What Great Leaders Do That Good Leaders Don't
One mindset separates great leaders from good ones. You won’t find it in leadership assessments. It’s never articulated in job descriptions. And it isn’t measured in performance management systems. Seldom demanded or expected, no one finds fault in a leader for not embodying it. However, when they do, they can move mountains.
The mindset is this: A sense of personal responsibility for the current reality in which they find themselves regardless of how they got there. A willingness to embrace and own the difficult, messy, and seemingly-unsolvable problems they encounter even if they had no hand in creating them. Great leaders hold this mindset without hesitation. With calm and grace.
Good leadership is the ability to have vision, integrity, and empathy; to be a strong connector, communicator, and delegator; to understand people and how to motivate them.
Great leadership is the ability to stay put when the sh*t hits the fan; to find workable paths forward when you’re at a dead end; to engage and inspire others when you could justifiably throw up your hands or walk away.
On March 9, 1933, five days after Franklin Delano Roosevelt was sworn into his first term, he stemmed a potentially disastrous banking crisis left by Herbert Hoover. He did so by pushing through the Emergency Banking Act to shore up financial institutions then reassuring the public that banks were safe through a nationwide fireside chat. California Senator Hiram Johnson met him in the White House four days later and noted in his diary, “The remarkable thing about [FDR] to me was his readiness to assume responsibility and his taking that responsibility with a smile.”
On September 29, 1982, two people died near Chicago from cyanide-laced Tylenol capsules. Over the next several days five more people died. On October 6, James Burke, CEO of Jonhson & Johnson (maker of Tylenol) decided to remove all 31 million bottles of the capsules from American store shelves at cost of $100M; a decision the FBI and FDA considered an overreaction and didn’t support. “I listened and was sympathetic,” Burke said, “But I was still very concerned this was not the right solution, either from the point of view of the public, or from the point of view of my company’s business.” Over forty years later, Burke’s actions, driven by a strong sense of responsibility, remain a legendary example of great crisis management and leadership.
Sooner or later every good leader is presented with an opportunity to be a great one. We never really know how we’ll react until it happens. Good leadership is the product of training and experience: It can be learned. Great leadership is the product of circumstance: It has to be risen to.
That said, the muscles we build on a daily basis can improve our chances of successfully making the leap when we’re called. We can recognize when we’re shifting blame and instead consider how we may have contributed to a situation. We can notice when we get stuck looking backwards in frustration and instead look forward with possibility. We can catch ourselves when we complain and instead consider how we can change things.
All leaders who make the leap from good to great confront the same challenge: People—sometimes a lot of them—will advise you you’re making the wrong call. They will present rational and defensible options that are “easier” to pursue. They will question your judgment. The art of great leadership is figuring out when to heed their advice and when to ignore it.
Great leadership is difficult and lonely. The only thing that makes it bearable is the conviction that what you’re doing is right. And a sense of responsibility for making that conviction a reality.