For the last 15+ years, my colleagues and I have traveled all around the world, and asked everyone from high school students to executives sitting on corporate boards what differentiates outstanding leaders from those who simply occupy a leadership position.
We do this by asking them to think of a specific person they know personally whom they consider an outstanding leader. We then ask them to list the characteristics, descriptions, or phrases that capture what makes this specific leader outstanding.
Next, we ask them to consider a specific person whom they also know but consider a lousy, deficient leader. Again, we request they think of a specific person they have known and observed well. As before, we ask them to write down characteristics, descriptions, or phrases that capture what makes this person a lousy leader.
What we have found is astounding. Whether exploring the question with high school students in Albuquerque, New Mexico, senior cooperative leaders in Curitiba, Brazil, executives at IESE in Barcelona, Spain, or entrepreneurs at Babson College, the lists are the same. Age, gender, industry, culture, for profit, not-for-profit, ethnicity, economic status, etc.—it does not matter. All the criteria that make us diverse as a human race seem to fade away with these two questions. We believe their answers capture something that rises above the important aspects that diversify us. We are capturing a key aspect of the human condition.
When we look at the lists and explore what they collectively tell us, we find two factors that define outstanding leaders.
- Outstanding leaders create a connection with others. These leaders focus outward on others and that focus aids them in making connections and developing meaningful relationships. Outstanding leaders are inward directed by their values, vision, sense of purpose, and self-knowledge, which allows them to be outward focused. On the other hand, lousy leaders focus inward and too often get caught up in their own “internal noise” (e.g., insecurity, fear, need to control others to create predictability, etc.). This inhibits their ability to care about and see the value of creating meaningful relationships with others.
- Second, we find that outstanding leaders create an overall positive tone. It does not mean the outstanding leaders do not ever have a bad day or get upset or lose patience once in a while. However, the overall emotional tone they create in the organization is positive (as experienced by others, not just the leader). Lousy leaders create an overall negative tone.
My colleagues, Richard Boyatzis and Annie McKee, coined the term resonant leaders to describe leaders who work to create an overall positive tone and a connection with others as the primary style of their leadership. It is through these leaders’ resonance—their positive connection with others—that they maintain a generative influence on those they lead.
Resonant leadership is a relational approach to leadership. The relationships these leaders create with others allow them to maintain influence for long periods and drive long-term individual and organizational results.
Dissonant leaders—those who create an overall negative tone and do not work to create meaningful relationships with those they try to influence—also get results, at least in the short-term, but they do it by intimidation, control, threats, and fear. Dissonant leaders’ ability to maintain influence is short term and carries a heavy cost to individuals and to the organization.
Emotional and Social Competence
When we ask leaders to list characteristics of outstanding leaders they know, they hardly ever mention attributes related to cognitive capability or intelligence. Outstanding leaders are rarely described by their IQ, technical expertise, or as “the smartest person I know.”
It is not that these are not important to job performance. If a leader or manager does not know their craft, they will not last long in their positions of responsibility. However, these are not the criteria that differentiate outstanding from average leaders. One must meet a threshold of cognitive capability and technical expertise to be able to perform, but when it comes to leadership, a different set of criteria separates outstanding from average.
Our research has found that demonstrating emotional and social competence is the key to creating resonance. In other words, resonant leaders have an awareness of themselves and use that awareness to effectively self-manage. They also develop an awareness of others (because they have been focusing on others rather than themselves) and use that awareness to effectively manage and lead others.
Relationally minded leaders demonstrate emotional and social-based competencies such as self-awareness, self-control, empathy, and teamwork. As they demonstrate these competencies, resonance emerges.
In one study with 240 experienced managers, I tested which had the more significant impact on the leaders’ effectiveness: their IQ or their emotional and social competence. Leaders’ IQ had no impact on their effectiveness, whereas their relational behaviors (e.g., empathy, self-control, etc.) accounted for nearly 50% of their effectiveness. Many other studies have found similar results.
I find it fascinating that on the one hand, organizations spend a significant amount of money (more than $16 billion a year in the United States) on leader development efforts. This expenditure includes things like executive education courses, executive coaching, 360-degree (or multi-rater) assessment, self-assessment (e.g., Myers-Briggs, Strength Finders, etc.), and the like.
What is the hope in making such a significant financial investment? In asking those who write the check, I have found they are hoping to win the commitment of their leaders. More importantly, they desire to help their leaders grow, change, or develop in ways that improve organizational performance. Leader change and development is ultimately the return they seek on their leader development investments.
On the other hand, it is well established in psychology that adults are poor, at best, in changing anything about themselves in sustainable ways. Choose the behavior, any behavior, adults are trying to change or develop. It can be an effort to become more assertive or more patient, demonstrate more empathy, to lose weight or overcoming a smoking habit or drug addiction. The results are clear: adults fail much more than they succeed at sustainably changing.
I am not talking about the person who loses the weight then gains it back, to then work hard to lose it again, and to only gain it back again. That is not sustainable change. Let’s take just health-related change as an example. The American Psychological Association reports:
“Fewer than one in five adults (16%) report being very successful at making health-related improvements such as losing weight (20%), starting a regular exercise program (15%), eating a healthier diet (10%), and reducing stress (7% percent).”
These studies are reporting on people who want to make changes; they are intentional and hopeful in their efforts to change. When you take the numbers and reverse them, you find that the failure rate is astonishing. Those who want to lose weight fail 80% of the time. Starting a regular exercise program has an 85% failure rate. Eating a healthier diet (90%) and reducing stress (93%) fare even worse.
It’s no surprise then that leader development efforts are not more successful, with lasting success rates often below 10% after the initial honeymoon effect wears off. This 10% success rate is really a 90% failure rate. So much for that return on investment of the $16 billion leader development expenditure made in the United States each year.
Leadership Development That Lasts
It’s not all bad news. For the last 40 years, Richard Boyatzis and a team of us have been studying the factors that are present when sustainable change does take place. We identified several key factors, in order to be successful. Here are two:
- First, the leaders must have clarity about who they want to become and what they want to do. Here we are not speaking of clarity about their goals, although that, too, is important. Instead we are talking about clarity about their dreams, hopes, and aspirations. In psychology, this is referred to as one’s ideal self. It is not what they should do, ought to do, or what others expect them to do, but it is what they genuinely want to be and/or do. The ideal self is correlated with intrinsic motivation, the most powerful form of human motivation.
- Second, adults who are successful at changing in sustainable ways are supported by others. Resonant leaders use their emotional and social competence to become resonant. With that resonance, they become supporters and inspirers of change. They invest the time in helping those they lead discover their ideal self and understand the ideal of the department or organization. As those they lead pursue the ideal, they are supported by their resonant leader.
These two factors—the support from the resonant leader and the leader helping those they lead to discover their desired ideal—helps followers change, grow, and develop.