The Five Skills of a Breakthrough Leader

Published: Apr 08, 2019
Modified: Mar 24, 2020

By Bart Sayle, Surinder Kumar

How does a $2 billion dollar company become a $5 billion company in a few years? Why do some companies excel at innovation and demonstrate exceptional generational growth while others fail to sustain the growth engine? In their upcoming book Riding the Blue Train (Portfolio, 2006), authors Bart Sayle, CEO of The Breakthrough Group, and Surinder Kumar, Chief Innovation Officer for the Wm. Wrigley Jr. Company, contend that the key to exceptional business is exceptional people, and to build the business, you must build the people.

Great business leaders, they say, consistently exhibit exceptional personal power—an inordinate ability to turn insights, inspiration and intentions into reality without controlling, manipulating or dominating their people. In the process, they build exceptionally talented people who build businesses with sustainable, generational growth.

These leaders have five specific traits that distinguish them as “breakthrough leaders."


Breakthrough leaders lead people, not companies. They recognize that leading, motivating, and coaching is about the people and not about an organization. Understanding what drives individual behavior is important, as is recognizing how to motivate and inspire. The breakthrough leader observes others and knows that ultimately, people want to lead their own lives. Employees want to be empowered and inspired, but they want to travel their own journey.

A breakthrough leader’s power does not come from title or authority, it comes from authenticity and the ability to relate to people, enroll them in the journey and engage their energies and emotions in the goals of the organization. The breakthrough leader works to inspire and empower the individual, and that means being flexible enough to relate at many different levels—even when the individual in question rebels against authority.

These leaders lead from the front with words and actions that are congruent. They recognize that you can’t lead from the back and have a clear understanding of what’s going on in the trenches. To be effective, the leader needs to be in front of the customer and in front of and with the employees. The breakthrough leader understands generational, cultural and individual differences and intrinsic desires, because they lead people, not processes or organizations.


Breakthrough leaders know that “the vision” doesn’t exist in some far-off future. The vision is where you come from each day. It is how you think, and how you act. Living the vision means making an intentional effort to achieve goals now and bring the future into the present.

These leaders live in alignment with their vision. They think the vision, act the vision, and communicate the vision. If a leader’s goal were to create an environmentally friendly company, that leader would do everything possible to personify that vision immediately, even if it will take years to bring the vision to fruition completely. Office supplies, cleaning products, plants in the lobby, and even the food served in the company cafeteria would reflect the vision. The leader’s personal choices, from his clothing to the car he drove, would symbolize his commitment to the vision.


Breakthrough leaders set “impossibly high” standards for themselves. They understand that they need to demand more from themselves than they do from the people they lead. This goes beyond the simple notion of being a good role model. The breakthrough leader believes that anything is possible; therefore, he consistently strives to achieve the impossible.

A common mistake a new leader makes is to continue to operate at the level that got him to his current position. They assume they’re already “good enough,” not realizing that the new promotion requires an entirely new level of standards. This leads to their slippage into “Business-as-Usual” mode without raising their own standards. When a leader fails to raise his own standards, he lowers the standards for the entire organization. By showing that there’s never a point where one gets to rest on one’s laurels, the breakthrough leader sets the example that continual growth is an essential part of the company’s culture.


Breakthrough leaders shift between three roles: leader, manager and coach. They lead people, manage “stuff” and coach performance. When leaders collapse those roles into one, they don’t live up to their breakthrough potential. The roles become jumbled with none of them done to their maximum level.

For instance, we have seen many  executives putting every task on their “to do” list, operating as if they can manage every task. This type of leadership disempowers the organization. It doesn’t take people skills to manage paper and projects (stuff). However, it does take people skills to work with people. They are different jobs. When a leader acts as a manager, he should be working on timelines, projects and deadlines—not developing staff. People cannot be managed; they can be led and inspired. They manage themselves. A leader manages the tools, environment and processes around people to help them succeed and empowers staff by giving them the tools and skills to manage themselves.

When a leader is working with his team and sees a performance issue, his role at that point is coaching. Again, this is a different function. It requires one-on-one attention, perhaps reinforcing a vision, providing help developing skills or making sure the employee is in alignment with the overall goals of the company.

Great leaders understand the distinction between leader, manager, and coach and they sharpen their skills to become good at all three.


The role of the breakthrough leader is to create more leaders, not followers. A company with one powerful leader and a collection of acolytes is limited regardless of the leader’s vision and talents. A breakthrough company needs people at every level who can lead in alignment with the company’s vision.

Creating leaders entails a certain amount of openness and self-assurance from the Breakthrough Leader. Someone who feels threatened by the growth of the people who work for him is likely to stunt that growth. What the breakthrough leader understands is that the organization’s overall success is a reflection of his leadership. A team that produces great results, growth and innovation shows that the head of that team is a superb leader.

About the Author(s)

Dr. Bart Sayle, Ph.D., is a highly sought-after business advisor, speaker and CEO coach and is the creator of The Breakthrough Process, now being used by Fortune 500 companies worldwide.
Dr. Surinder Kumar, Ph.D., is the Chief Innovation Officer of the Wm. Wrigley Jr. Company in Chicago. Dr. Kumar is a member of the Executive Leadership Team at Wrigley and directs the team that creates innovative new products for worldwide markets.