The Top Two Traits of Leadership

If you can be good at one thing, you can be good at anything.

Leadership has always fascinated me (in fact much of my doctoral program work in Higher Education Leadership was on just that) — but more precisely — people who always seem to successfully lead organizations and teams are the most intriguing, and for obvious and self-serving reasons — I'd like to emulate them.

That number of "successful at whatever they do" leaders, however, gets surprisingly low very quickly. There are many people who lead one organization well, only to take over another with much hype and fanfare and never meet expectations. Almost every day in the business world a recently appointed president of a large company who has highly successfully run a different company or division within that organization gets dramatically laid off. There's a name for this, "The Peter Principle," which doesn't even account for the 'change agents' who are adept at quick results but who run afoul just as quickly and too are sent packing.

But what about those who always succeed? Who seem to be able to take any project/job/challenge or organization and bring it to new heights? With this one statement we have already eliminated Steve Jobs, and most everyone else. The tiny fraction of those who have "won" at everything they've led — this is where I've focused.

I've happened to work for/with three such people. Which isn't the point of this article. Much more importantly, I believe there are two qualities they all share. It's that simple — there are two reasons they are at the pinnacles of their profession, and I'd like to share the qualities with you — because they really matter. If you (or if I for that matter) can emulate only these qualities, I would bet you will find yourself in the top 1% of your chosen field. In fact, if you do only one of the two you are probably going to succeed much more than you fail professionally.

Looking at their pictures, Lou Marinelli, Jeff Chapman, and Kent Syverud would seemingly not have much in common. And their professions, one high school football coach, another a college president/scholar, and the third a BigLaw M&A lawyer (I bet you can you guess which is which), are wildly disparate. But their success is both similar and nearly irreplicable in their fields. Marinelli is now the winningest coach in the history of his state. Syverud, known as "the dean of deans" has been the dean of two elite law schools where he dramatically moved the needle at both, a university president, one of two trustees of the $20 Billion Dollar Deepwater Horizon Trust Fund, and clerked for Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor. Chapman is Co-Chair of Gibson Dunn’s Global Mergers and Acquisitions Practice Group, was rated in 2015 as one of the top 5 Private Equity lawyers in the country, graduated from Harvard Law cum laude, and was managing partner of a BigLaw firm office in his 30s. He is consistently regarded as one of the top M&A lawyers in the country and is widely acknowledged as the superstar of the Texas corporate legal market.

Here lies the crux of the matter to me. If you were to take Lou Marinelli and put him as a dean of a law school, he would seem rough around the edges to other deans, not to mention have zero political capital with faculty. If you were to make Kent Syverud a head football coach it would seem like the most unusual of hires. Or Jeff Chapman as a college president, who hasn't worked a day in his illustrious career in higher education. Yet they would all succeed.

Don't they need field-specific experience from those professions? That would help, of course, but it is a distant third for success — which incidentally should be encouraging news to new hires in the legal field. The knowledge will come, but when you are new to a job, no one can expect you to bring a wealth of knowledge. I'll quote the head of my MBA program many years ago: "Get to work 5 minutes earlier than anyone else; what is 5 minutes extra sleep anyway? All you can bring at first is energy, drive, and a positive attitude — the rest will come soon enough."

What do Jeff, Kent, and Lou — as disparate as they may seem "on paper" — all share as they lead their organizations? Two simple and indelible traits:

1 — They all have an incredibly high Emotional Intelligence (or EQ). The data and research on EQ is stunning, but let me first define it:

EQ is the ability to monitor one's own and others' feelings and emotions, to discriminate among them, and to use this information to guide one's thinking and actions. (Per the father of the study of EQ, Peter Salovey and John D. Mayer.)

How important does the data show EQ to be? Well, let's go to the field where it would matter just about the least, the tech field. In the tech sector, according to studies, the top 6 competencies that distinguish star performers from average performers, in rank order, are the following (per Search Inside Yourself by Chade-Meng Tan):

  1. Strong achievement drive and high achievement standards
  2. Ability to influence
  3. Conceptual thinking
  4. Analytical ability
  5. Initiative to take on challenges
  6. Self-confidence

Of the top 6 in the tech sector, four (including the top 2) are emotional competencies.

Now imagine the field where emotional intelligence counts for just the most — the legal arena. Or the positions where it is absolutely make or break — leading a department, team, or organization. Emotional Intelligence has be shown time and time again to drive stellar work performance, outstanding leadership (including in the most top-down of organizations, the U.S. Military), and to create the conditions of happiness (just think how much money many lawyers would pay just for this). I have seen it first hand from the three people I have benchmarked, and I would describe it simply as this. Leaders with EQ make others feel like they are individual and not seen as a part of a collective, that in doing so they speak to each member of their team at that person's comfort zone and understand what drives them, and in doing so get their team to commit to the success of a greater cause.

It is that simple, and I believe you and I and just about anyone who dedicates themselves to this can do it too.

Where to start
I already mentioned Search Inside Yourself by Chade-Meng Tan, which was a Google Project that went so well they wrote a best-selling book on it. Another place would be Dale Carnegie's seminal How to Make Friends and Influence People, which touched deeply on EQ before it was even an articulated construct.

2 — They all put the success of their organizations and those under them ahead of themselves. Given the above, this should come as no surprise. This, for me, is the foremost lesson I have learned from all three and how I have tried to model my career both as an assistant dean at two law schools and now as I head The Spivey Consulting Group. What's the most fascinating about this is the paradox of what I call the 50-40-10 rule. 50% of employees (at least based on my rough estimation from seeing it from bottom to top, first as an admissions counselor at the lowest rung in my department in my early twenties which has led me up the managerial ladder to running a company) put themselves first as they come into work. "What can I do to make my life easier for me today?" would be the driving subconscious voice here; anyone who has worked as part of a team has seen this. 40% put their careers first — "What can I do to advance my career?" Yet only about 10% put their organizations and teams first — "How do I advance the team around me and the organization we work for?" The paradox: it is that 10% that climbs the ladder of success the most rapidly.

Want to advance your career as rapidly as possible until you reach the top of the ladder? Put your company/firm/team around you first. Want to be the most successful of all leaders possible? Look at things not from your perspective but from that of those around you.

Where to start
Embracing the greater cause is easier to say than do. But embracing something about that cause is a good place to start. What about your firm/company, etc. excites you the most? What about your job? Some research suggest that over 80% of our downtime thoughts as adults are negative. Focus on the positive about yourself, your team, and your organization. Trust me when I say you'll hear enough negatives from others. I made a vow early in my career never to complain about my job to anyone I worked with or under. I've done a heck of a lot wrong in my career, but I would guess that none of my bosses would have a single memory of me complaining to them; and I would posit that helped me subconsciously want to be part of the bigger effort. I will also say this: that simple advice I got from a very prominent CEO about showing up to work early in your career before others — it really resonated with me for some reason, I think how he worded it. What does that extra 15 minutes of sleep really grant you anyway? (Though if you are already working crazy hours well into you career please feel free to ignore this.)

I've been exceptionally lucky; by no skill or talent of my own, I've happened to work with three people who epitomize the two traits above. Reverse engineering what it is that has made them so successful has helped me in my career beyond the words I can write in this blog. I hope it does the same for you!

—Mike Spivey