In the DNA? What it takes to be an extraordinary leader

woman standing out in a crowd of silhouettes

Executives, leaders, sales people and professionals are all searching for a definitive answer on what constitutes an extraordinary leader. There’s abundant research on this topic and many sets of answers. I have spent my 11 years of leadership coaching searching and questioning to find the ultimate answer and have discovered it’s not that simple.

People such as Winston Churchill, Richard Branson, Steve Waugh, Nelson Mandela, Ita Buttrose, Oprah Winfrey, Ron Barassi, Wayne Bennett, Ken Grenda and Billy Beane are a few leaders that have been listed by executive coaching clients as extraordinary. My personal view is, it’s relative to how you and your team define extraordinary and what DNA you and your team believes make an extraordinary leader.

Bennett Millers latest film Moneyball, features Billy Beane (Brad Pitt), the Oakland A’s general manager defying conventional wisdom. Beane outsmarts his affluent opponents, winning more matches on around a quarter of the budget.  He is courageous in his decisions, passionate about his sport and understands that the Oakland A’s must adapt or die.

His character endures many challenges all the while demonstrating the traits of an extraordinary leader. He adapted…quickly and motivated and engaged his team successfully.

Bus Magnate, Head of Grenda Corporate, Ken Grenda last year handed out $15 million in bonuses to loyal staff. He instilled a ‘family culture’ within his workplace. Speaking with his wife soon after they were married he said, ‘I want you to treat our employees as one of the family. They are as good as us. They are our equals. Without them we couldn’t have a business. Without them we wouldn’t have bread and butter on our table, I want you to learn their names. Every time you see them I want you to be nice.’

This value system demonstrated allegiance and productivity and it worked. A mechanic at Grenda recalls a time his boss came over to him in the repair workshop to shake his “oil-stained mitt”. “My hand was dirty. I was a bit ashamed. He insisted and I couldn’t believe it. Always…his door was open. This was like my second home. Not many people get respect like Ken.” It is this extraordinary leadership approach that inspires others to be the best they can be.

The philosopher Johann Wolfgang von Goethe wrote a wonderfully insightful description of leadership:

- I have come to the frightening conclusion that I am the decisive element.

- It is my personal approach that creates the climate.

- It is my daily mood that makes the weather.

- I possess tremendous power to make a life miserable or joyous,

- I can be a tool of torture or an instrument of inspiration.

- I can humiliate or humor, hurt or heal.

- In it Goethe captures leaders’ power to influence the attitudes and feelings of their colleagues.

The Oxford Dictionary’s definition of extraordinary states the term means “very unusual or remarkable, unusually great, exceptional in character, amount, extent, degree, noteworthy”.

That said, look at this definition in context with leadership and ask yourself the following questions:

  1. What does extraordinary mean to you? Write down three to six of the most extraordinary people or leaders you have met or know of and list what attributes make them this way.
  2. What does extraordinary mean to each member of your team? Ask each member of your team to write down three to six of the most extraordinary people or leaders they have met or heard of. Ask them to list what leadership attributes stand out. Ask them what they think an  extraordinary leader does. How does he/she act, communicate, motivate, inspire, behave?

Here are a few examples of what great leaders do well based on my experience:

  • They create a culture a vision.
  • They are very clear around outcomes expected of those they lead.
  • They are a role model, push for constant improvement, know what motivates individuals within their team.
  • They take the initiative, innovates, communicate powerfully.
  • They listen and importantly they help others grow.
  • They are decisive.

When your team is clear on the DNA of an extraordinary leader ask them to rate you against these competencies.  This exercise may be both enlightening and frightening at the same time but the answers will give you insight to the areas of leadership you need to spend most time developing.  This type of exercise is best kept anonymous so that people can answer honestly without consequence.

You will likely be surprised by the diversity of the answers you receive from your team. Your view of extraordinary leadership may be very different to those you lead.

Now you have gained greater insight to what an extraordinary leader looks like and the attributes important to your team you can start to:

  • Look at ways to close the gap between how you currently lead and how you would like to lead in the future;
  • List the habits you need to change in your quest to become an extraordinary leader;
  • Ask yourself what commitment you will make to develop new and remarkable leadership traits and
  • If necessary engage the team, a mentor or leadership coach to help make you accountable and support you throughout the journey.

In short, to be an extraordinary leader, gain clarity around:

  1. What attributes define extraordinary. What does extraordinary look like, feel like to you and your team?
  2. How extraordinary are you now?
  3. What areas do you need to work on to become an extraordinary leader?
  4. Establish ways to work on these leadership traits that will move you toward your goal and then make a commitment to make the necessary change.
  5. Be extraordinary. Make it a habit
  6. Critique, and check in.

You can be extraordinary. It is in all of our DNA. Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. It’s not all about balance sheets.

- Robyn Creed is Director of Coaching at Barrett Consulting; an end-to-end consulting practice with a reputation in the Australian market as trusted experts and advisors in creating high performing, sustainable people, teams and leaders. Robyn is a sought after certified Coach who has specialised training in Executive and Business Coaching and a history of delivering results.

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