequences, that’s when you get into trouble. 

Companies don’t necessarily want a particular style of leadership. They may say so, but what they want is effective relationships, they want results, outcomes, they want people staying, they want talented people around, and they want you to be flexible enough to deal with some quirky people. If you have diversity you cover all the angles, all perspectives. The same goes for leadership. A lot of the work that I do is to teach the mindset toenable people to be true to themselves and to be behaviourally flexible to be influential with lots of other types so you can actually embrace the diversity.

There are three main approaches to leadership:

  • The gung ho acerbic type who looks at the world only as results. It’s often effective, but if everyone looked at the world like that, we’d have a real problem.
  • Those who are sensitive to the human dynamic in all situations. That can be a very effective leadership style. But if you’re like that about everything, then it’s not as effective.
  • Another style is the analytic one, the person who likes to think about things deeply, then act on the given data.

If you break them down you can see that that one approach can be better than the others in a given situation. Thus it becomes obvious that you would want to have access to all these styles. A leader can be all three, but you will have tendency to one or the other. If you’re projecting something you’re not, then eventually you’ll break apart internally. You might be able to carry it off for a little bit, but these are the people who have heart attacks and breakdowns and engage in self-destructive behaviour. People who are like that don’t usually know they need to be authentic, but astute people do. They are realists.


The vast majority of human beings do not like facing reality. Reality terrifies people. We have this wonderful human device called denial. Most people think it’s someone else who lives in denial but most human beings live in some sort of denial all the time. You’re taught as children to be in denial, when your parents say ‘don’t do that!’. Denial is legitimised all the time.

Denial is a very powerful coping mechanism that we get really rehearsed in. To learn to face reality, the best thing is to be with people who face reality, who will tell you the truth. A realist understands things as they are, and looks to understand things as they are. They don’t pass any judgment about how people are. They say ‘if I want a particular outcome, what do I need to do to get it?’. You face the reality of what you’re dealing with, whether you like it or not.

Equally, a realist realises that if you don’t take into account people’s sensibilities when you’re helping them face reality, it’s not going to go anywhere either. Good leaders say, “This is reality. Now how are we going to face it? We’re not going to waste our time on things that waste our energy, we’re just going to face it, deal with it and move forward.” There are going to be difficulties – that’s a reality. What did you expect?

People feel far safer with leaders who face reality. But you can’t be a realist and effective unless you are also an enabler.


An enabler identifies what a person can do, where they are limited and what they need, to become unlimited in that area. An enabler allows people to fulfill the potential that you see inside them, even if they can’t see it themselves.

You have to remember, though, people’s right to choose. If they don’t want to be enabled, they don’t want to. The most enabling thing in that sort of situation is to help the person understand the choice they’re making and make them clear that that is the choice that they wanted to make.

Enabling is about helping people understand the choices that they make and making it clear the consequences of those choices. It doesn’t mean that you do it for them, often they do it themselves. Sometimes people want to make a choice that they’re not capable of making – they want to go down a path that they don’t have all the elements that will lead to that.

Enabling is really about testing people’s perceptions of reality and helping them make choices that fulfill what they actually want to achieve.


These four qualities are rare qualities to find in combination, but when you do, they should be treated as a gem. It’s not about having a particular personality type. It doesn’t matter what situation or person you’re dealing with, if you are both an enabler and a realist, authentic and a good role model. In 25 years of working with leaders, these are the things that I see actually produce leverage.


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