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Unexpected great leaders


Mark Walsh identifies what makes those unlikely candidates into such successful leaders.

Leaders are freaks. Leadership is an individual matter and leaders may stand out from the crowd, or paradoxically, be unusual in how well they blend into one. In this article I would like to highlight
The “common sense” or “heroic” model of leadership is that people are born great due to having more traits like courage, intelligence and vision. They then stride out ahead, head held high and chest puffed making powerful speeches and inspiring others to follow. Modern business research shows this to be an inaccurate picture of reality and I would also say an undesirable ideal. Below are some of the more unusual characteristics and behaviours I would associate with leadership.

More XYZ

Leaders often hold the standard values of their culture, but embody them more fully. A military leader may be recognised as being more courageous (Alexander The Great), a rare politician as more honest (Abraham Lincoln) and a leader from the technology sector as more nerdy (Bill Gates). More XYZ however is not enough to explain how leaders stand out as qualitatively different.

Rebellion and vision

Leaders engage in unusual behaviour. Perhaps more of a behavioural definition than a trait - one has to do something better than the norm to really lead. For this reason leaders are often unconventional, rebellious and visionary.
Richard Branson, Fred Kofman and Ricardo Semler are archetypes of this in the modern age, as was Henry Ford. A major issue for organisations today is how to avoid just promoting mediocre yes-men and allow room for the mavericks who will save their butts when times change.

Self knowledge

Leaders have an unusual degree of self-knowledge; by this I mean they’re highly aware of their own mental state, beliefs, desires and short-comings. Goffey and Jones state that this at least needs to be “good enough” so as not to sabotage a leader. It is my experience that deep and often painful personal work is the only way to develop a leader and quick-fix “tricks and tips” don’t cut it.

Care and suffering

Leaders care more. Think of William Wilberforce or Bob Geldof before he sold out – leaders are passionate about something. Although the word “passionate” is often overused by soulless mission-statement (such as “we’re passionate about providing shareholder value and service”), however a leader needs to be passionate and has often sacrificed for their beliefs. Leaders do what they love and believe in it long into the night whether they are paid or not.
Note that a leader’s traits often come from their own personal suffering. Churchill was a neglected child who suffered bouts of depression and alcoholism – perhaps this was where the resilience he so wonderfully embodied during WWII was formed? Leaders not only “follow their bliss” but also their heartbreak. (From Andrew Harvey’s reframe of Jospeh Campbell who stated that this phrase was so misused he’d wished he’d said “follow your blisters”.)

Self care

Note too that Churchill painted, laid bricks, bathed and napped daily to relieve this stress, and, like many leaders, was supported by a devoted partner with whom he was quite sentimental. The dedication to looking after their own well-being is often not immediately apparent in a leader and the necessary counter-balance to caring deeply about a cause. As I advise in stress workshops – put your own oxygen mask on first.

Service, humility and spiritual depth

Leaders have a higher purpose. Mother Teresa perhaps best exemplifies the leader as a spiritually developed, humble servant of something greater. While she has been criticised on other fronts she remains a potent symbol of how leadership is as much a matter of humility and spiritual depth, as it is of operational competence. Little leadership training addresses this dimension, servant leadership, integral approaches and embodied management training being notable exceptions.
Interestingly, 'levels of development' which are one measure of personal development or spirituality can be assessed reliably (see Ken Wilber’s overviews of Spiral Dynamics, Cook-Grueter and Robert Kegan for example). Meaning that a business could hire, fire or promote based on this over-riding principle.

Mindfulness and embodiment

The 'secret weapons' of mindfulness and embodied practices are out of the bag. Successful leaders have been shown to be far more likely than others to engage in meditative practices and physical exercise (as far back as Napoleon Hill’s research for example). The former could mean traditional meditation practice or any activity done with full concentration or intent (Churchill’s bricklaying for example).
Attention to the body not only supports health but the “magic” of gravitas is an embodied phenomena as discussed in a previous article on how to be charismatic. Those wishing to see the evidence base on this might look at the research done by Richard Strozzi-Heckler and the US armed forces which was previously classified.


Leaders rarely just survey all the facts and make a logical decision (“62 per cent of CEOs rate gut feelings as being highly influential in their business decisions” - PRWeek/Burson-Marsteller CEO Survey). While an effective leader is certainly very likely to have a developed cognitive capacity this alone is not enough. Gut instinct is something leaders use, yet few trainers acknowledge. I work a great deal in this area as do a growing number of people such as Alison Pothier (UK) and Elise Lebeau (USA).

And they can be quiet and 'ordinary'

Leaders don’t have to be extrovertly exceptional and the notion of a 'quiet leader' exemplified by Bill Gates or King George VI (a good balance to Churchill?) has gained ground in recent years. There are many ways to be a leader and being an everyman is one – I will therefore happily contradict myself and say that leaders are quite ordinary.
I am also an advocate of the notion that we are all leaders in leading our own lives, or at least have the potential. My first model for leadership was not business mentors but my mother who, like many parents, quietly went about raising a family and holding down a job under often difficult conditions. This too is leadership.

Mark Walsh is a UK pioneer in the 'embodied' approach to management and leadership training. Based in Brighton he heads Integration Training - Business Training Providers specialising in leadership, team building, stress management and time management training. Contact Mark on 07762 541 855 or visit his leadership training blog.

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