How Successful Leaders Achieve Exceptional Results

Make Space for Clarity

Comedian Conan O’Brien once said, “The beauty is that through disappointment you can gain clarity, and with clarity comes conviction and true originality.”

One of the most useful tools in the pursuit of courage and clarity is mindfulness, because most of our fears are extremely deep-seated and it can therefore be hard to recognise them until they have been triggered. Mindfulness can prevent you from reaching this point, because when you stop to consider how you are feeling in a specific moment, and why, you are better equipped to acknowledge and label emotions. This, in turn, leaves you less inclined to respond to them in a reactive manner – important, because when we react, we allow fear to control us and push us further away from the things we really want.

As you become more mindful, you may even be able to identify physical sensations that various emotions throw up. For instance, perhaps your chest starts to feel tight when you encounter a situation that triggers your fears. It may be alarming at first, but this actually works to your benefit – it’s a cue that allows you to defuse a potentially stressful situation. Reframe what’s happening; find a new way of looking at it. For instance, if relatedness is an issue for you, minimise your fear by looking for points of commonality that exist between you and others, rather than homing in on the differences.

While you’re focusing on mindfulness, strive to be aware of how you talk to yourself. Listen to the tape that plays in your head, because what we tell ourselves may reinforce our fears and hold us back. Then again, if harnessed correctly, self-talk can be one of the most powerful tools we can access. This is something I have experienced personally. In the early days of my career, my fears around status would reach inhibiting levels every time I had to attend a meeting with high-powered executives.

It didn’t matter how much I practised my presentation; I would walk into that meeting terrified that I would be shot down and consequently lose my status. I overcame this only after working with a coach who taught me the power of mantras. Guided by her, I chose some sentences that held real relevance for me, and repeated them every time I went into a meeting: “I deserve to be here”, “I am the right man for the job”, etc.

My coach also advised me to sit closer to the CEO or other key executives, because when there is a large space between you, you find yourself on the outside looking in. This reinforces any negative feelings you may have. These strategies have paid off. Now, whenever I enter a meeting, I repeat my mantras until I feel confident, and then I choose a seat that allows me to take up a central role in any conversation.

Steve Briggs, Chief Sales and Marketing Officer at SEACOM, is a leader I admire – and also a great fan of mindfulness. He is committed to creating space to think because he says it gives him the opportunity to step back and gain clarity, which helps him lead better. He has built-in practices and habits that sustain him as he goes through the daily challenges of work and life, such as exercising early in the mornings, two to three times a week. He also tries to set aside 30 minutes of reflecting and meditating two to three times a week, and goes on a retreat twice a year.

“If we do not do the things that sharpen the saw, eventually we will struggle to cut through the log.” - Steve Briggs

Become Rooted in Your Cause

What makes a great leader? To reach the answer to this question, you may have to find the response to another: What cause do you wake up to serve every day? Jim Collins, author of books like Good to Great, Great by Choice, and Built to Last, put forward the idea of different levels of leadership:

Level 1: the highly capable individual

Level 2: the contributing team member

Level 3: the competent manager

Level 4: the effective leader

Level 5: the executive

The executive is described as an individual who possesses a combination of personal humility and an indomitable, unstoppable will to serve a cause. That’s all well and good, but you can’t pour your passion into a cause until you know what it is that you are passionate about.

This is where clarity comes in. Without these components in place, it is impossible to reach your fullest potential as a leader. This is also the major difference between level 5 leaders and those who languish at level 4, almost reaching that potential but not quite. Jim maintains that this is because these leaders are driven by ego. Yes, they have a gift for inspiring people – but they do so mainly in service of that ego. In contrast, people who follow level 5 leaders follow the cause their leaders represent. What’s more, the leaders have a gift for making people feel like whatever has been achieved as a group, they have done in their personal capacity – again, because they were following a cause. It’s interesting to note that level 5 leaders are viewed quite separately from their organisations. This is critical, because it is the cause that matters most – it should be sustainable, even if the leader steps aside. This is important, because results can be disastrous if the leader overshadows the cause. If something happens to these leaders, the institution inevitably collapses, falling victim to politics and in-fighting. This dedication to a cause highlights the fact that leadership is seldom about personality, or power, or status, or position – or any other glamorous attribute we usually associate with it.

There is a very insightful saying which states that you know you are a leader when people choose to follow you, even though they have the freedom of choice. I think that former US Secretary of State Colin Powell exemplified this. In the 35 years he served the United States, never once did he say the words, “That’s an order” – or any other phrase television shows tell us are frequently uttered by generals wishing to make others obey them instantly. Powell didn’t have to rely on his rank to persuade people to follow him; it was his innate humility and the power of his personality that made them willing to do so.

Another important attribute of leadership, according to Jim Collins, is that it is not static. To lead well, you need to commit to self-development and growth. It allows you to adjust your leadership style as necessary, and this is important because although there are some unchanging fundamentals of leadership (like commitment to a cause, a drive for performance, and respect for those around you), you will find that an approach that worked well in one situation is ineffective in another. Many leadership methodologies have a shelf life, and so as leaders we have to invest in updating our skills and knowledge, fine-tuning our methodologies and frameworks on an ongoing basis so that we can improve.

Excerpted from Lead with Super Clarity: How Successful Leaders Achieve Exceptional Results by Maanda Tshifularo, published by Tracey McDonald Publishers and available at bookstores and online 

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