A simple definition of elite leadership can be hard to pin down, but we all know it when we see it. I’ve been studying and working with elite leaders for years – from military teams to Olympic athletes and high performing work teams – and it’s obvious when I meet them.
But what is it, specifically, that defines an elite leader? And what makes them stand out from everyone else?
It starts with their mindset. Every elite leader I have met has a remarkable clarity on winning – for the company, for the team, and for her/himself. Moreover, this clarity on winning doesn’t come at the cost of others losing. Instead, it’s a relentless focus and determination to achieve the goals and reach the defined destination.
I often talk about playing to win versus merely playing not to lose, a strategy I find all too common in today’s business world. Elite leaders play to win – all the time, every time. In fact, I don’t think they know how to play any other way. You either play the game to win, or you don’t play at all.
This laser-like focus on winning might make the elite leader sound like a Woody Hayes or Bobby Knight type, two legendary college sports coaches whose obsessive focus on winning exhibited itself in inappropriate and self-destructive ways. With elite leaders, it’s just the opposite. Their focus on winning is all about having integrity between their words and their actions and in their relationships with others. It manifests itself in moment-to-moment behaviors, choice points, and decisions that benefit all those around them rather than just their own self-interests.
Listen. Too often, business leaders just go through the motions when it comes to listening. Elite leaders understand that listening is an essential skill for getting things done, and they work hard at developing their listening abilities.
Pause. Instead of making knee-jerk reactions, elite leaders pause enough to actually think before making decisions and taking action (unless there truly is an emergency or crisis that requires instant action). They resist the tendency to jump at the first good idea or solution. Instead, they take the time to explore different alternatives before proceeding with a course of action. They understand that it always costs more to do it over than get it right the first time.
Reflect. Elite leaders are self-aware and tuned in to their own biases and bubbles. They understand how and where these can get in the way, and build in the practice of regularly analyzing and questioning them. They constantly update their thinking to stay on top of their game.
Expand. Understanding that tunnel vision is not conducive to winning, elite leaders actively seek the wisdom and advice of others, especially those with different backgrounds and points of view. They appreciate the value of having multiple perspectives on every issue.
Explore. Elite leaders talk about possibilities rather than potholes. They ask “why” rather than “why not” questions. They focus on what could be versus what might get in the way.
Self-correct. When elite leaders make a mistake, they self-correct by acknowledging it, adjusting, and refocusing on winning.
Practice. Whether in sports, business, or any other endeavor, elite leaders constantly work to hone their craft. No matter how much success they achieve, they’re driven to get better at what they do and what they want to do.
Most of all, elite leaders are always focused on moving forward, which requires learning from the past without getting stuck there. When things go wrong, they don’t point fingers or assign blame. Instead, they do it again to get it right, or they guide others to do it again and get it right. They work to make others successful, and strive to create an environment that supports everyone achieving their goals.
The next time you’re in a meeting, sit back and observe the behavior for a half hour or so. Then ask yourself, does this group have a focus on winning? Is everyone running the same race with the same destination in mind? Are they playing to win or merely playing not to lose?
Your answers will be a direct result of the type of leadership on display in the room. I’ve worked with many different companies, and I can tell you that people would much rather be part of an organization that plays to win. One of our core instincts is to win. Take advantage of that and tap into the winning mindset and behaviors of everyone on your team!
Call to action: Rate yourself on these elite leadership traits. Where do you stand? What do you want to work on?