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The three critical abilities all extraordinary leaders possess

The recent Australian election was a referendum on leadership. With our society facing challenges such as climate change, global instability, and inequality, we need leadership that does not simply maintain an unsatisfactory status quo. We need leadership that can mobilise us to engage with and solve complex challenges and help us make tomorrow a better place than today.  

Unfortunately, extraordinary leaders are not as common as we would like. On the other hand, there seem to be plenty of ordinary or average leaders, whose mediocre efforts we tolerate every day in our communities and organisations. Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic, a psychology professor at University College London, suggests that up to half of our leaders are not sufficiently competent to do their jobs properly1.  This is supported by other studies showing that ineffective leaders make up half of todays’ organisational management pool2.  

Professor Jeffrey Pfeffer from the Graduate School of Business at Stanford University points out that looking higher in your organisation does not necessarily produce more examples of extraordinary leadership either. He explains that this is because there is lower than expected correlation between the quality of leadership a person exhibits, and their ability to climb the career ladder, when compared to other factors.3   

So how do we spot these more remarkable leaders then? What should we be looking for? Where can we find them? I have been asking these questions for some time now. 

Spotting Extraordinary Leaders 

“We manage things. We lead people”, according to Rear Admiral Grace Murray Hopper, the first female to achieve flag status in the US navy. A helpful distinction that has led me to conclude extraordinary leaders are notable for their ability to do three things which average or common leaders cannot.  Extraordinary leaders: 

  1. Get peoples’ attention and quickly build trust in their leadership. They are engaging.   
  1. Catalyse the release of energy and commitment from a diverse range of people and help others contribute their best. They are energising
  1. Maintain their leadership effectiveness even when circumstances are challenging and difficult by adapting and growing. They are transformative

The Test of Extraordinary Leadership 

We can easily test the logic of these three abilities as markers of extraordinary leadership.  Just ask these simple questions: 

  1. If people are unwilling to listen, engage or trust you, how can you lead? 
  1. If you are unable to release the full potential of every person that you need to lead, formally or informally, how can you lead well? 
  1. If you are unable to continuously transform your way of leading to match the increasingly complex and challenging circumstances our world is presenting to us, how can you lead well sustainably?  

The Ordinary World of Extraordinary

The difficulty in observing extraordinary leadership is partly because it shows up without fanfare, quietly going about its’ business in our organisations and communities. While our attention is grabbed by the daily news feed of global and national leadership crisis, the opportunity for extraordinary leadership shows up much more frequently in commonplace and everyday situations. These include: 

  • influencing people via team meetings, presentations, town halls and speeches 
  • establishing productive relationships with new partners, colleagues or teams  
  • mobilising people to engage with difficult and challenging changes at work 
  • motivating team members, peers and even bosses with different styles and needs 
  • influencing people with whom you have no formal authority 
  • coaching and managing the performance of team members to a higher level 
  • resolving entrenched destructive conflict between team members or groups 

This is not an exhaustive list, but it does describe many of the common situations in which both new and experienced leaders find their everyday leadership challenges. They are also the moments in which you, as a leader, can show up as ordinary, or indeed something more extraordinary. 

You Have the Potential for Extraordinary

The good news is that you have a choice – you can remain ordinary in your leadership or become something more remarkable. The experiences I’ve had leading, coaching and teaching prove that if you are prepared to do the work, you can grow and develop the 3 abilities extraordinary leaders possess. Just how extraordinary your leadership can become is limitless, your leadership potential unknowable. 


1 T. Chamorro-Premuzic (2019) Why Do So Many Incompetent Men Become Leaders? (And How to Fix It) Harvard Business Review Press 

2 W. Gentry (2010). Managerial derailment: What it is and how leaders can avoid it. In E. Biech (Ed.), ASTD leadership handbook, ASTD Press. 

W. Gentry & C. Chappelow (2009). Managerial derailment: Weaknesses that can be fixed. In R. B. Kaiser (Ed.), The perils of accentuating the positives HoganPress. 

3 J. Pfeffer (2015)  Leadership BS: Fixing Workplaces and Careers One Truth at a Time, Harper Business 

Gerard Penna is a leadership advisor and coach to CEOs, boards, billionaires, and senior leaders. He has worked in diverse settings from desert mining camps to hi tech startups, and sky-scraping boardrooms.  He is the author of Xtraordinary: The Art and Science of Remarkable Leadership and the host of the Xtraordinary Leaders Podcast.


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