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As an admissions counselor and former Dean of Students at Columbia Business School, my eyes and ears were always searching for someone in the cohort who was prepared to take on a leadership role. While I encountered many with the loudest voices and forceful personalities, very few had that ephemeral aura that said, “Come with me, we will be successful.” To me, that’s a true leader. Having met and worked with many such leaders, I recognized that this type of influential leadership often comes with three powerful traits — humility, fearlessness and a touch of madness.
Humility is not a throwaway adjective; rather, it’s tied to understanding who you are as a person. This self-awareness and connection to your core beliefs allows you to be aware of your insecurities. This is why humble leaders can admit mistakes and take responsibility for their actions. They are not vying to be the smartest person in the room; rather, they search for and recognize good ideas — another admirable trait of great leaders. This leadership characteristic is often considered subservient but is actually reflective of strength.
Humility can inspire trust, cooperation and commitment, which you need if you want others to follow your lead. Further, leadership isn’t any longer about leading from the front. It’s rather about having the shrewdness and empathy to take people along.
The military is known to produce exemplary leaders. Mark Milley is a recently retired United States Army General who was not afraid to apologize on national television in 2020 when he was the senior most U.S. general. His apology for appearing in a photo-op with then-President Donald Trump following the forceful dispersal of peaceful protesters did not diminish his leadership or credibility. Rather, it sent a message to his junior officers that anyone can make a mistake; your attitude after that shows what kind of a leader you are.
Related: The 8 Signs of a Bad Leader
Fearless leaders are those who know how to problem solve. Fearlessness should not be confused with recklessness. On the contrary, fearlessness in leaders can help them remain calm and respond to challenges constructively. A lack of fear can help leaders think clearly and not panic when plans go awry. However, in a stressful situation, the mind often conjures up the worst possible scenario, which, if articulated, will change the course of action. However, authentic leaders do not act from a place of fear.
Brian and I met at Columbia Business School in New York City shortly after his graduation from the Navel Academy and have remained in close touch for 25+ years. Brian was a mentor and an ethical student leader whose prior military experiences allowed him to gain the respect of his cohort, and his career vision included the likes of Goldman Sachs and Lehman Brothers, where, once again, he took a leadership role even as the bank failed.
On one occasion in 2008, when Brian was about to leave Lehman, I asked him if he was concerned that his financial risks could destroy his lifestyle. He laughed and reminded me that he was just a farm boy from Missouri who could get by with a backpack and a plan! His command of the situation was possible because of his fearlessness — he wasn’t afraid to abandon a bank rife with corporate corruption and still imagine and believe in a hopeful future. This type of leader turns their vision into a reality and can influence others to embrace a future where anything is possible.
3. A touch of madness
This leadership trait could present a slippery slope. Gone awry, madness transforms a leader into a madman like Hitler, but if understood and implemented ethically, it can generate creativity, movement, and success. As a leader, you will often face resentment and resistance to your vision. It is here that having a touch of madness will help you to remain true to yourself and believe in your ideas. With this slight craziness, leaders can actually go on to change the world — as Steve Jobs popularly quipped, “The people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world are the ones who do.”
While working on a team at a prestigious business school, I was party to a leader’s vision pursued with a touch of madness. We were chasing the rankings, and to prove his point, our leader, against all odds, insisted on denying admission to a powerful political applicant, the son of NYC’s royalty, who had an Ivy League BA with lackluster grades. This easily admissible applicant became an object lesson for our team’s understanding of leadership. We had been eager to argue against what we considered to be more than a touch of madness on our leader’s part. However, the dean’s unwavering yet insightful focus on driving our rankings in a positive direction prevailed. Had we not implemented this seemingly unhinged decision, our team would have made a critical mistake: opting for a short-term solution, a one-off admit, when the long-term goal to increase selectivity was an important part of the dean’s vision. We managed to gain our leader’s respect in that we did not blindly implement his point of view, but followed his lead after voicing our concerns and subsequently buying into his passionate support for a long-term strategy.
The definition of a good leader can vary significantly based on many factors — geography, work culture, age and gender. But once we begin to view leadership from a humanistic point of view, we will note that the one common denominator among all leaders is their ability to influence people to follow them. If you want to become this type of leader, the three traits of humility, fearlessness and a hint of madness must be present for you to achieve your goal. These attributes will allow people to see your authentic yet courageous self and make it inevitable that they will lend their trust and follow your lead on even the most difficult journeys.