The seven elements of exceptional leadership

Adrian Gilpin
Jun 16, 2015 · 9 min read

Leadership is not something you do. It is certainly not something you do to others. Leadership is a journey of the self; one that inspires, attracts and persuades others by its passion, authenticity and courage.

Think of almost anyone who has attracted willing followers and they will be someone driven by passion, authenticity (they were true to their own driving values) and courage at the core of their being.

So how do we model this in organisations and start to shape the development of our future leaders?

Firstly we must once and for all get rid of the idea of leadership competencies. Learning a set of skills does not make a leader. How do you learn passion, authenticity and courage? You can’t take people on a certification programme in any of these. It is impossible to create a leadership formula — not that this stops many learning managers trying to do so. Management schools have diluted the essence of leadership into a set of skills, largely around communication, influence and objective setting. Invaluable as these talents are, they are not leadership.

It is easy to see what leadership is not. Let’s look at what we have found in our two decade long study of high performance leaders. There are seven elements to the leadership story.

CHOICE: Leaders are better ‘meaning makers’ than others

The first and most fundamental element we find is that leaders have reached a point in their lives where they are determined to make their own choices. There are three key choices made by leaders — what situations and events mean, how they feel about any given situation, and what they are going to do next. Think about this personally. When something happens that has an impact on you — your first response is internal. You attach some meaning to the event (“that was good”, “that was bad”) and this affects how you feel (good or bad). Then you react; you do something as a direct response to what is happening. You behave better when you are feeling good and resourceful. If you can always choose to think, feel and be at your best — your impact and influence will also be at its greatest.

Leaders make their own decisions about what things mean. Nothing has any meaning until you decide to give it one. It is rarely an event that upsets you but what you think the event means that determines how you feel. Leadership begins when we develop complete command of our interpretations, or meaning-making. “It’s not what happens to me, but how I choose to react to what happens to me that will lay the foundations of my success,” was one of my teachers’ way of saying the same thing.

Leaders take command, not seek control. Leaders take command of their internal process of meaning making. This puts them in command of their behaviour at a deep level of their consciousness. One leader we worked with was a passionate yachtsman and he said that when he faced the most horrendous storm of his life, with seas dwarfing his boat, he knew that he was not in control (of nature), but he believed (and so did his crew) that he was still in command (of himself and his decisions). This creates a contagion of confidence and trust.

Leaders understand the meaning of response-ability; the ability to respond to what happens. In his business, the same man created a culture of response-ability not reactivity; people were encouraged to stop, reflect, decide how they would like to respond to the current situation in a perfect world and then do so. This is a culture of choice and command, not command and control.

TALENTS: Leaders unleash their own, and others’ natural talents

Leaders have learned to use their natural talents. In a society where we are consistently being encouraged to develop those parts of us that are weak, we often forget to pay much attention to our talents.

The leaders that have been part of this research all revealed that at some critical point they had fought against the attempts by others to mould them and shape them into being something they are not. I have said that leadership is not a set of competencies. I will go further and say that while we continue to attempt to mould employees into some artificial competency framework we will fail catastrophically to develop the leaders of the future. There are leaders of all shapes and sizes; small and large, intellectual and barely educated, aggressive and gentle, egotistical and humble, articulate and tongue-tied, numerate and number-blind. Leadership is not about what you can do but about who you are. The strongest leaders have learned to utilise their natural talents (for numbers, organisation, speaking, visioning, building relationships, whatever) and become brilliant in deployment of their talents. They do not invest hugely in developing their weaknesses — they compensate for them by finding others who have the strengths they do not. In fact, one of the greatest causes of stress in human beings (leaders and followers) is being prevented from using those abilities that come naturally, and being forced to develop skills that do not. Attempts to re-shape and re-mould individuals in schools, in the home and at work is a systemic problem in society that is not only preventing the development of great leaders but also handicapping most of the people we employ in our organisations.

BELIEF: Leaders understand the power of belief systems

An idea has no power unless it is reinforced by unshakable belief. To make things happen, in order to change things, people must believe that it’s possible, believe that it’s desirable, and believe that they can make it happen. Great ideas that fail to capture belief never happen. Leadership development is firstly about learning how to develop the personal belief systems that make things happen, the belief systems that change things. Then it is about learning how to convince others — how to change minds, persuade and build belief.

It is with good reason that I have built the Institute of Human Development around the single idea of helping individuals and teams make the shift from I can’t to I can. Of every lever that a managemet board can pull, this is the one with the greatesr return on investment and the one that will create the most empowering culture of confidence in the face of change.

PASSION: Leaders leverage passion to create change

Ideas don’t always fail because they are bad; they most often fail because someone does not care enough to keep it going. It is hard to think of any great human achievement that was not driven by an almost obsessive passion. If leadership is about making things happen, passion is the driving force that will make it so. Passion inspires confidence and passion energises change. Passion gets us into relationships and breaks them. Passion creates businesses, builds magnificent engineering projects, fuels great music and art, enables us to get to the moon and beyond, builds and destroys empires, leads to acts of extraordinary courage and achievement.

Leaders also unleash passion in those they lead. Leaders transmit their own passion from their core until it becomes contagious. If passion does not underpin an idea it will never happen. When passion is fully unleashed, the idea will likely become unstoppable — good or evil. Boards cannot legislate for passion inside an organisation, nor can we really teach it. It must be unleashed and it is the leaders (wherever they are inside the organisation) who can do this.

IDENTITY: Leaders have a clear sense of identity

Over twenty years working in the field of personal development has taught me that how we see ourselves, our sense of who we are, our self identity, is one of the most potent forces driving our success, happiness and fulfilment. At the heart of every highly effective leader is a powerful idea about the self. However much battering the self has had from school days, parents, siblings, colleagues and broken relationships, the leader’s Self must remain strong. Such an inner sense of identity is often mistaken for arrogance. It isn’t (usually). The test is that arrogance is a defence mechanism for inhibition and anxiety. Self-awareness and confidence in the Self is something different and is often so powerful that it daunts others. Leaders have learned that a negative image of the Self will become self-prophesying. Instead, they choose to see themselves as leaders and influencers, creators of change — even healers sometimes (of people, causes, problems, society).

Leaders build organisations with a strong sense of identity: a strong sense of self translates into something else that is key to making an organisation powerful — the public identity of the organisation, or the Brand. Brand is not a logo on a TV screen or prduct. Brand is not a strap line or a painted tail fin. Brand is the expression of the essence of the organisation, just as identity is the expression of the essence of the individual.

VISION: Leaders live a vision as if it is already real

Vision is a picture of the future; be it a vision for a business, a vision for an individual, or a vision for a better world. Vision is light years away from setting objectives or agreeing aims. Objectives are largely rational, logical and often numeric and — because of the increasing influence of business school theory — they are often expressed as SMART (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic and Timed.) Who gets out of bed with passion for realistic goals? Who is driven to feats of courage and determination for achievable goals? Who puts personality conflicts and daily frustrations aside for such safe and predictable results? Some people do, but not leaders.

Leaders are almost invariable nurturing a Big Hairy Audacious Goal (BHAG) of some kind — sometimes articulated, sometimes not. Leaders who understand the key steps to Vision Building make things happen at a pace that others can only wonder at. All great leaders are dreamers; not all dreamers are great leaders. Knowing how to dream and break that dream into journey points — key identifiable successes — is how leaders make things happen.

Whatever the vision, and whatever process an individual uses to clarify her vision to herself and others, leaders are able to think, live, work and act as if their vision is inevitable, or even as if it has already come to pass. This “acting as if” is a powerful state of mind, one often associated with high performance athletes. While others generally hold an internal representation of their goal or vision “out there in the future”, many leaders are able to conceive of their goals and visions “as already achieved in time”. This mental habit comes naturally to some, and can be coached in others. It is often a fast track to achieving breathtaking results.

PURPOSE: Leaders act with deliberate purpose and clear intent

Exceptional leaders are driven by something higher than vision. They are driven by a sense of purpose. Purpose is a difficult concept — it is easy to know when it is not present; we know when what we are doing seems pointless; we know when we feel that we are not making a difference. Purpose is the answer to the question, “Why? Why this vision? Why this goal?” It can also be the answer to the bigger more abstract question of, “Who or what am I here to serve?”

However we make sense of this, purpose is often about making a difference but a difference that resonates with the leader’s own soul. Perhaps it is the answer to the question, “why me?” If you knew why you were here — what gift or talent you had to offer, what you most passionately want to change or achieve, and why — then you will be asking leadership questions.

Aligning each of these seven elements — Choice, Talent, Belief, Passion, Identity, Vision and Purpose — is vital; it is when all come into alignment that the leaders realises his or her true power. This is also true of a team. When a group of people know that they are intent on making a difference, have a clear vision of what to do and can align the way the see themselves with their passion and belief in the possibility of change, then their talents will become fully utilised and they will make different choices to those who are out of alignment and floundering in mediocrity and frustration. We have never yet found a team that did not have the potential to break through to a new level of performance by consciously working to align the seven elements this way.

Pathfinder Blog

To inspire you to be fearless in life, work and all things.

    Adrian Gilpin

    Written by

    Chair of Institute of Human Development. Creator of Pathfinder. Author. Speaker. Coach. Reach at

    Pathfinder Blog

    To inspire you to be fearless in life, work and all things.

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