The 3 sub-conscious ‘tells’ of great leaders

Nov 27, 2010

I’ve spent my life having to make near-instant assessments on people’s leadership skills. It’s not a nice thing to have to do, and I wish I didn’t have to do it. I’m also acutely aware that it’s a far-from-perfect process; but the nature of what I do requires it, nonetheless. So, reluctantly, I’ve done it – many hundreds of times. And while I’ve often come to the wrong conclusions (less often, over time), when you repeat any process hundreds of times there will eventually be an aggregation of patterns that manifest themselves.

Here are the three patterns I see most often in the subconscious ‘tells’ of great leaders:

1. Placidity

All truly great leaders (as opposed to short- or medium-term shooting stars) have as their default mode an even-tempered, centered focus on what’s happening ‘in the room’. That’s not to say they cannot or will not use anger, impatience or other non-balanced emotions at times, but if and when that happens they are consciously using those emotions, rather than being subject to those emotions.

In order to achieve this state of placidity, most truly great leaders have either acquired acute time-, priority- and crisis-management skills, or have a highly-developed power of concentration that allows them to block out all the other issues screaming for their attention while focussing on the issue at hand.

A leader’s placidity (not to be confused with passivity) is most often evidenced by an ability to focus, uninterrupted, on the issue at hand, without the existence of (or worse, a need for) undue distraction.

2. Detachment

By this I don’t mean a lack of passion or commitment, but rather a separation of personal ego from outcome. This in my experience is the key differentiator between the truly great leader and the merely brilliant one – the ability to care deeply about the business, but not to be so identified with the outcomes of decisions as to require self-justification.

Detachment (as defined above) shows itself in many interesting ways: a lack of pre-judgement; no need to name-drop, boast or justify; openness to outside ideas; lack of pre-or post-rationalization; willingness to reach beyond hierarchy for the right answers; a reasonable sense of humor, a little self-deprecation.

3. Economy

Perhaps the most telling indicator – for me – of latent good leadership is the economy of effort put out by the individual. This is a variation of what David Allen calls ‘mind like water’: when a stone is thrown into the water, the water does not know or care about the motive of the stone thrower – only the precisely needed amount of effort is expended in rippling, then returning to its previous, placid (again with that word), state.

There’s a lot to do if you’re a leader – and a precise feel for economy of effort is a cardinal skill in getting it all done. Too little action or reaction to a situation and the issue doesn’t get resolved; too much action or reaction and…well, we’ve all experienced what it’s like to work with someone who overreacts to events. It’s not pretty.

I’m not proposing that these three attributes are the definition of a leader – they fall far short of that – just that at least two out of three are usually present. If you believe you you only demonstrate one (or none) of these, then you might want to consider developing one or more of the others.