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  • Writer's pictureJeremy Noble

What Separates the Best Leaders from the Worst?

I was the lead psychologist for an organization with a rigorous personnel selection process for their mid to senior-level positions. Job candidates were subjected to hours of psychological testing, individual interviews, panel interviews, and other forms of assessment that spanned across multiple days. Despite the time and resources invested in the process, I kept overhearing complaints from existing employees about those hired. Employees repeatedly complained about narcissistic leaders who were only worried about their own appearance and career trajectory rather than the wellbeing of their people. That was a problem.

I decided to reevaluate our selection process in an attempt to increase its precision and started by surveying the organization. I asked employees to tell me about the best and the worst leaders they’ve ever had and to share what made them so great or so poor. Here’s what they said:


The most endorsed trait of a top leader was humility. Employees most valued leaders who were perceived as humble. Definitions of humility range from having a low estimate of one’s own importance to being free from pride and arrogance. These definitions touch on a key component of leadership: the emphasis on the importance of others and the de-emphasis on the importance of self.

According to Jim Collins, management researcher and author of the groundbreaking book Good to Great, a top-leader or “level five leader,” as Collins calls it, is someone who looks outward during successes and inward during failures. In other words, top leaders recognize their role as being enablers rather than doers. They are driven by their team’s success rather than by their own while also taking ownership of any shortfalls.


Employees were interested in leaders who are invested in employee development. Top leaders take time to develop their employees. Again, leaders recognize their role as enablers and revolve the majority of efforts around this task. From their decades of research on workplace dynamics, global analytics and advice firm, Gallup, states the best leaders are those who actively invest in the development of their subordinates. Employees who feel that their supervisors encourage their development are more engaged at work, and employee engagement is directly linked to a number of positive outcomes to include increased productivity.

Self-focused leaders, on the other hand, see themselves as the team frontman. Their mission is to outshine others, and they see their subordinates as vehicles to do so. According to organizational psychologist, Adam Grant, “Selfish leaders use power for personal gain. [Selfless] leaders use power for social good.” As a result, the self-focused leader creates a work environment of employees who feel overworked and underappreciated.


Employees overwhelmingly rejected the narcissistic leader. Narcissism is a trait most commonly associated with toxic or counterproductive leadership. To the outside observer, narcissism presents as overconfidence and cockiness. But, to the narcissist, it is simply an attempt to overcompensate for underlying insecurity. True narcissism is fragile, inflated self-esteem. It is insecurity in the disguise of bravado.

Insecure leaders operate from a kiss up, kick down approach. They are the opposite of Collins’ “level five leader,” as they take credit for team successes and are quick to cast blame for team failures. For the insecure leader, taking responsibility for failure is synonymous with being a failure - a status every narcissist fears. In addition, critical feedback is like kryptonite to an insecure leader, both receiving it and delivering it to their boss. It causes fear and avoidance. As a result, candor is crushed.

Secure leaders are able to separate situation from identity. They view failures as opportunities to grow rather than confirmation of their inadequacies. They also engender trust and security in their subordinates which results in many positive employee outcomes.


Are leaders born or made? The answer is irrelevant. Good leader behaviors can be learned. If leaders actively strive to be more humble, selfless, and secure with themselves, their leadership effectiveness will improve.


Healthy competition is not a bad thing. However, when a leader’s primary motivation is to win, that leader’s behaviors will trend towards self-service rather than serving others. As a leader, it’s necessary to be ambitious and driven. But, be sure to keep in mind your primary purpose: to enable others to perform.


Employee engagement is a product of internal motivation. In order to obtain maximum, long-term motivation, employees must feel their leader is invested in their growth. If, as a leader, you make it your goal to enable others, then you must engage in individualized, intentional, and ongoing coaching with them. Collaboratively develop goals with your subordinates while assessing how you can use your position to maximize their growth.


Can your subordinates really be candid with you? If not, help them speak truth to power by making feedback a regular, casual exchange. Thank, and publicly acknowledge, those who are willing to speak up. Solicit feedback informally instead of waiting for it to come your way. Take the feedback in a constructive manner and close the loop with how you will implement it. Finally, role model this feedback process by being transparent with your own boss, including delivering bad news.


Vince Lombardi once said, “The man at the top of the mountain didn’t fall there.” The same applies to you. You didn’t become a leader by accident. Your talent and work-ethic got you there. Unfortunately, the same drive that allowed you to succeed, also allows you to notice every imperfection in your work while ignoring many successes. This is a recipe for insecurity. Start keeping track of your wins (privately). And, any time you harp on a failure, ask yourself what it means. Does it mean you are a failure? No. You simply failed at a task. It’s a situational outcome, not a stamp on your identity. Pull lessons learned from it and move on.


True leaders make everyone better. They build enduring greatness through a combination of personal humility and professional drive. They understand their role is to maximize team success, not their own individual success. They do not fear failure. Rather, they embrace it as an opportunity to grow. Effective leaders set the example for others to follow.

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