How to become a world-class leader

The only standard that matters any more for leaders is world-class. Only world-class leaders can make their companies world-class and companies without this leadership excellence will inevitably fall short of being world-class themselves.

So, how do you become a world-class leader? My company has spent the past two years researching the capabilities, routines and mental pathways of the world’s most successful people including World Chess Champion, Magnus Carlsen, Chinese American cellist and child prodigy, Yo-Yo Ma, and Olympic gold medal swimmer Sarah Sjostrom, engaging with global experts on the future of work, reviewing more than 1,000 academic articles and running experimental trials to understand just that. What resulted is a methodology, what we call Potentiology™, that helps any leader – no matter your experience or skill – to develop world-class capabilities.

This is what we discovered about becoming a world-class leader:

1. Commit to excellence

The first challenge is coming to terms with the impossibility of the task.  By this, I mean that it is impossible to be world class when it comes to all aspects of leadership. There has never been a perfect leader. We have all heard the stories of Steve Jobs and certain derailing traits, such as a lack of empathy and an inability to collaborate. We can all think of a leader who we’ve admired more than any, but we are still aware of their shortcomings.

However, the impossibility of the task need not prevent a leader from being highly successful. The key is focus: rather than striving for perfection in everything, leaders should focus on being world-class in the capabilities that matter most for their organisation, their context and their role. Of course, this means companies must understand which aspects of leadership are most critical for their success. However, in our research, fewer than 30% have a clear idea of what these aspects are. Moreover, fewer than 10% have proof to back up their beliefs.

Based on our research, there are six capabilities that are essential to the success of leaders in any organisation:

  1. Capacity – Resilience and the ability to access a sense of purpose to achieve in challenging conditions.
  2. Connectedness– The power of empathy to lead individuals and teams, and enhance customer experience.
  3. Creativity– Non-linear thinking to generate new ideas and deliver innovation.
  4. Collaboration– The power of multiple people and perspectives to produce exponential outcomes.
  5. Choice– Scientific methods and behavioural insights for high-quality decisions.
  6. Change agility– Identification of inflection points, then adaptation and swift execution.

There is no limit to the number of core capabilities which might be most critical for a given organisation. However, what is important is selecting a small number and developing those to be world-class.

2. Create the pathway to world-class

Whenever we undertake tasks, whether simple or complex, they are accompanied by a mental representation of this activity in our brain. This can be playing the violin, driving a car, demonstrating empathy, developing strategy, fostering collaboration or driving innovation. This mental representation is the sum of neural activity associated with exercising that capability. This may include cognition, emotion, motor activity and more.

If you have no ability in a capability, this mental representation will be a complete blank. If we have some simple skills, we may have a basic sketch in our brain. If we are quite good at it, we have a reasonable blueprint. If you are world-class, like say Magnus Carlsen at chess or Michael Phelps at swimming, the mental representation is incredible.

The three key qualities of a mental representation are:

  • Accuracy: does our brain tell us to do things that actually work? Some of us may have a mental representation that is faulty e.g. how we respond to conflict, how we manage stress.
  • Completeness: does our brain cover all aspects of this capability? The more complex the capability, the more dimensions there are. The mental representation for ‘tossing a ball to serve’ is fairly simple but the mental representation for ‘playing tennis to a world top ten standard’ covers not only the ball toss, but the serve, the return, the tactics for games, and the required training, exercise, diet, motivation and stress management for an entire year.
  • Sophistication: does our brain address subtle nuances and enable us to address slight changes in context? Taking the tennis analogy above, how do we adjust to a different surface, opponent, temperature, stage of the match and a multitude of factors that we couldn’t have predicted when the match started?

Regardless of whether we are looking at business leadership or any other arena, those who are world-class in their field have incredibly accurate, complete and sophisticated mental representations. That’s precisely why they are world class.

So, if you are to move from where you currently are on a given capability (let’s say, collaboration, empathy or decision-making) to world class, this will only occur if you:

  • Master the fundamentals that underpin any capability
  • Hone your mental representation to be more accurate, complete and sophisticated.

Now, how on earth do you do that?

3. Use scientific methods and tools

If you want to be world-class at collaboration, empathy or decision-making, you have to do what helped Magnus Carlsen become world-class at chess or Michael Phelps become world-class as swimming. You’ll need to work hard and work smart.

Application is clearly important. No book or seminar will build (much) capability. However, simply doing tasks involving the capability won’t suffice either. I can play as many rounds of golf as I like but without some other intervention I won’t lower my handicap by much and I certainly won’t be able to turn pro.

The key is to use scientific methods and tools. By ‘scientific method’, I simply mean ‘doing what works’. The scientific method is to have hypotheses and to test these hypotheses dispassionately – retaining and amplifying what works and changing or abandoning what doesn’t. This requires data, feedback and measurement tools.

It also requires being out of your comfort zone. The simple reality is that becoming world-class requires discomfort – a lot of it.

To make this happen, development needs to take place in an organisation that is aligned for potentiation. There is little benefit in developing capability if the culture, structure or rules of the organisation snuff out the critical skills and reinforce others instead.

About the author

Anthony Mitchell is an organisational leadership expert, a regular contributor to Dynamic Business, and Chairman of strategic leadership advisory firm, Bendelta. He’s also Chairman of the Aurora Education Foundation, which provides accelerated education opportunities for high potential Indigenous students and Chairman of Amnesty International Australia from 2011-16.