Business & Leadership

The Roots of leadership: secret ingredients revealed (Part I)

Some people change the world whilst others live the easy life, taking daily events in their stride. The most successful figures revolutionize their sector, their environment, their country. Whether it’s Xavier Niel, Mark Zuckerberg, Steve Jobs, Gandhi or Nelson Mandela, what are the secrets to leadership?

Some people change the world whilst others live the easy life, taking daily events in their stride. The most successful figures revolutionize their sector, their environment, their country. Whether it’s Xavier Niel, Mark Zuckerberg, Steve Jobs, Gandhi or Nelson Mandela, what are the secrets to leadership?

We all know the classic ingredients of leadership; charisma, vision, loyalty, flexibility, a system of values, etc. Knowing them is one thing, mastering them something else entirely. Other than these well-known characteristics, what are the deeper sources, the “secret ingredients” of leadership.


1) Daring and perseverance

To be daring in such and uncertain world – is that the mark of and unwavering leader?

When the present weighs heavily, a leader finds the time to think of the future and to believe in it. He finds the courage to think differently, to do things his own way.

Paroxically, to dare is, in fact, a prudent move. Doing things in the same way as others will only guarantee you get lost in the crowd. In fact doing things like others is taking the biggest risk. To be daring, in an intelligent way, will ensure you remain an influential leader.

Daring is a mix of reason and intuition, of reasonable courage, irrational ambition and personal conviction that gives you the added edge.  Without reason, daring is all show and no substance. Without intuition daring is merely a cheap publicity stunt.

Without perseverance, daring is nothing. It’s only a whim, a straw fire that’s sure to fizzle out. Without perseverance, it is a foolhardy endeavor. Daring and perseverance are two rare ingredients and to make an impression on the world, you need both working together.

Perseverance is a fundamental quality of leadership. Could Gandhi have inspired India to shake off the yoke of British Imperialism without dedicating his whole life to the cause? Could Steve Jobs have revolutionized the world of IT without having the fortitude to overcome numerous setbacks?   

Edison confessed that the electric light bulb was a success only after a hundred tries. Each try – each failure we might say – was a tempting opportunity to give up. But Edison chose to go on, to learn from each attempt in order to finally succeed.

When daring and perseverance are allied, one of the rare ingredients of leadership is in place.  



2) Energy and Equilibrium

The second secret ingredient of leadership is energy. This ingredient comes from equilibrium and a sense of equilibrium.

Energy, the strength that supports a leader, and that he gives off and infects other with, is the sine qua non for the perseverance that is essential for success. How to hold on faced with doubts and adversity without the mental and physical energy to bounce back from failure or to make progress when faced with obstacles?

This is not an inborn strength but rather comes from several factors that must be worked on: the solidity of the vision, how well mapped out the path to get there is, a consistency between the values espoused and those practiced, the ability to prioritize problems in order to deal with them efficiently etc.

Energy too comes from the togetherness and morale of the team the leader is in charge of. A leader infuses his team with as much energy as he can.

The moral authority of “the project” that he is undertaking is another vital source. In addition, each little victory on the road to the ultimate goal revitalizes the energy of a leader and, paradoxically each lesson learnt from failure can also bring renewed vigor as: “What doesn’t kill us only makes us stronger.”

On a personal level, a leader must develop this energy by seeking mental and physical balance.

At a physical level it mustn’t be forgotten that man is an animal whose brain must be adequately nourished, nutritionally speaking and by the special chemistry that physical exercise provides. A sound mind in a sound body. Steve Jobs elevated nutrition to an art form, while Nicolas Sarkozy, whose boundless energy impressed even his detractors, swore by jogging.

Mentally, equilibrium is a notion as important as it is neglected. All great leaders draw strength from their life, their past, their roots, to know where they are going and to embark on that journey with an adventurer’s enthusiasm.   

Equilibrium comes from the way in which each leader understands his past, but also how he manages his present, day-to-day life. To let yourself get distracted or annoyed by a relationship in the doldrums, a disorderly home life is not the mark of a great leader. Some young leaders find that they reach a dead end in their family life, as was the case with Steve Jobs, and the disruption that this causes is obvious. Family and the home are sanctuaries that can provide you with so much rest, perspective, energy and creativity that they are in reality part of the leadership equation.

Finally we must emphasize that a leader has a sense of balance. In his outlook, his industry and enterprise, he assesses, understands and takes into account this “tacit knowledge.” These “equilibria” are the political, economic, human or social. He understands and respects them and so can adjust the balance when it is uneven. This sense of a “tug of war” in action is closely tied to the ability to think systematically.

Finding the right equilibrium also involves having a sense of fairness, in your inter-personal and inter-firm relationships. The leader is a builder of relationships, and in doing so establishes and guarantees a sense of balance that is key as much as to maintain (high productivity levels, bringing added value and effort etc.) as to give (fair pay and deserved status etc.).

Maintaining balance is not the same thing as maintain the status quo however. The strength of a leader is to approach the issue of equilibrium in a dynamic fashion. He knows how to respect the established order, as well as put in place a new one. But when he shakes up the established order, the leader knows how to proceed in a just manner so that everything, and everyone ends up in the right place, or a better one.


3) Systematic thoughts, systematic actions

The ability to think systematically and act systematically is rare and probably the biggest secret ingredient of leadership.

 It’s important again here to examine the concept of being systematic and just why this quality is so rare.

To make an impact in this world, you need to understand its complexity, that’s the first step towards eventual mastery. Then you must put yourself in a position to act on the different factors of which it’s composed then, finally, act.

The experts define the system as “a complex and dynamic group functioning as a single unified structure.” A company is a system, an industry a much bigger system encompassing clients, competitors and regulators etc. The world is a still bigger system. To succeed, a leader needs to have the capacity to understand not only the ins and outs of his business but also the significant changes taking place in the political, economic and social spheres. And to act accordingly. Mastering something this complex is an immense challenge. Each system is a highly elaborate piece of a greater, even more complicated whole.

So to have a viable system we need time, fierce intelligence and a great deal of experience to be able to fit all the pieces together in such a way as to have an effective structure where each part is in harmony with the others and with the structure as a whole.

The sad reason for the scarcity of leaders is this: In the West we have forgotten how to think systematically! Favoring deductive reasoning instead, western thinking and education has, for the longest time, dominated the world by making specialists of its elites: some are trained to be excellent lawyers and that alone. Others formidable managers in finance or marketing, yet more learn the ways of the politician at Science Po or how to be a top civil servant at ENA.

But where are all the leaders who received specific training to master the many and various intermingling issues, systems and situations of the modern world? Academically speaking at least, there are none. 

The Orient, better-versed at systematic thinking and considering  the importance of balance and harmony, stay one step ahead when it comes to synthesis.

And there is another problem linked to the culture of task specialization so prevalent in the West, and it is that those with the time to think (professors and analysts) are cut off from the ‘doing’ (and its valuable lessons) while those involved in the ‘doing,’ i.e. managers and directors, never have the time to engage in deep reflection, to contemplate existing systems, their inner workings and subtle interactions, which combine, cancel each other out or impact one another. Still, they must take decisions, act, manage.

The key is to not lose the whole by focusing too much on any one part. Marketing is but a part of the whole and must operate in harmony with other sub-systems such as finance, human resources and talent management and so on.

The biographies of the great leaders often underline this paradox: each subject is able to have a global vision – to see the big picture, as the saying goes – and at the same time understand each detail of his business. The paradox is obvious: systematic thought relays the micro-elements to the entire system, the whole.

Leonardo da Vinci, one of the West’s most brilliant and prolific historic figures – whose work straddled the worlds of art and science – was a systematic thinker.     

A final word on this rare ingredient: each leader needs to have joined up thinking when it comes assessing the specifics of each sub system, the sub systems themselves and the system as a whole, but above all to share the knowledge they’ve acquired to facilitate the success of their adventure. Alone, he can never stay on top of the myriad complexities, situations and systems in motion – linear or otherwise – and cannot hope to predict the future course of history, much less write it.


4) Introspection    

Introspection and the courage to keep improving yourself.

Becoming a leader is an arduous apprenticeship that no book can completely teach. To have what it takes to be a leader of men, the perseverance to move mountains, the humility to listen to the little guy, among other precious talents; you must traverse an almost impossible path.

The path is a personal  one, with no signposts and so requires introspection to follow. It is full of booby-traps, some unwittingly laid by yourself, and blind alleys that pride sends you down.

Life’s path is intimate and in the mind. It cannot be seen by anyone else but yourself, nor accessed, despite the fact that occasional mentors intervene at different stages of our lives. The route is long and treacherous and complacency can bring even the most determined of voyagers to a premature end.

Introspection is the courage to keep improving ourselves. It demands that two titanic tasks be accomplished.

The first is to dare to face our demons, faults and failures. This is a painful and unwelcome step. Often, only failure makes us undertake this journey of introspection. 

The other is to dare to transcend the qualities we suppose to be perfect. The world is teeming with people who believe they are at the top of their game and are unwilling to go on learning. Yet we must never stop perfecting our qualities, and continue to learn, grow, enrich ourselves even when – especially when – success invites us to rest on our laurels.

These secret ingredients are not the only ones and the second article in our Leadership Series on the fundamental and little explored aspects of leadership will be published soon.

Your ideas and feedback are welcome so that little by little the art of mastering our destiny becomes a science. 



Author: Pierre Lorenceau

Translator: Simon McGeady



This article is taken from our monthly newsletter “Leaders Wisdom Journal”. To Subscribe.


Other articles of the same issue:

Francis Rousseau: “Within the same group it is essential to have both leaders and men of power”

Learn from Lee Kuan Yew – A Thinker, a Fighter and a Believer

Ten Powerful Women in Finance

Wisdom on Power

Brené Brown: The power of vulnerability (TED Video)


Accenture's CEO and CFO interview by Leaders League Group

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