Is this the single most defining trait of great leaders?

Elon Musk unveils The Dragon V2, designed to carry astronauts into space. Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

Elon Musk recently made this revelation: “My proceeds from the PayPal acquisition were $180 million. I put $100 million in SpaceX, $70 million in Tesla, and $10 million in Solar City. I had to borrow money for rent.”

At his famous speech in 1963, Martin Luther King Jr. proclaimed a dream in which his “four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the colour of their skin, but by the content of their character” and where “one day right down in Alabama, little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers”.

What do these remarkable but seemingly unrelated statements have in common?

Great people can be very different from one another. Elon Musk and Martin Luther King Jr. are hardly interchangeable.

Even those who excel in the same field can be strikingly different. You can study two incredible entrepreneurs and find that one is an absolute pleasure to be around while the other is abrasive and unreasonable. You can meet with two great CEOs and find that they are at polar opposite ends of the introversion-extroversion continuum. One can be a slob while another is a neat-freak.

But those who are great in their field do share the traits that are important to success in that field.

My company has spent the past two years studying human potential in world-class organisations and leaders as part of our Potentiology approach. We discovered two very important truths: that people are strikingly different from each other; and that people are more similar to each other than you could possibly imagine.

We found, for example, that the brain patterns relating to entrepreneurship are very similar in the world’s best entrepreneurs. The brain patterns relating to creativity are very similar in creative geniuses. The brain patterns relating to collaboration are almost identical in great collaborators. We found the same for great decision-makers, great empathisers, those with high resilience and so on.

I can’t stress enough how staggering this finding was. No matter how different the personalities, if two people are world-class in the same core capability, the brain patterns that drive that capability are almost identical, right down to the neuro-spatial pathways and synaptic connections. This has profound significance — it enables us to design interventions that move people towards the brain patterns of those who are best in the field you seek to master. It informs a practical guide for improving in any capability.

But what about when we compare those who are great in very different fields. Is there something shared by a group this disparate? Is there a specific shared neurological pattern of all great leaders?

Yes, there is. And it may not be what you think. It’s not about intelligence, communication skills, persuasiveness, people management or anything else so specific.

All great leaders, from Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos to Martin Luther King Jr. and Mother Teresa, share a long-term perspective and a behavioural pattern of delaying gratification.

What is this brain pattern about and what is its significance for those who wish to be great leaders?

In his landmark tome on the psychology of living, “The road less travelled”, M Scott Peck explained the centrality of ‘delay of gratification’ to character. “Delaying gratification is a process of scheduling the pain and pleasure of life in such a way as to enhance the pleasure of life in such a way as to enhance the pleasure by meeting and experiencing the pain first and getting it over with. It is the only decent way to live.”

Martin Luther King Jr. didn’t think that society would change overnight. Indeed, he was willing to put his own life on the line for something that he saw as generations away, not months or even years.

Similarly, some may characterise Elon Musk’s decision to reinvest all his PayPal earnings in other ventures as risky or speculative, the act of a gambler. This would be a mischaracterisation. While it certainly depicts a much higher risk tolerance than most of us would apply, this act is the opposite of self-indulgence. The easy thing to do would be to retire and live a life of luxury. Instead, Musk asked himself: “Can we travel further in space? Can we live in a world of electric cars?” This isn’t the easy choice, it’s the hard one. It’s delaying gratification.

As leaders, we should not have to be told that our perspective should be on the long term. We know this from our lives outside of business. When we raise a child, we focus on what we can do to help this little person become a healthy, happy contributor to society in their adulthood. We know that those who live to a ripe old age have made the right long-term decisions about diet and exercise. We take steps to look after our climate and environment, because abusing it today will mean that there is no planet for future generations to enjoy.

None of this means that the short term isn’t important. When a crisis comes, we must deal with it. But it is a matter of focus and balance. Neuronal activity in the brain of the great leader is more future-focused.

To be a great leader, we should apply this mindset to our conduct in business too.

A leader does not have to be leading a large organisation, creating Tesla or transforming human rights to demonstrate a long-term perspective. We all have this opportunity. Every time we make the right choice, our brain re-shapes to become more like the world’s best.

It all comes down to the choices we have the power to make:

  • We have choices regarding whether to focus on this month’s, this quarter’s, this year’s profits or the profits of the next 3-5 years.
  • We have choices when setting budgets, of whether or not to invest in the development of our people to help them achieve more of their potential.
  • We have choices when conducting a person’s performance review, to castigate them because they haven’t met this month’s target or to provide positive feedback for the behaviours that are setting them up for long-term success.
  • We have choices, when hiring, to fill it quickly and with little discernment of quality or take the time to be sure we are finding the best person for the role.
  • When have choices, when at work, of whether to sit at our desk and ignore those around us, or to take the time away from our demanding to-do list to connect with our people and listen to what is going on for them.
  • We have choices, when thinking about ourselves as leaders, to conclude that we will never change or to decide that we can always improve ourselves.

This final point is perhaps the most important. Great leaders take the same long-term view of themselves that they do of their organisation. They have become great not by birthright, but by delaying gratification for years, working at improving themselves through practice, reflection and willingness to learn. They understand that the discipline that made them as great as they are today will be the discipline they will continue to impose on themselves to make them even great leaders tomorrow.

So when should you start on the long-term process of making yourself a world-class leader? It’s same answer as for the Chinese proverb: “When is the best time to plant a tree? Twenty years ago. The second best time? Today.”

(Anthony Mitchell is the co-founder and Chief Potential Officer of the Australian group Bendelta, focusing on designing organisations and leaders for the cyber-physical age. As part of his commitment to developing human potential, he is Chairman of the Aurora Education Foundation, providing accelerated development opportunities for Australia’s most promising indigenous scholars, and a member of the Amnesty International 2020 Council, focused on defending the rights of those whose human potential is most in jeopardy.)

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