The One Thing All Leaders Have in Common


There is an ever-growing list of executive coaches, authors and professors who claim to have the secret to turn anyone into a leader. They offer body language tips to make you appear authentic and credible. Communication skills so you’ll seem more likable. And personal habits to make you more effective and productive.

I say ignore it all. Here’s why. None of it addresses what really matters: being the best at what you do. It’s a competitive world. If you think you can skate by just looking and acting the part, you’re in for a rude awakening. If you don’t deliver results, I don’t care what your body language says; nobody’s going to pay you big bucks to run anything.

A recent piece in the Wall Street Journal says nonverbal communication can speak volumes about whether you’re a leader or not. The article provides tips on “striking the right balance of power and authority with warmth and empathy” by keeping your head straight, smiling sparingly, “steepling” with your hands and other assorted nonsense.

Some of the most talented and successful CEOs I’ve ever worked with were painfully shy, total introverts, maniacal control freaks and obsessive compulsive jerks. Some could not speak without putting their audience to sleep. But they were great at their jobs. They were tenacious. They were brilliant. And they delivered when it counted. 

Meanwhile, the hands-down worst CEO I’ve ever worked with – and that’s saying a lot – was also the most polished executive I’ve ever known. He was trained at a big company and had all the requisite pomposity to prove it. He tried his hand running countless smaller companies and failed miserably. As they say in Texas, he was all hat, no cattle.

Another article talks about the importance of likability at work. Apparently, “making sure you come across as authentic and as someone who can be trusted” by behaving “in a way that feels natural and comfortable” makes you likable. Am I the only one who sees the irony in faking behavior to appear authentic? What a load of fluff.

There are exceptions, of course. If you’re a politician or motivational speaker, then façade matters. In the business world, not so much.

I don’t care if you aspire to be a marketing god, talent expert, finance wiz or technology geek. It doesn’t matter if you’re a small business owner, startup founder, venture capitalist or executive in an S&P 500 company. Success in business is not about appearances but about actions and results.

As your career progresses, you’ll find all sorts of factors that play a role in the outcome. And you won’t find surface qualities among them. Instead of window dressing, focus on developing your expertise. Building relationships. Serving the customer. Coming up with innovative solutions to big problems. Questioning the status quo. Achieving a sense of balance so you know when to act decisively and when to listen quietly.

Those are the factors that matter. You don’t measure success by how people perceive you, but by the results you actually deliver to your stakeholders.

Your customers expect you to meet your commitments and exceed their expectations. Your employees want to feel a sense of purpose, to be challenged to do their best work and to be rewarded for their accomplishments. And your shareholders want you to achieve your operating goals and provide a solid return on their long-term investment.

Those are the results that matter. And you can achieve them with or without being the perfect verbal or nonverbal communicator.

Don’t get me wrong. There are benefits to mastering certain soft skills, but in my experience, you’re better off using them to read others during interviews and negotiations than to manipulate folks into thinking you’re something you’re not.

This topic always brings to mind the most copied business leader in history, Steve Jobs. Lei Jun, the CEO of smartphone maker Xiaomi, emulates everything from how the iconic leader dressed to how he spoke. The New York Times called him a Steve Jobs “knockoff.” Funny, I might say the same thing about Xiaomi’s products.

The best leaders are those who look and behave the same on the outside as they feel on the inside. They are exactly who they hold themselves out to be. They are simply their own genuine selves – flaws, imperfections, idiosyncrasies and all. But they meet the needs of their stakeholders and deliver the goods. That’s all that really matters.