The Surprising Twist on the Trek to the Top

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

By Sara Canaday

Research clearly shows that successful leaders tend to share a common list of attributes or behaviors: the ability to communicate, collaborate, and project a powerful presence; but here’s what the science doesn’t explain. Once a leader rises through an organization to a certain level, simply exhibiting those attributes isn’t enough.

The most effective executives bring depth and dimension to their leadership brands by knowing when and how to exhibit varying shades of their strongest attributes—even when those variations might seem like opposite ends of the spectrum.

Consider this example. Five midlevel managers within a company might all exhibit extremely high levels of confidence; but the one selected for promotion is often the manager who can balance that confidence with a sense of humility in the right situations. For example, the promoted manager shares credit with her team when she steps to the podium to accept a performance award. She can graciously admit making a mistake, and she takes time to consider the ideas of other team members even though she already has a solution in mind. The manager with the well-balanced leadership style knows how to temper that fierce confidence with a generous splash of humility…just enough to be open to the possibility that, despite her own expertise, the best solution might come from a different source. Finesse and timing are vital when applying these contrasting attributes, but managers who learn to balance them successfully will reap the distinct career benefits.

For many people, this concept is a surprising paradox. However, when we look more closely at the behavior of great leaders (from business to politics, and everything in between), we often find that they have mastered the art of demonstrating complementary (or even opposite) attributes in certain situations:

  • Confident yet humble
  • Highly energetic yet calm in a crisis
  • Ambitious yet empowering
  • Task oriented yet people-sensitive
  • Strategic yet conceptual/creative
  • Visionary yet realistic/practical
  • Straightforward yet diplomatic

So what does this mean for high potentials and managers who have aspirations of jockeying to the top of the organizational chart? First, they need to be aware of the subtle shift in behavioral expectations that will come with career advancement so they aren’t blindsided by the change; and second, they need to purposefully develop a strategy that will help them be prepared to display the different facets of their leadership brands. The four steps that follow provide a jump-start for creating that strategy.

1. Improve Your Self-Awareness
Before we can effectively exhibit two sides of the same attribute, it’s critical to know where our current behavior falls on the broad scale. Self-assessment can only get us so far in determining that position, so we need to seek candid feedback from the people around us. How do our colleagues and co-workers perceive our behaviors? The options for gathering that feedback are diverse: mentors, advisors, accountability partners, 360° surveys. When we understand how others view our leadership skills, we can use that self-awareness to make educated shifts in our behavior and meet the paradoxical expectations of management at a higher level.

2. Embrace the New Rules
As Marshall Goldsmith says in his brilliant book, What Got You Here Won’t Get You There, we all reach a point where our continued success depends on our ability to let go of old habits. He explains that the behaviors we honed early in our careers are likely to fall somewhere to the left of the leadership “sweet spot.” While characteristics from the traditional management profile (competitive, decisive, confident) can help us reach the middle levels of an organization, scaling the upper rungs of the ladder will require a wider range of these attributes. To embody the more diverse executive-level profile (understated enthusiasm, commanding presence, modest wisdom) we need to break free from the existing assumptions. Letting go of the old rules that worked so well in the past can be tough, but finding that new sweet spot will help us move ahead with a faster career trajectory.

3. Get the Edge from Anticipation
Successful leaders know how to predict the potential outcomes of their actions and decisions. By accurately anticipating the responses of others, they can adjust their behaviors to generate the desired results. We can capture the same “anticipation advantage” by becoming students of human behavior—reading books on the topic, paying closer attention to those around us, and learning to interpret the people and information involved in particular situations. Using anticipation as a genuine business tool takes effort, but the investment is well worth the time and energy. Once we can adjust our behaviors based on anticipation, we can communicate more effectively to ensure that our messages are interpreted as intended and, many times, avoid inadvertent mistakes.

4. Strive for Consistency
A solid track record of consistency within our personal brands at lower levels of management creates a strong foundation for the expected (and even required) fluctuations in our executive-level leadership behaviors. For instance, if we have always been highly sensitive to social norms and political undercurrents, an occasional rogue point of view might be “averaged out” by our history of steady perspectives and give the perception of being innovative rather than disruptive. Consistency also provides more latitude in the event of a blunder. If we’re normally calm and stable under pressure but become overly passionate about an issue during a crisis, others won’t immediately conclude that we’re too emotional to be a good manager. Because of our consistent leadership brand over time, they may actually find our vulnerability appropriate and refreshing.

By understanding why we need to shift our leadership attributes as we move up within an organization (and having a strategy to do it), we can lay the groundwork for greater career success on our trek to

About the Author(s)

Sara Canaday is a nationally recognized leadership expert, corporate speaker, and owner of Sara Canaday & Associates, a consulting firm based in Austin, TX. Her new book You. According to Them (2012) is for professionals at all levels who want to uncover the blindspots that impact their reputations and their careers. For more information, visit: