We all recognize great leadership when we see it: whether it’s historical figures such as Nelson Mandela, Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, or more modern examples. 

We can understand great leadership as a set of qualities or characteristics. The more we embody these qualities, the greater the depth and quality of our leadership. Therefore, it’s not about “Am I a great leader or not?” It is, “What aspects of my functioning can I focus on to elevate my level of leadership?”

Here are the five elements of great leadership, based on our framework of Evolutionary Leadership.

#1 Great Leaders Have a Desire for a Better Future

A great leader has a desire to create something better than what’s here now. It might be a great dream like Martin Luther King Jr, or it might just be to make a better, more humane place for people to work. It might be to create amazing products for customers that they feel connected to. It doesn’t matter what the idea is about – what matters is having a strong desire to do what it takes to be better than we are now. This is one of the fundamental elements of leadership upon which the rest are built.

#2 Great Leaders Have a Commitment to Do What Is Required

Great leaders are committed to their own vision. They know it’s not about asking anyone else to commit to their vision: They are committed to making it happen. Then, they have the energy to work through their own blocks and issues. 

For example, Ray Dalio, the founder of the largest hedge fund in the world, Bridgewater, had an epiphany where he realized he was the problem. The way that he was showing up as a leader was the problem. However, he was totally committed to creating success, and that gave him the energy to do the uncomfortable inner work needed to stop being the problem. He embodied this element of leadership to lead his organization to success.

Leading Beyond Change

The choice to evolve oneself ties in with Evolutionary Leadership. To understand that we are part of the system and to create the outcome we hope for requires a shift in how we show up as a leader.

#3 Great Leaders Have an Elevated Consciousness

Traits of greatness such as humility, curiosity, compassion, kindness, and respect are not skills or practices – they are reflections of the state of evolution of a human being. Great leaders approach change from a place of elevated consciousness. Their egos are under control. They’ve moved from asking “What’s a win for me?” to “What’s a win for us?” They create an environment where people can show up at their best and be welcomed. This state of elevated consciousness is one of the most essential elements of leadership.

Great leaders have escaped the trap of wanting to be the smartest person in the room – they create an environment where other people are the smartest people in the room. They want their team to take the credit for success, but they will use their authority to take all the responsibility when things go wrong.

None of us are perfect. We all have room for improvement. Great leaders are committed to their own evolution. This is what we call Evolutionary Leadership: the choice to evolve one’s consciousness and learn better patterns of interacting with people and organizational systems. 

#4 Great Leaders Treat People Well

One of the most essential elements of leadership is treating people well. Great leaders understand that the success of their goals only happens through the cooperation of and collaboration with all the people. They have moved away from traditional leadership behaviors and toward ways of functioning that ask, “How do I create a win for me and the other people around me?”

When we make that shift, we operate in very people-centric ways where we understand that “do no harm” is not just a concept or fluffy bunny idea. It is a core part of showing up as a decent human being and an effective leader. It’s learning to use authority and power for the good of the purpose, the people, and the organization. We call that the paradox of power: to show up in a way that elevates people to be leaders themselves.

#5 People Willingly Choose to Follow Great Leaders

Great leaders inspire people to choose to follow them, not because they have to or because it’s part of their corporate goals for the year, but because they believe. It’s not about me as a leader trying to sell the vision or trying to convince anyone. It’s about having people that connect with and believe in the core of what we’re trying to achieve. They buy in and willingly join the movement. 

When people willingly choose to follow, that’s the metric for success as a leader. That is where the rubber hits the road – it’s what determines whether we can achieve any greatness whatsoever as a leader. When we can show up in a way that people can connect with and believe in too, they’ll come along for the journey.

Leading Beyond Change

Concluding Thoughts

The first step toward great leadership is to understand that we’re on a journey, and we’re not there yet.  We can connect with our desire for success to fuel us through the hard work of our own evolution. In understanding that it’s a journey, we are undertaking to create the greatness we hope for in every moment. Everything ties in and comes to a full circle of mutually supporting aspects of greatness. From this place, humility, kindness and other elements of great leadership emerge over time.