A Distinguishing Trait in High-Performance Leaders

There are likely many traits of high-performance leaders. Over the past several months, I’ve met with, visited and/or had conversations with over a dozen leaders of learning organizations or high-performance units in education companies and schools. Among those that seem to be doing some of the most innovative and high-impact work, I noticed a single consistent trait.

It is a trait that is especially suitable for learning organizations. The research supports the value of this trait in a variety of contexts. You will find it in literature about peak performance. You will find it in the leadership books. It is in the literature about quality in every industry and sector. You will even find it in the literature about how to be an effective learner.

It is easy to identify when you see you. In fact, many great leaders draw your attention to it. They can’t help but do it because it is at the core of what helps them achieve great results. It shows up in how they think and talk, and you can almost instantly tell if it is genuine.

Leaders who do not have a large measure of this trait are equally noticeable. This too shows up in their words, how they think and their actions. You can see it in how they treat people who visit or seek to learn from their organizations. It is evident in what they give and seek from people in their organization and those who are observing from the outside.

It can take on different shapes and styles from one leader to the next, but it is always there. The higher performance the organization, the more this trait shines in these special types of leaders. The more these leaders wear it like a badge of honor. Sometimes it is accompanied with an impressive measure of humility, but it always seems to be paired with confidence as well. In fact, it seems to require confidence to wield this trait.

Yet, knowledge about the trait is not enough. It is something that a person has to own and embody. It can’t be faked, but it can be learned. For it to make a difference, you have to practice it persistently and relentlessly, even in situations when it is uncommonly difficult.

At the same time, I’ve also noticed that the trait is contextual. There are some people who seem to embody it in all parts of their lives (at least the parts visible to us). Still others seem to only embody it in one aspect of their life, seeming not ready or committed to it in another part.

The trait that I’m talking about is craving feedback. When you meet a high-performance leader, you can be sure that this person is constantly trying to figure out what is working, what is not, how to improve, how to take things to the next level. They want to know their organizational blind spots and address them. They want to understand things from multiple angles and perspectives, always looking for a useful or important insight.

People who are not ready for this level of leadership are sometimes more interested in paying attention to what is going well, drawing other people’s attention to those things. They might even be included to overlooking or sometimes even try to hide what is not going as well. They are interested in image over substance. We can all be tempted to to that in different parts of our lives, but it isn’t going to help us achieve the greatest results. We might get some recognition, maybe even promotions or a great job out of it. However, if you are one of those people who wants to know deep down inside what you did mattered, that it neared world-class, then that takes becoming a person who craves feedback.

It can be painful to look at sub-par or mediocre performance. Yet, the high-performance leader understands that the only way to really work though that pain is to face it and remedy the cause. The cause is not that it is seen but that it exists. As such, if you want to reach the next level, then you need to know and do something about the aspects of the organization that are not meeting and exceeding your goals and standards.

Scan people the insights from leaders across sectors and you will see this show up consistently. Winston Churchill once explained, “Criticism may not be agreeable, but it is necessary. It fulfils the same function as pain in the human body. It calls attention to an unhealthy state of things.” Elon Musk noted, “I think it’s very important to have a feedback loop, where you’re constantly thinking about what you’ve done and how you could be doing it better.” Ken Blanchard said it succinctly when he wrote, “Feedback is the breakfast of champions.”

Do you want to grow as a person, leader and organization? Seek honest, candid, raw, feedback. Create ways to generate it from different people and perspectives. Be confident in your mission, vision, values and goals; but crave feedback as well. Value each of them so much that you want to know as much as you can about them. Then use that feedback to grow and improve. That is a distinguishing trait of high-performance leaders.