The Four Essential Elements of Great Leadership

To get your most important work done, you have to have hard conversations, create accountability, and inspire action. In order to do that, you need to show up powerfully and magnetically in a way that attracts people to trust you and follow you and commit to putting 100 percent of their effort into a larger purpose, something bigger than all of you. You need to care about others, and connect with them in a way that they feel your care. You need to speak persuasively—in a way that’s clear, direct, honest, and reflects your care—while listening with openness, compassion, and love. Even when being challenged. And, of course, you need to follow through—taking brave action to make what’s in your head a reality in the world.

In 25 years of working with leaders to do all the above, I have found a pattern: four essential elements that all great leaders demonstrate. Four ways of showing up that predictably rally people to accomplish what’s important to them:

  1. You need to be confident in yourself.
  2. You need to be connected to others.
  3. You need to be committed to a purpose.
  4. You need to act with emotional courage.

Most of us are great at only one of the four. Maybe two. But to be a powerful presence—to inspire action—you need to excel at all four simultaneously.

If you’re confident in yourself, but disconnected from others, everything will be about you and you’ll alienate the people around you. If you’re connected to others, but lack confidence in yourself, you will betray your own needs and perspectives in order to please everyone else. If you’re not committed to a purpose, something bigger than yourself and others, you’ll lose the respect of those around you as you act aimlessly, failing to make an impact on what matters most. And if you fail to act, powerfully, decisively, and boldly—with emotional courage—your ideas will remain in your head and your goals will remain unfulfilled fantasies.

Consider the following three people who attended our leadership training:

  1. Frank, the president of a financial services firm, was thoughtful, aware, and intentional about what he did, why he did it, and how he wanted to impact those around him. He set good boundaries, knew what he needed, and didn’t hesitate to speak up for himself. But he wasn’t getting the traction he hoped for. The problem was that he often alienated the people around him who, in his view, didn’t understand him. When he felt misunderstood, he tried to explain himself, which, to his confusion, annoyed people even more. He knew he wasn’t getting the best out of the people around him—they were underperforming—but he wasn’t sure what would motivate them or how to do it.
  2. Shelly was a well-loved entrepreneur who always took great care of her clients, her employees, and her family. She felt good about her success with other people—she knew how to keep people happy—and they certainly felt great about her. But her company was stalled and she felt exhausted and anxious. Shelly had a sense that something was missing in her life, but wasn’t even sure what that meant or what she needed. And she was afraid to make too many changes lest they disrupt the people around her, whose needs she prioritized. Shelly was connected to everyone else, and she was willing to give up on herself and even her company—in order to meet their needs.
  3. Sanjay was a powerhouse. A turnaround leader. He was the person a company called in when they needed change. He set high expectations, articulated them clearly, and pursued them with abandon. He was decisive, visionary. He told it like it was. The problem Sanjay faced was that people often failed to deliver to his high expectations. And he just didn’t understand why. So he got to the office even earlier, stayed later, created more defined plans and put more pressure on his employees. None of it helped and he found himself increasingly frustrated and annoyed by their inability to produce. His family complained about how absent he was. His employees complained that he didn’t listen to them. Even he felt something was off—he didn’t feel good—but he couldn’t put his finger on it. So he just focused on the end goal and kept pushing.

Frank, Shelly, and Sanjay each have one element of the four elements. Frank was confident in himself, Shelly was connected to everyone else, and Sanjay was committed to a purpose that was bigger than both himself and others.

And, in key areas, all three of them were missing elements, including the critical fourth element—emotional courage. Frank did not have the courage to be vulnerable to the needs and concerns of others, Shelly was not willing to ask for help, and Sanjay kept himself safe by devoting himself fully to—and hiding behind—his work, avoiding himself and others in the process.

It was costing all of them—personally and professionally. They were frustrated when they could have been joyful, tired when they could have been energized. Their employees were less productive, less inspired, and less collaborative than they could be and than they wanted to be. And the larger purpose of their hard work had stalled.

Maybe you recognize some of these challenges in yourself? Perhaps you are confident and clear but struggle to connect with others? Maybe you give yourself up to please the people around you? Perhaps you throw yourself into work and you neglect yourself and everyone around you? Maybe you hold yourself back in all these areas, hesitant to take risks that might backfire?

That’s why emotional courage is so important.

Emotional courage amplifies your power in each of the first three areas. When you are willing to feel, you are willing to act, to take risks. It’s a risk to be confident, to believe in yourself. A risk to be open to others. A risk to commit to something bigger than yourself. Confidence, connection, and commitment require that you be communicative, vulnerable, and honest. You will feel exposed. You may be hurt. When you risk your devotion, your reputation, you will face uncertainty, rejection, failure, and insecurity (among other things). You’re making a bet—on yourself, on others, on a purpose—and that bet may not play out in your favor. It’s a risk. And that’s scary.

But if you want to accomplish anything worthwhile, that’s a bet you need to make. Those are feelings you’ll have to feel.

Find out about upcoming programs with Peter Bregman at Kripalu.

Excerpted with permission from Leading with Emotional Courage, by Peter Bregman, forthcoming in July 2018.