3 Subtle Signs of Truly Exceptional Leadership

Monday 4th April, 2016

In his blog, 'Are You a Great Leader?', Ricky Davison talks about the five characteristics which define remarkable leadership for him.

I absolutely agree that flexibility; vision; communications; motivation and team building capabilities are fundamental to great leadership and would say that mastering an additional three traits take you from amongst the great leaders to the very exclusive club of truly exceptional leaders.

The behaviours below are not always obvious, or measurable, but my observation is that in combination, they differentiate those who are just trying from those who are. In fact, I would go so far as to say that the leaders who most often progress to executive leadership demonstrate at least one of these three behaviours.placeholder Conversely, if you are stuck at senior management - unable to break through to the C-suite despite consistently delivering both strategically and operationally - it might be time to measure yourself against these traits.

So what are the 3 subtle signs of truly exceptional leadership?

1. Inclusive: This is the leader who is valuable because they value everyone. This leader actually remembers your name once they have met you. In the café they banter with the barista, at functions they talk to everyone, irrespective of organisational hierarchy. No one is beneath their notice, they literally and figuratively don’t move around ‘cocooned by their inner circle’.

Why is being inclusive so important? It acknowledges, through action, the ‘cliché’ that human capital is the most important asset of any organisation. The act of inclusion implicitly recognises that everyone and anyone makes a valuable contribution. There are few people who are truly inclusive. Don’t believe me? Do you engage with the cleaners at work?

2. Back their team: In the first six months of this leader’s tenure they assessed their team, cleaned out the ones with the wrong fit, hired smartly and has been backing each and every direct report ever since. By backing, I mean they actively and publicly promote individual achievements, always give their team more than due credit in senior forums (yes, the important word here is more) and allows reasonable mistakes to be made without recrimination.

This trait is important because it empowers innovation, acknowledges good work and makes people feel good. All of which build and maintain genuine mutual trust. Trust, as you know, is the vital ingredient that engenders discretionary effort and organisational loyalty. Real trust is so very rare these days in the corporate world, a truly exceptional leader is one who can form trusting relationships.

3. Plan succession: No one is indispensable. Everyone knows that logically, but hardly anyone is prepared to put themselves on the line. This rare leader however, actively finds their own replacement, whether by nurturing internal talent, or by ‘courting’ external talent. They do so because they are gutsy, confident and have humility.

They are humble enough to accept they are replaceable, but clever enough to leverage that fact; by taking part in orchestrating Plan B, they subtly demonstrate to the organisation that they are considered and confident. Confident in their own ability to move up. By planning their succession, they are subtly saying, ‘I have delivered, I have found someone else who can deliver the same, so I am ready for the next step.’ This sounds simple in theory, but the truth is there aren’t many who are courageous enough to replace themselves. Everyone loves measured confidence and this leader manifests confidence in their environment.

Now ask yourself, do you demonstrate the three behaviours of a truly exceptional leader?


Gareth Jones is a co-founder and Executive Director at Evolve Intelligence.