On August 5, 2010, 33 men worked in a copper-gold mine in Northern Chili. At around 2:00 p.m., the mine collapsed, trapping all 33 men inside. Although the men were safe in an underground shelter, the emergency rations were meant to last 48 hours, not weeks. To save his men, foreman Luis Urzua took charge, coordinating the team until their rescue almost 70 days later.
Many teams are buried in tasks rather than debris, and survival might be ethically supporting the bottom line rather than finding a physical exit. But like the men in the mine, all great organizations need people like Urzua to step up. Everyone has the capacity to lead this way, including you. All it takes is a clear understanding of what outstanding leaders do differently compared to average ones and the willingness to lean into their attitudes and strengths.
It’s all about balance
Good leaders often demonstrate a number of positive characteristics, habits, or skills, such as grit or the ability to organize. Those characteristics are worth examining, but what really separates extraordinary leaders from average ones is balance. The most successful leaders have a blend of toughness and tenderness, compassion and confrontation, directness and delicateness, and boldness and benevolence.
What does this look like in a real office? It’s a manager who, even as they deal kindly with people, can apply direct feedback and accountability. It’s the gentleman I personally knew who described our CEO as “the nicest and toughest negotiator I’ve ever dealt with.” When a person recognizes that different situations call for different approaches and can discern which side of the teeter-totter to lean onto based on their immediate circumstances, they can lead with powerful flexibility and responsiveness.
Typically, individuals aren’t able to master this balance. Instead, they acquiesce to their natural personalities. This tendency might manifest as being too nice and never applying accountability, or it could show up as someone being domineering as a way to compensate for insecurities.
Leading through influence
In addition to using characteristics or skills in a balanced way, extraordinary leaders have the ability to lead through influence — i.e., they sway others to find and take action on their own. Unlike weaker managers, who micromanage or take on too much because they’re uncertain or fearful, successful managers believe that their primary task is to develop their people so their team can confidently do the work. They intentionally switch their mindset to be more optimistic and use setbacks as learning opportunities for future decisions.
I encouraged my own team of leaders and managers to tap into this way of leading. As an exercise, I told them to go all week without giving anybody a directive. Instead, they were supposed to phrase everything in the form of a question. Around 90 percent of the time, employees came to the same conclusion their leaders and managers would have. But workers felt more committed because they were in charge of the ideas.
If you try this in your own company and find that you can’t get people where you want them to be, you might not be properly aligned with your team. But once you recognize that misalignment, you can be proactive about getting on the same page. As long as you’re willing to put in the necessary extra time, using the right body language (e.g., leaning in to show interest or active listening) and phrasing your questions the right way (i.e., polite, open-ended, cooperative) can help balance your authority with the opportunities you’d like to introduce, even in remote or hybrid setups. You’ll know you’re on the right track when people start telling you what they think the team should do rather than asking you to answer and direct everything.
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What extraordinary leadership can deliver
Extraordinary leaders can enjoy multiple benefits, the first of which is loyalty. When someone encourages people to share and be creative, those people learn to trust that the individual believes in them and will hear them out. They gain confidence, become more innovative on the leader’s behalf, and come to the leader with solutions.
A well-balanced person can also grab amazing opportunities for advancement or promotion. Senior leaders tend to take note of extraordinary abilities, and they will offer a person with incredible skills more responsibility or open doors. When someone has true leadership potential, others on the team don’t resent them for advancing this way. Instead, they respond to the promotion or open door by saying, “That makes sense!” because they know the individual is deserving.
To stand out, learn who you are and then choose who you want to be
Leaders can have different leadership styles, and none of them are necessarily “right” or “wrong.” But all successful leaders can find and achieve a balance of characteristics that are appropriate for the environment they’re in. So do a little self-evaluation. See what you tend to gravitate to and where there are skill gaps you could fill over time. The more you learn, and the more comfortable you are with deliberately shaping yourself, the more extraordinary you’ll likely become.