Traits of the Brilliant Leader

I want to share some concepts from Simon T. Bailey with you.  I had the wonderful pleasure of seeing him deliver a dynamic speech at the North Carolina State Human Resource Conference this past September.  He is one electric speaker.  He exudes energy and passion.  When he spoke of the traits of a brilliant leader, it resonated with me.


I coach a lot of newly promoted leaders–most of the time, we call them managers.  Until they have the skills to be a leader.  It’s been said that almost anyone can manage.  It’s a unique skill set to know how to lead.  These traits are the attributes that both newly promoted managers and dyed-in-the-wool old school managers need to embrace to get the most out of their employees.  Managers push and poke.  Leaders inspire and engage.


Here are the 7 traits that Simon Bailey espoused:


  • Being Curious.  Bailey suggested that this trait is really an intellectual curiosity, or “the ability to see what is not yet.”  It is anticipating what might be coming.  This involves daily self-reflection and to be able to see: Where you have been, Why you are here, What you can do and Where are you going.  What about your direct reports?  Do you know where they are headed?  Have you taken the time to think about it? Trust me, they have.  This requires openness and  non-attachment.  Being curious is easier for me than some of the other traits.  My top strength from my Strength Finders assessment is “Lifelong learner.”  I am constantly on the lookout for more opportunities to learn and synthesize.  Be curious.  It will never take you down the wrong path.
  • Presence.  Bailey suggested that the mere presence of a cell phone or laptop at a meeting devalued the other folks at the meeting.  This was a huge wake-up call to me, even if my phone was face down.  He suggested that the mere presence of a device suggests that it was the priority–not the person or the people you were with.  I’m digesting this and trying to figure out how I can practically extract the presence of my phone while maintaining things like calendars and future meeting dates.  But you can see that if you are looking at your phone, you are basically not present for the person or people in front of you.  Presence means shutting down distractions and making the person in front of you the priority, whether it be a customer, employee or friend.  I’ve decided to leave my phone tucked away and out of visual presence, yet available if I need to schedule an upcoming event with the person or people I’m with. Prioritize being present.
  • Connect.  I remember teaching a leadership class some three years ago, and I suggested that every manager should know their direct report’s spouse/partner and children’s names.  Recently, I had a client who set out to learn three personal facts about their direct reports.  For many folks reading this, connecting comes easy.  For others, it feels like prying.  I can tell you that when someone asks me where I am traveling to next or when they say, “I saw you were in Asheville last week” (if they’re following me on Facebook), I am thrilled!  And I feel so acknowledged.  I can’t help but feel connected to that person. It makes a huge difference. Reach out and connect.
  • Consistent.  I can remember working for a boss who was a real hot head.  I never knew which side of hot head would be showing up that day or if the Rules of Engagement would be changing.  As David Rock has espoused, uncertainty puts your direct reports into a State of Fear: “an away state”.  Your direct reports cannot do their best work when they are in a state of fear.  Consistency in the rules and your temperament helps generate a “toward” or positive state.  They are much more engaged for the consistent leader because they feel confident that they know the rules of engagement.  Be consistent.
  • Relationships.  Bailey said, “Relationships are the currency of the future.”  I can remember my commencement speech back in 1983 by then Cornell President Frank Rhodes.  He said that the greatest thing that you are taking with you as you graduate are your friends.  This was very profound.  My relationships with my fellow Cornelians over the last 30 plus years has been one of the most gratifying aspects of my life.  They have been a source of advice, referrals and inspiration.  In addition, I have held onto countless other relationships from work and grad school that have enhanced my life as well.  Be sure to tend to the relationships in your life as they will prove invaluable.
  • Global thinker.  Think beyond your zip code, think beyond where you are.  I can say that since participating with a Mindfulness Coaching group, led by Satyam Chalmers, I have learned a more global perspective.  There were folks from Singapore, Australia and Ireland on the weekly calls.  As a born and bred American, I have and believe we can hold a very myopic view of the world.  The press does influence an American-centered viewpoint.  To be a great leader, we need to look for resources from all ends of the earth, be it products, services or thought processes.  Be global in your thoughts and share it.
  • Authentic Listener.  When I speak at various sites and venues, I frequently have said that the most important desire each of us has is the need to be heard.  Being present is an important part of this.  Regardless of whether your employee is in your office, cubical, gravel pit or service station, you need to pay attention and listen in order to understand.  This entails looking at their body language, the gaze of their eyes, the nuance of a smile or any other human indicator.  Be sure to respond with, “What I heard you say was… and did I get that right?”  It’s ok if you don’t get it right, because they know that you care when you ask for clarification.  Be an authentic listener.


You don’t need to have people be your direct reports for all of these traits to be useful.  Whether it’s interacting with your child, your spouse, a volunteer organizer or networker, all of these ideas can come into play.  Take the time to be brilliant–and you will be!

3 Surprising New Ways to View Stress. It Might Save Your Life.

You have a missed call from your boss and your heart rate goes up. You’re trying to get home for an important event and the highway is closed down, leaving you driving through the hinterland as everything runs amok and confusion is rampant. Your speaker cancels at the last minute and you start sweating as you try and figure out plan B. Your spouse forgets the dinner plans and you react by texting, “Whatever.” Is this your reaction? Better yet do you go around saying, “I’m so stressed!” Turns out, that’s a bad idea.

Kelly McGonigal wrote a break-through book called The Upside of Stress. McGonigal herself had a lot of preconceived notions about stress. We all do. Stress is to be avoided or numbed out (say one more cigarette or beer at the end of the day). As she posits in her book, “Mindset 1 is: Stress Is Harmful. Experiencing stress depletes my health and vitality. Experiencing stress debilitates my performance and productivity. Experiencing stress inhibits my learning and growth. The effects of stress are negative and should be avoided.” This is definitely the way I’ve viewed stress and I bet you do to. Dampen down the feelings and try to escape from it.

What she found with the opposite mind set was, “Mindset 2 is: Stress Is Enhancing. Experiencing stress enhances my performance and productivity. Experiencing stress improves my health and vitality. Experiencing stress facilitates my learning and growth. The effects of stress are positive and should be utilized.” Skeptical? So was I. How can you embrace stress? How can you see it as your friend?

Check out these surprising healthy responses:

1. Rise to the Challenge. As McGonigal suggests, if you can view the stress as a challenge instead, it’s a much more positive experience. So your heart rate is up? Good, that means you’re excited, you’re focused and ready to act. It’s almost like letting the dam break instead of trying to hold back all the pressure. Holding back the pressure is what is actually harming you. As concluded in Health Psychology, “High amounts of stress and the perception that stress impacts health are each associated with poor health and mental health. Individuals who perceived that stress affects their health and reported a large amount of stress had an increased risk of premature death.” So dampening down the stress and viewing it as bad for your health is actually bad for you. Embracing it as a challenge can increase your life span. Amazing what a little mindset can do.

2. Connect with Others. This was a huge insight for me. I never realized that when I am under stress I want to connect with others but this is the “Tend and Befriend” response. I always viewed stress as “Fight or Flight or Freeze,” I didn’t consciously realize from a biological standpoint, a mama bear is going to automatically protect her baby cubs. I can look back now and realize that, when stressed, I tend to reach out to others by picking up the phone or looking for an embrace from my spouse. The connection response is built into your body.


Another study cited was on volunteerism from The American Journal of Public Health. This study looked at the mortality rates of those who volunteered (re: connected with others) versus those who didn’t. The conclusion was “helping others predicted reduced mortality specifically by buffering the association between stress and mortality.” Connection including volunteering helped buffer the stress. It helps your social cognition, lessens fear and bolsters your courage.

3. Learn and Grow. My tendency was to try and shut out stress and certainly not try to “grow” from it. What could be gained by reliving stress? Apparently it’s good for you if you can put it in a positive light. So when you can reappraise the situation “Hmmm. I wonder why I feel my adrenaline shoot up when I go on stage. How can I harness this energy to perform better? What am I learning about my body’s response?” This is actually rewiring your brain to respond differently and more positively in the future. As cited in the American Psychology Association, “Given that adaptive responses to acute stress improve our ability to cope with future stressors, health education programs might seek to educate students about the functionality of stress in an effort to break the link between physiological arousal and negative appraisals.” Seems completely counter intuitive, but you need to view stress as a positive. This is your body responding and let’s ride the wave while we learn from it. Be sure to reappraise the stress in a positive light.

So once I finished the book, I started realizing how often I said “I’m totally stressed” or “I’m so stressed out.” Actually my husband is doing a good job of catching me say it as well. Find someone to hold you accountable for your mindset. Maybe set up a jar and put a dollar in every time you say you are stressed. Now I’m trying to say, “I’m really excited and alert” or “This is going to be an interesting challenge.” This is really tough but if it could extend my life and yours. Isn’t it worth it?

6 Ways to Make the Best Impression. It Might Even Keep You From Being Sued.

We make snap decisions based on a single interaction. A smile, a glint in the eye can be infectious. Someone holding the door open or handing you the quarter you inadvertently dropped. The small moment of generosity is a gift that keeps giving. On the flip side, something as insignificant as a doctor spending three less minutes with a patient and not asking any questions…or listening to the response, can increase the chances of that doctor being sued for malpractice. In Malcolm Gladwell’s book, Blink, he says, “What comes up again and again in malpractice cases is that patients say they were rushed or ignored or treated poorly.” Think of that! There was no appreciable difference in the quality of the care, just a difference in the behavior of the doctor.Making the Best Impression

Nowhere do these snap decisions have a bigger impact than a job interview. In my years of recruiting as a restaurant owner and as a Human Resource professional, I have seen the entire gambit. I’ve had candidates come in to the interview with a toddler and infant in tow. Applicants who fill out the application with just their name and the box that asks what position they are applying for is filled in with “Any”. Then there are waiters who look terrified and never crack a smile. Or recent college grads with their collar and necktie so tight, I thought their head might pop. Special moments like an interviewee who hugged the hiring manager. All these things matter when the decision to have a candidate continue on in the process comes down to the first few seconds of the interview. Most screening interviews (which is what a Human Resource professional is usually doing) can last less than 15 minutes. If you want to move on in the process, you better shine. You can think you will overcome the tight collar, the lack of a smile. But you can’t. I’ve already made a decision, consciously or not, to move on.

So how do we connect with folks and make the best impression? Here are some ideas:

1. Smile. Perception is reality and if you smile, you will be more approachable. This was a painful revelation last year when I took a presenting skills class through Dale Carnegie and my insightful instructor, Jackie Kellso, went over the video tape of my first presentation. I never smiled. I looked angry. I didn’t want to listen to the woman in the video tape (and it was me). By the last video, I was smiling and what a difference it made. It is so much more engaging. Approachable. I want to be around people who smile. You want to be around people who smile. Let’s all smile. And often.

2. Contact. Make eye contact. When I interviewed for a spot at the Cornell Hotel School, I made eye contact with the recruiter and never broke it until he did. Eye contact means you are engaged. It means you are paying attention. This also means you can’t look at your phone or your watch or out the window. Keeping eye contact keeps the other person engaged as well. You can bet that the doctors who were sued for malpractice didn’t make eye contact. They were probably staring at the medical chart. Stay connected by making eye contact. People find it flattering as well.

3. Laugh. Laughter equals joy. I’m not talking about self-deprecating laughter or sarcasm; I’m talking pure laughter without rolling the bus over someone at their expense. I try to find the joy in others: My son doing a Nathan Lane impression, the crazy faces/noises my daughter makes and my dog chasing a squirrel she has no intention of actually catching. Find the joy. The laughter. Who would you rather be around, someone with no sense of humor or someone who can find the joy, even over spilled milk. Laugh.

4. Ratio. Have a five-to-one positive-to-negative ratio in your interactions. John Gottman, the marriage guru, studied over 700 couples. Those couples who dropped below the five-to-one ratio in a 15 minute conversation, predicted a subsequent divorce with a high level of accuracy (81% to 94%). So it’s not just about being positive, it’s about how often you are positive versus negative. So if you tell your spouse, thanks for doing the dishes and then go on a diatribe about all the unfinished chores…no dice. Maintain the ratio with those around you.

5. Body. Look at your body language. Shoulders back. Head erect. Along with feeling more confident, you will sending out a positive impression. I can remember in a class I took that the instructor told us to slump our shoulders, look at the floor and say “I feel great today”. I didn’t feel great when my body language was speaking volumes of the opposite. When asked to do the flip and sit erect and shoulders back and say “I feel lousy today”. My words didn’t not resonate because my body was speaking confidence. What is your body saying in that project proposal, the job interview or on that first date? Pay attention to your body.

6. Connect. If possible, physically connect. A good friend of mine, Susan Passino, was a server with me when I worked at the San Francisco Airport (MANY years ago). She always told me to touch customers on the back of the shoulder if possible. Connecting with someone physically, whether a handshake or a light tap on their shoulder or arm is powerful. Suddenly you are not anonymous. You are connecting on a different level. If you are shaking someone’s hand, be sure to make sure you have been holding a warm beverage in it before. Studies have shown that cold beverages lead to cold hands and a “cold” impression. If it’s possible, try and physically connect.

It’s easy to look around an pick out those folks you don’t think give off a positive impression but everything really does start with you. Work on giving off that positive vibe yourself. Be the light that shines out on everyone else.