Three Key Qualities of Exceptional Leaders


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Being a market research consultant means I spend my time questioning ideas and people, writing up findings and sharing insights. This have given me a privileged position of seeing how these findings and insights are understood and used, often at the very highest level in large organisations, and from this vantage point allowing me to see what skills contribute to brilliant leadership.

Just as a note there are not too many exceptional leaders, but there are quite a lot of really good ones, and those generally demonstrate at least two of the key qualities outlined in this piece. All of these qualities could be practiced but, and this is a very big but, I think that in the exceptional leaders they are just there. Whether this means that those of us not born with these traits will have to accept being a really good leader rather than an exceptional one is a point up for debate, but if anyone thinks they have learnt them I would love to hear from you because it would be great to share how it could be done.

1. Intelligence

This is the ability to see through a problem on the first or at most second explanation. The ability to go from A to Q, back to B and C then on to Z without having to have each aspect explained. This also includes the ability to ask for an explanation at any point on that journey and be able to understand not only the point but the reason it is important. The kind of deep intelligence I have seen allows the leader to know not only the right outcome they want for their organisations but also the right reason for needing that outcome.

For example; a leader might see the need to change a key process in their organisation, in changing the process it may save the organisation money, however very rarely have I seen an exceptional leader make a major decision based on the need to same money alone. They will see through the financial saving to the other side of process change, it might be a better more focused team, a customer benefit or something else, but they wil not be satisified with a mere saving. They will ensure they get the organisation benefit outcome, with the money saving coming as a side benefit to their organisation.

2. Humility

The kind of humility which great leaders have is not the sort which leaves them bent and bowed, it is of the type which means that their teams and employees run their PR for them and talk to them easily. Their humility leaves them open to hear and therefore learn more, increasing their intelligence still further. It also means that those quiet voiced, loyal workers you find around the workplace have the confidence to go to the business leader and share useful pieces of knowledge in a way which they would be unable to do if the leader was of the more brash type. Of all the qualities humility appears to be the most unusual, but if I had to pick one which was the most important it would be this one.

One final thought on humility, the reason it is so important is because humility sows the seed of connection to others, be they workers, managers, customers, shareholders, whoever. It is this connection to many people which makes an organisation successful. No organisation will ever be successful unless they can attract others to it, either to work for it, run it, buy from it or invest in it. Arrogance drives people away, humility draws people in that is why in a leader it is so vital.

3. Determination and then some …

In the UK we have a phrase for this; it is “bloody mindedness.” What it means is that in spite of everything, if the leader knows something is right, and because they deploy traits one and two on the list they are sure they are right for the right reasons, they will keep going until they achieve the outcome they are after. It is on this one where the good from the exceptional are sorted. If the leader is good, they will almost certainly have intelligence and the type of determination required, however without humility this kind of determination will sometimes look like the ego taking over, with humility this level of determination is vital.

In my time working with boards, CEO’s, owners, MD’s you name it I have seen all sorts of obstacles and problems which stop great leaders getting their organisations to where they need to be. Often, they are working for someone who is a good leader but not a great one; perhaps one who is working for their pension or trying to keep their shareholders happy rather than the greater good, or their own focus and drive means they unseat or upset one of their peers, I cannot think though of one great leader who has been thwarted in their efforts by recession, poor products or any non human factor.

Great leaders overcome all of those problems, the only thing I have seen them struggle with are other leaders. This is partly due to their own humility, most great leaders have no idea they are one, so expect others to be the same as they are in their outlook, determination and intellect. As a consultant I have often felt the need to point out to such people that it is they who are different; the rest of us admire them, but know the best we can hope for is to help them sometimes and if possible stay close.

So if you have read this and can think of at least two or three great leaders you have met along the way, the chances are you might be one too, as like attracts like. If you absolutely think you are not one, look again, there might just be one lurking under that determined and focused shell you carry around.

Alison Bond
Alison Bond, director of The Halo Works Ltd., is the author, with Merlin Stone, of Direct Hit (Financial Times/ Prentice Hall, 1995), The Definitive Guide to Direct and Interactive Marketing (Financial Times/ Prentice Hall, 23) and Consumer Insight (Kogan Page Ltd., 24). She is also visiting fellow at CSEM, a partner of Brunel University.


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