The Intangibles of Leadership

Published: Jan 24, 2019
Modified: Mar 24, 2020

By Richard Davis

What defines truly great leadership? If you have aspirations to the c-suite or another high-level leadership role, you’ve probably asked yourself this question before, and it’s a difficult one to answer. Every leader is different, and necessarily so—the same person who excels in one organization could just as easily fail in another. However, if you look closely, you will start to see that there are patterns in the attributes of people who succeed at the highest levels. Extraordinary leaders possess certain intangible qualities that often fall between the lines of traditional leadership models, so they can be hard to identify and even harder to develop. After more than ten years of assessing people at the most senior levels, I have learned what these subtle behaviors are, and how aspiring leaders can understand and develop the ones that will make them successful within their respective organizations. I have found the following 10 behaviors to be fundamental to executive success. Read on to discover how you can strengthen these qualities in yourself and advance on the path to truly great leadership.

Knowledge gleaned from previous experiences does not become wisdom until it is consciously applied to new circumstances. Great leaders don’t just think about what happened, they think about why it happened.

Development Tip: Build wisdom by designating time for self-reflection. Reserve an hour each week to think about the “Big Stuff.” What decisions did you make? What have you learned in the last week?

Social judgment is your ability to analyze people and situations, then make good decisions based on that information. If you can do this, you will have a deeper appreciation of what is motivating the person sitting across the table from you.

Development Tip: Step back and observe meeting dynamics. The pace and flow of the discussion provides important clues as to what the group cares about, topics that are uncomfortable, and which issues will require the most guidance.

Leaders who maintain steady performance at the top levels of business anchor their decisions in a consistent set of values. This stability and steadfastness affect every relationship.

Development Tip: It may seem basic, but stick to “doing the right thing.” Be nice to people, let others win occasionally. Be thankful, polite, and respectful. People will notice these positive characteristics and define you as having integrity.

Executives with presence seize your attention not just because they have power, but because they know how to use it. Understanding the impact you have is crucial to running a successful organization.

Development Tip: When you step into a room, look people in the eye and offer a firm handshake. Make others comfortable, build rapport, and elevate the conversation to focus on the bigger picture.

Self-insight is your primary tool for growth and development. If you know your strengths and weaknesses, you can become the most effective type of leader: strong and focused yet adaptable.

Development Tip: Do you have trusted advisors you can confide in? If necessary, look outside the organization for them. Solicit honest feedback from people you trust, no matter how difficult it may be to hear.

Awareness of your emotional patterns and triggers, and the ability to manage those feelings, are essential to fully formed leadership. Many business leaders have similar skills, but only a remarkable few master their emotions.

Development Tip: Executive maturity depends on your ability to recognize not only your own true feelings but also the signals emitted by others. See if you can spot subtle hints in your team.

People don’t want their leaders to be ineffectual, but they do want to see a willingness to take risks and discuss past failures. Leaders who admit their mistakes are more relatable and more trustworthy.

Development Tip: Put simply, being fallible is being real. Let people in. Show them a bit of the real you. It will make an enormous difference in the way they trust and invest in you.

Some leaders exercise their influence so delicately that those around them happily follow without questioning why. Others are more insistent, forcefully staking out their territory at the front of the pack. Both methods require will.

Development Tip: Will requires “stick-to-itiveness.” You can’t quit. When obstacles get in your way and it seems that you’ll never meet your objectives, remember this: You are probably just a hair’s breadth away.

In a study of world-class performers, few had been considered prodigies. The most accomplished subjects had worked hard for years to succeed. The conclusions are powerful: drive, energy, and persistence—not inherent talent—propel people to the top.

Development Tip: Do you shy away from “big” issues? Don’t! Take them on. See what you’re made of. The more you force yourself to tackle these challenges, the more confident in your own abilities you will become.

Leaders need to possess an underlying belief that they will achieve their objectives. Those who don’t tend to make safe decisions that accomplish little. Extraordinary leaders know their boundaries of competence and masterfully exploit them.

Development Tip: Seek the help of a mentor or role model to build confidence through osmosis. Visualize your success, recognize your self-defeating patterns, and know that you are capable of being at least one order of magnitude better than you think you are.

About the Author(s)

Richard Davis is a management psychologist and partner at RHR International. He is author of The Intangibles of Leadership: The 10 Qualities of Superior Executive Performance (Jossey-Bass, 2010). For more information: www.intangiblesof