4 things only the best leaders do, based on interviews with 2,500+ executives

X-factor leaders — as they are called — bust complexity, halt "us-them" thinking, pull their weight with teams in two distinct ways and possess a track record of grooming multiple effective leaders. 

This is the conclusion drawn by three leadership experts: David Reimer, CEO and managing partner of leadership consultancy Merryck & Co. Americas; Adam Bryant, managing director of Merryck & Co. and a former New York Times journalist who created the "Corner Office" interview series; and Harry Feuerstein, president of Merryck & Co. Americas and the firm's head of global services. 

In an article in strategy+business, Mr. Reimer, Mr. Bryant and Mr. Feuerstein say their findings about exceptional leaders are based on data collected from 2008 to 2018 as they followed the careers of many C-suite leaders. They conducted in-depth interviews with more than 2,500 executives, participated in hundreds of C-suite successions and worked alongside more than 1,000 individual senior executives. 

Seventy percent of the organizations in the analysis had annual revenues of $5 billion or more, and the vast majority were publicly traded. The remaining 30 percent ranged in size from $100 million to $5 billion in annual revenues and were evenly split between private and public. Read the complete analysis here in strategy+business.  

1. Exceptional leaders simplify complexity and build operational narratives around it, which their teams easily understand and embrace. Most executives are accustomed to processing vast amounts of information on the fly, but standout leaders go one step further. They own complexity by creating operational narratives that illustrate two things: (1) how the company will carry out a strategy and (2) how the company will track progress at a glance. The best leaders give the entire organization a common reference point to track progress toward a long-term goal.

2. They drive ambition for the whole enterprise. Any company with more than one team, department or function is at risk of "us-them" thinking, but the best executives remember the only "us" that matters is the company. These leaders maintain an enterprisewide mentality by overcoming two fundamental human tendencies: tribalism and the sense of safety that comes from navigating areas of expertise. Enterprise-level thinking occurs only when executives have enough self-awareness to understand these impulses and self-discipline to overcome them. As one former CEO told the authors: "I tell people that once you get a job you should act like you run the place. Not in terms of ego, but in terms of how you think about the business. … Think about your piece of the business and the total business. This way you'll always represent a broader perspective."

3. The best C-suite candidates play well on teams. Executives are encouraged and incentivized to lead teams as they progress through the ranks, yet self-identified alpha types are rarely conditioned to contribute as teammates. It's no wonder, then, why the most extraordinary executives emphasize individual and collective leadership. They ask questions like, "What do we need to work on together to accelerate the strategy? What are the three priorities that we must tackle as a team?" Input received then drives meeting agendas and how decisions are made. "With people at this level of their career, it’s no longer about whether you are the smartest subject-matter expert in the room," Lynn J. Good, CEO of Duke Energy, told the authors. "It's whether you can be effective in leading a diverse team."

4. They nurture talent and build leaders. Executives fall into one of two camps, the authors posit. One group sees people who work for them as assets for their own career advancement. The other sees the potential in their employees and upholds the responsibility to develop them. Rather than trying to read whether a person is in camp A or B, one unambiguous measure to consider is the executive's track record. Who in the company has taken on greater responsibility after working for the executive? "Our work with succession candidates indicates that a track record of grooming multiple effective leaders is an oft-overlooked measure of authentic leadership capability, yet a reliable predictor of C-suite performance," the authors write. "It is also a measure of self-awareness; people who rise quickly in an organization usually have bosses who are looking out for their best interests." 

The bottom line 

The authors sum up their findings like this: "X-factor leaders create a clear worldview — nimble constructs and operational narratives — that everyone buys into. They win by setting the right priorities, building effective teams, and helping the organization step outside its silos to act as one. And they create diverse sets of leaders and teams — not as an intellectual or civic pursuit, but because they view doing so as key to outperforming the market today and tomorrow. Identifying and developing such leaders should be a galvanizing and energizing imperative for organizations seeking to ensure long-term strategic performance."

Read the full article here to gain insights on how organizations can develop leaders with the exceptional traits outlined above. 

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