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The four X factors of exceptional leaders


When strategy+business analysed the data it amassed on 2,500 leaders, four X factors that distinguish the great from the good stood out. HR leaders and boards should take note and identify these traits.

1. They simplify complexity

The typical C-suite leader can process vast amounts of data and complexity, often on the fly.

The ability to deal with ambiguity and learning agility have become standard language in executive assessments. Truly standout executives, however, do more than live comfortably with chaos: They take ownership of complexity by creating simple, operational narratives around it that can be readily understood and embraced by those who work for them.

Simple, but not simplistic.

The ability to simplify complexity may seem like a paradox, and that is precisely the point. True prioritisation requires sustained intentionality and operational focus, and becomes a forcing exercise that provides the crucial link between simplifying complexity and operationalising the leader’s insights.

2. They drive ambition for the whole enterprise

One of the most powerful momentum-killers in organisations is a tendency towards so-called silo behaviour.

We often identify ourselves as a part of a small team, trusting only our immediate circle and perceiving colleagues in other parts of the business as competition for resources rather than part of the collective “us.” Such behaviour focuses attention internally, rather than on winning in the marketplace, and can create enterprise blind spots.

3. They play well on teams – they don’t lead

Most business teams have given little thought to what it means to be a true team, despite the growing body of academic and strategic work about the power of the team.

The very best leaders, long before they reach the C-suite, start conversations with their teams with certain questions. What do we need to work on together to accelerate the strategy? What are the three priorities that we must tackle as a team?

The answers then drive meeting agendas, guide how decisions are made, and focus communications to the broader organisation.

4. They build leaders

A leader who develops leaders is also more likely to be someone who can retain and develop individuals whose perspectives differ from his or her own. The people a leader chooses to promote are an indicator of the ability (or lack thereof) to create diversity.

Diversity isn’t a demographic nicety. It improves strategy execution, and encouraging it is a sign of a leader’s ability to build teams that not only can more rapidly exploit emerging opportunities, but also excel at healthy disruption of the company’s traditional ways of thinking and working.

The best C-suite leaders actively recruit and engage differing perspectives within their team. They promote non-traditional candidates into stretch roles.

Formally or informally, they mentor up-and-comers who look different from and think differently than they do. To win on multiple fronts in a complex world, leaders must build leaders.

This a condensed version of the article which first appeared on the strategy+business website.

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