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Eight Sticky Traits of Uncommon Leaders

Years ago, I spoke at an awards banquet for a large corporation on the West Coast. A woman named Julia received an “uncommon leadership” award that evening for taking her department to an entirely new level of performance. Her team had doubled their results, year-over-year, even in the midst of a budget cut. She and her team had accomplished more with less.

I was impressed.

What stood out was how they described the difference she made. Her title was “manager” but the reason she won her award that night was she did much more than manage her team—she led it. Julia embodied the traits of an uncommon leader, traits that mere managers don’t possess. That night, Julia inspired some simple observations in me, ones I’d like to share with you here. I hope you find this list easy to remember and pass on to your team, or the young leaders you lead.

Eight Sticky Traits of Uncommon Leaders

1. Uncommon Leaders Are Readers.

They are always growing so they remain ahead of the team.

John Maxwell modeled this for me 36 years ago when I joined his staff. I saw our senior leader reading all the time, consuming as much quality content as possible. His example built a habit in me today. I read two books, 11 magazines, and listen to six podcasts every month. I plan regular times daily and weekly for personal growth.

2. Uncommon Leaders Are Completers.

They stand out in our world because they finish what they start.

Many people start projects but never finish. Most new businesses don’t succeed. We live in a world with so many options, it’s easy to begin but tough to finish when the novelty is gone. We get distracted. Uncommon leaders persevere to the end because they don’t lose sight of their “why” or their “what.” They’re moved not by outward stimulation, but by inward satisfaction.

3. Uncommon Leaders Are Repeaters.

They articulate the vision and goals over and over until they stick.

When Chick-fil-A founder Truett Cathy tried to instill the phrase, “It’s my pleasure” in his restaurants, and it didn’t catch on right away. Instead of getting angry, he just kept repeating it over and over at national events and in conversations. It took years, but today the phrase is a norm all across the country in their stores. His secret was to fill the space with a single, memorable phrase until it stuck.

4. Uncommon Leaders Are Feeders.

They consistently invest in their team equipping them to grow.

One clear difference in uncommon leaders is how they prioritize growing their team. When they host meetings, they don’t just do business in those meetings, they set aside time to feed their team, equipping them and facilitating discoveries for those people to practice and pass on to others as well. The old cliché is true—uncommon leaders don’t just work in their business, but on their business.

5. Uncommon Leaders Are Seeders.

They are always planting seeds of new ideas to be ready for the future.

Companies like Apple, Google, Facebook and Amazon stand out not because they never make a mistake. (All of them have made several.) It’s because the leadership is always introducing new ideas into the culture, even welcoming them from team members. 3M began a custom decades ago to let their employees utilize 20% of their time each week to work on new ideas. Google now does this as well. This is the norm for uncommon leaders.

6. Uncommon Leaders Are Heeders.

They pay attention to culture cues so they can adapt when necessary.

Too many great organizations, like Sears, Blockbuster Video, AOL, Kodak and others were left in the dust because they didn’t read the cues of the changing culture. They failed to learn that yesterday’s business models won’t work today, and today’s may not work tomorrow. Uncommon leaders separate what is timeless in their core business from the timely. They read and heed the situation then lead.

7. Uncommon Leaders Are Pleaders.

They call out the best in those who’ve failed to meet the standard.

Most managers and leaders are cut and dry, neglecting the “soul” of their people. When team members fail, common leaders either ignore it until it’s too late or they confront and dismiss those people. Uncommon leaders believe in people and implore them to rise to the standards they’ve set. They communicate expectations, then beseech team members to meet them, even when it’s hard.

8. Uncommon Leaders Are Breeders.

They are always reproducing leadership skills in others.

Ultimately, uncommon leaders multiply their leadership in others. When Michael Eisner finished as Disney’s CEO, the Disney company looked outside for a new one, but realized they’d been grooming leaders from within. Bob Iger became Disney’s CEO in 2005, after being developed through 45 years of work. Uncommon leaders build a pipeline of future leaders as a cultural norm.

Question: Which of these traits do you practice already? Which should you begin to practice?

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Eight Sticky Traits of Uncommon Leaders