Lessons From Seasoned Leaders For Aspiring Ones

I co-teach a course on leadership at Stanford Business School with Charles O’Reilly, an expert in leadership and organizational behavior who has taught extensively and has published more than 100 papers and three books on these subjects.

Each week, our students invite a different leader to class — industry CEOs, four-star generals, entrepreneurs, turnaround leaders, politicians, non-profit leaders, and even hall-of-fame professional athletes. Over the years we’ve welcomed Arianna Huffington; former NFL quarterback Steve Young; former Microsoft CEO and current Los Angeles Clippers owner Steve Ballmer; retired US Army General John Abizaid; founder and director of Homeboy Industries Father Greg Boyle and Sun Microsystems co-founder Scott McNealy, among many others.

These leaders come from all over the world and from every conceivable background. On one level, they couldn’t be more diverse. On another, they all share the ability to gather followers to a common purpose – the essence of leadership. Most importantly, they’ve attracted the followers they deserve. By this I mean that, just as a restaurant appeals to the clientele appropriate to its menu and prices, leaders tend to draw followers who benefit most from their strengths. It’s a sort of self-selective process over time.

Often, people turn to leaders to borrow their judgment, draft behind them when the way is unclear, and rely on them to remove challenging obstacles. Devoted followers believe their chosen leaders help them get to a summit the followers want to reach, but might not attain on their own.

When the students in our class begin to understand this dynamic, they see that most of them can become leaders if they work to build on their strengths and curtail their weaknesses – and if they’re clear about where they hope to take others and what experience and expertise they bring.

It’s enlightening – and fun – for the students to have access to these remarkable leaders. They can ask any questions they want during 90-minute confidential sessions. The class generally comes away surprised that our guests are so different from each other, that their strengths (and limitations) are so disparate, and that so few would fit well in another’s position.

Some of the traits the students commonly observe in these sessions include the following:

  • Leaders tend to be good at inductive thinking, at illustrating general concepts and ideas with specific ones.
  • Many are not natural extroverts, but all are self-confident.
  • Luck often plays a role in their ascension to leadership positions.
  • Most leaders genuinely like other people and care about their teams.
  • They’re often exceptional communicators.
  • The best leaders are competitive, but they also understand others’ need to win.
  • They’re good story-tellers – they don’t bury the lede.
  • They’re generally readers, listeners, and lifelong learners.
  • Most leaders have somewhat evident core values.
  • They spend little time simply presiding; they like to take a more active approach.
  • They’re smart — but not necessarily the “smartest person in the room.” (And if they are, they make you work at figuring that out.)
  • Many are adept at the use of humor to deflect tension and avoid awkward questions.

In the parade of leaders that visit during the course, dramatic differences become apparent between, say, successful entrepreneurs and four-star generals. Both command respect, illustrate conclusions with specifics, and have a clear sense of purpose. But entrepreneurs are much more free-form, more likely to rail against the status quo and to see being an iconoclast as a virtue – a trait that could be potentially career-ending for military leaders.

Likewise, cause leaders and professional athletes provide another predictable and stark contrast in style — but they both tend to share an infectious passion that draws others to them. The contrasts are remarkable, as well, between industry, age, and stage of the enterprise they’re leading.

In the end, there really isn’t a single mold or set of attributes that makes for an exceptional leader. But that said, most of those who come to this Stanford course each fall do have a shared trait: Resilience. Simply put, they’re able to bounce back from failure – an invaluable skill.

As Nelson Mandela observed after his unlikely path to leadership: “The greatest glory in living lies not in never falling, but in rising every time we fall.”

By Joel Peterson