The Three Pillars Of Great Leadership

Great leadership is built on three pillars. Three pillars which, if you focus on applying each day, from this point forward, will help you become a great leader … not just sometimes, but the majority of the time.

Colin Iles
Colin Iles

Great leadership is built on three pillars. Three pillars that you will have demonstrated multiple times over your life already, but perhaps you were not aware of their importance. Three pillars which, if you focus on applying each day, from this point forward, will help you become a great leader … not just sometimes, but the majority of the time.


This might sound odd, but I'm not going to spend a huge amount of time on this. We all know a great leader when we see or experience one. I'd for example, name Jeff Bezos, Nelson Mandela and Richard Branson. You might choose these or others.

But in the main, we'd probably quickly come to a consensus around a set of individuals who we believe equally are, or at least once were, great leaders.

I also believe if I polled everyone reading this book to draw up a list of leaders, we'd again quickly find a set that we agree would deserve the title 'great'. But, like an elephant, describing what makes them great, in a scientific manner at least, is surprisingly difficult. And that's because in many cases, our list would be built around names who have achieved great things, rather than a definitive assessment of their approach to leadership.

You see, there are so many ways to lead. In our minds we might think great leaders are, at the very least, great listeners, empathizers, empowerers, deciders, committers, communicators, and influencers and that they are believable, credible, trustworthy, honest, resilient, humble, confident, communicative, creative and innovative.

But that's not entirely true.

For example, Donald Trump was able to build trust with many, despite being shown to have posted misleading tweets over 20 000 times! I don't like him, I don't agree with his politics, but I can't equally say he wasn't a great leader. He had something about him that captivated over 70 million Americans. Steve Jobs is another interesting example. In his case, he was able to generate a god-like following despite not being known for showing significant levels of empathy.

It's worth also noting that great leaders are not recognized as being great for their whole career. They tend to be analyzed at points in their lives when they have been successful, as opposed to when they failed. Would Richard Branson have been flagged as being a great leader when, at 16, he dropped out of school to set up the magazine Student? And what about the founder of Uber, Travis Kalanick? For many, he went from hero to zero in the space of a few years, which ultimately led to him standing down as CEO, in the same way, Jobs had to at Apple many years earlier.

You see, leadership isn't an innate characteristic that we should expect to proudly demonstrate every day of our lives. It depends on circumstances and situations, societal norms at the time, and, of course, other people’s perceptions of how we act. And our praise and adoration are typically only attributed to people who have been involved in something significant, without regard to whether their leadership was in fact impactful. So, good leadership, to me at least, is somewhat ethereal.

Nonetheless, I still believe that there are three pillars that truly great leaders demonstrate more consistently than others and that the need for such leaders is more in demand now than at any point in living memory.

I'm equally convinced that you have demonstrated these traits on many occasions in your own life. And therefore, I’m certain that if you apply these traits deliberately and consistently, you too can be recognized as a great leader no matter what path your life takes.


If you want to lead, you have to win hearts, not minds.

We might all like to think that our decision-making is rational and considered. And that regardless of whether you are leading a local gardening club or a multinational listed corporate, the key to great leadership is to provide a set of rational goals for people to align around. But the reality is we are all led by our hearts, not our heads.

In fact, emotions are at the center of virtually every decision we ever make: what cars we buy, who we love, where we go on holiday, where we decide to live, which politicians we vote for, which companies we work for, what stocks we choose to invest in.

Humans are unique as a species because our emotional range extends far beyond any other animal on the planet. Consider for a moment the number of feelings we can have from just using our imaginations. A well-told story can incite fear, laughter, and sadness in just a few pages. And when a well-known character is killed off in our favorite TV series, this can create feelings of loss and, dare I say, even bereavement.

It's that ability of ours to imagine that differentiates us. In fact, our imagination is the basis for how we organize ourselves as a society. Our legal, financial, and government systems are all essentially illusionary. We readily accept that handing over a piece of paper with a $ sign on it will be accepted, despite the fact the paper itself is worthless. Bitcoin is another upcoming example of an imaginary system, which may, in time, generate enough trust that it becomes the prevailing method to transact or store value.

Great leaders seem to intrinsically understand this paradox that influencing others to act requires more than presenting a set of facts and rational assumptions. It requires the presentation of stories that capture the hearts and imagination of others. And they do that by creating and sharing visions that are transcendental when compared to the seemingly more objective and measurable goals used by most organizations.

Consider these two job proposals. Which would interest you more?

A) We need a CEO, preferably with experience in marketing, who can help increase sales by 20% and uplift margin by 24%.

B) Do you want to sell sugar water for the rest of your life, or do you want to come with me and change the world?

Both adverts could be for identical roles, but I know which I'd take, and indeed, John Sculley obviously agreed with me, because it was this now-famous line that Steve Jobs used to lure him from PepsiCo to Apple.

As John Sculley says in several interviews, the genius of leaders like Steve Jobs and Bill Gates wasn't that they were overly interested in profits. They were, in fact, more focused on delivering a noble cause, one which would benefit society in some way, shape, or form and one which, if carried out successfully, 'could' also generate profits.

Perhaps you’re different, but most people I know would far prefer to work in an organization where there is a cause to align behind, especially if it offers similar industry-level pay and benefits. And great leaders understand this more than most, which is why they don't set transactional goals to inspire their teams. To underscore this point, think about how all companies need to turn a profit. But leaders who set profit as the primary goal have to make transactional pacts with their staff, which simplify typically to ‘If you do something for me, I'll do something for you.’ Usually, this is built around pay, but many organizations now also enhance this transaction, or pact, with offers of future promotions for those who help achieve these objective goals.

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Visionary leaders, on the other hand, build support by creating movements. They set purposeful targets, which 'transcend' simply generating profits, and which emotionally resonate with their teams. They offer people the opportunity to do something which feels good in its own right, with or without a competitive pay cheque and share scheme.

Today, the majority of leaders still have profit generation as the primary goal and rely on transactional relationships to deliver, but purpose-driven leadership is starting to build significant momentum. Examples include Elon Musk, CEO of SpaceX, who has set a vision of helping humanity live on Mars.

Or what about Paul Polman, who placed sustainability as a key goal for Unilever? This, in turn, led to product divisions focusing on solving real-world problems, such as eradicating dysentery, rather than the seemingly simpler goal of trying to increase sales of Lifebuoy soap.

A third example comes from the founders of Wise, Kristo Käärmann and Taavet Hinrikus. They did not focus on the profit margin for their cross-border payment solution. Instead, they sold a vision to staff, customers, and investors alike, that they wanted to work towards helping people transfer money to their loved ones for free.

In all three cases, these visionary leaders have created companies that have far out-performed their competitors across every measure.

So next time you are given the opportunity to lead a team, don't start by setting a rational, transactional goal such as profit, growth, or margin. Go deeper and look for the real benefits that you can bring to your team, your customers, or even society at large. Then sell the 'story' to build that support base of advocates and prepare to be amazed at how much effort they'll put in to help the collective achievement of your vision.

It's worth flagging at this point that the vision you set must be something you believe in too.

This last point is perhaps the most important takeaway of all. You can only truly be a great leader if you are leading towards something that you passionately believe in! If you yourself don't believe, you might become a good manager or organizer, but you cannot ever become a great leader.


My second observation about great leaders is that they all display immense levels of curiosity. Could you imagine Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Elon Musk or Richard Branson being successful without having intensely inquisitive minds?

Of course not.

But don't make the mistake of assuming these leaders limited their curiosity to designing new cutting-edge products and services. They each had to be equally curious about people too, because, without people, their ideas would never have seen the light of day. Each of them has had to find ways to positively manipulate others to turn ideas into reality.

Some leaders, like Richard Branson, are, or at least come across as being incredibly empathetic in the process. Steve Jobs or Elon Musk, perhaps less so. But in all cases, they have had to be curious because if you are not continually focused on experimenting with different ways to bring out the best from your teams, you'll miss the opportunities that are available.

It's also important to highlight that your leadership style cannot remain static throughout your career. The approach you take will have to adapt depending on the circumstances you face at the time. This is incredibly important.

I have personal experience of trying to apply a leadership style that had worked well for me in the past, to a new team that was operating in a different environment. What I was sure would increase engagement and productivity had precisely the opposite result. I had lost my curiosity about the art of good leadership and assumed that what worked previously would work again and again. I failed to test, observe and then adapt my approach.

These negative experiences helped me understand that perspective on the correct approach is important, but it cannot be treated as more than a best guess or hypothesis, and that if you are not adapting regularly, you are doing it wrong. Take the idea, run the experiment and be curious about the result. And don't take the result personally if it highlights blind spots or issues in how you are perceived.

Genuine curiosity about how others perceive you is such an important mindset for all great leaders, as it helps replace the hurt that can occur from constructive criticism with a more objective personal interest about what one needs to do to improve. Being linear and assuming previous methods are correct may work in maths, but certainly cannot be applied with humans.

Great leadership is built on an appreciation of the diversity of human interaction, the emotions that drive each of us and having enough curiosity to continually iterate your approach. The worst leaders I've experienced are, in fact, those who have lost their curiosity. Their approach quickly disintegrates into arrogance and hubris. And the longer this is left to fester, the worse they get and the harder it becomes for them to change. Shareholders and boards that allow non-curious leaders to remain in their positions of power fully deserve the negative consequences that follow. And those consequences can be disastrous.

Imagine, for example, if the leadership team of Blockbuster had been more curious about the possibilities Netflix offered, in the same way, Google was about Android. Blockbuster eventually went bust whilst Google's Android now powers 90% of devices on the planet.

But to be fair, how could the Blockbuster leadership team be curious? They did not have a deep underlying purpose beyond profit. Instead, they focused on the transactional goals of growing their $5 billion revenue, of which 17% came from late-returns penalties. So it's not surprising they lacked the curiosity to explore the postal and later streaming models that made Netflix so successful.

By setting a powerful purpose as your north star, it's so much easier to develop a culture of curiosity. And this need is only becoming greater, as technology continues to develop faster than at any point in our history. It's impossible to predict the future in a fast-changing world, so only the leaders who remain curious and engender curiosity across their organizations will be able to create adaptable businesses which can still thrive.

Of course, it's not just technology that is changing everything. Companies have to adapt their leadership styles because the beliefs and ideas of their new staff are transforming too. From X to Y to Z and the up-and-coming Alphas, each generation brings a different perspective on how work should be organized. And the leaders with the most experience are going to have to 'unlearn to learn' the most, especially if they want to bring the best out of a generation that is perhaps 30+ years their junior. If, for example, they are not curious about how a 20-year-old prefers to communicate via social platforms, instead preferring email, they will lose the collaboration opportunities this generation brings.

COVID-19 has created an ideal space for curiosity as we have seen an upsurge in interest in how to motivate individuals working from home. And more and more people are looking to try out the gig economy. But how do you inspire someone who you've never met, who you can't network with, and who may sit on the other side of the planet? I don't know the answer to this. I don't think anyone does yet. But the leaders who win will be those who are curious enough to explore new approaches, as they attempt to continue finding new paths to achieve their vision.

What you find for your purpose and what you become curious about is up to you. But try to find those two threads to guide you, and you'll vastly increase your chances of succeeding in bringing others on the journey.

If you believe that you and your team know everything already, you can only go backward.

Curiosity is the missing pillar for far too many people in senior positions. They have become jaded and linear in their approach to business, and that attitude can quickly become pervasive throughout their organizations. And it's that missing pillar that eventually leads to future conversations, like this one from Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises: ‘So how did you go bankrupt then?’ ‘Slowly then suddenly,’ was the reply.


The final pillar I see in all great leaders is that they have the courage of their convictions.

Merriam-Webster dictionary defines this as ‘doing what one believes is right'. And Collins suggests courage is having 'the confidence to do what you believe is right, even though other people may not agree or approve'. But these definitions don't fully articulate what I think is the essence of genuinely courageous leadership.

You see, great leaders are often placed in situations where they, themselves, are incredibly uncertain about what 'right' is. Yet, they still seem able to make decisions when they are both uncertain about the efficacy of the decision and are aware that it will not be universally accepted. That ability to decide in complex, uncertain environments is a rare skill and one for which those that apply it deserve our praise.

It's my sense that this pillar of leadership is now in critical demand as the world continues accelerating its exponential transformation. The confluence of new technologies, often referred to as 4IR, the global pandemic, fears about the impact of global warming and the rise of populist politics are all driving significant global changes at pace and scale. And the impact of these mega-shifts is being compressed into years, not decades.

Working from home, the rise of Bitcoin, and the huge increase in retail-based equity investment are just three examples of behavioral transformations that have been radically accelerated because of COVID-19 and technological advancements.

The courageous leaders of today will be those who understand it's impossible to predict what the world will look like in five years, yet still have the strength to make uncomfortable decisions; decisions that best place their organizations in a position to thrive because they are designed specifically to excel in an uncertain world.

This will likely mean an accelerated cycle of unlearning old models and experimenting with new ideas that may, or may not work, in a world where change is exponential. For example, we are already seeing adaptability and sustainability becoming critical concepts for businesses of today. Courageous leaders will have to stand up and challenge their boards and colleagues to think differently about how to lead their organizations. They will need to challenge the status quo with questions like:

·       Should we stop carrying out competitor analysis, as the real threats are coming from start-ups that may not even exist yet?

·       Does an annual strategic planning cycle even make sense when entrepreneurs are taking new ideas from concept to production in a matter of months?

·       Are we prepared to introduce new products and services which cannibalize our existing revenue streams?

·       Should we sell our most profitable businesses now, avoiding the future brand backlash that will come when the public realizes the extent of the negative environmental externalities we create?

·       Isn't our long-term sustainability now dependent on reinvesting dividends, rather than regular coupons to our shareholders?

The great leaders of the 2020s are going to be those who take the courageous and often unpopular decisions, which align their organizations with the changing demands of their customers and society at large. They will be the ones who understand they don't have to know the answers, that many of their strategies will fail and that some of their ideas will be looked at with ridicule with the advantages of hindsight.

Organizations that want to thrive can no longer offer a place for leaders with false bravado and overconfidence about the future. They now need courageous leaders. Leaders who appreciate the world is uncertain and therefore create more flexible, experimental, and anti-fragile organizations.


Purposeful, Curious, Courageous leaders.

The leaders who successfully guide their countries, companies, or clubs will be the ones who apply these three pillars consistently and simultaneously. They are each powerful differentiators in their own right, but the benefits magnify when applied together.

It's far easier to find courage when you are attempting to achieve a mission that matters emotionally, and you have the curiosity to not fear making mistakes, but rather see them as inevitable learning opportunities.

It's easier to be curious when you have the courage to openly admit you don't know the answers, whilst still having a deep purpose that guides what you should be curious about.

And it's easier to set purpose before profit when you are curious enough to see what results occur with this new approach, and courageous enough to know your main stakeholders may not be comfortable with it.

It's my belief that purposeful, curious, and courageous leaders are now more in demand than ever, as we are living in an age where exponential change is creating both significant opportunities and significant risks, which are impacting all of humanity. It's quite clear that the current economic and political systems have created dangerous, perhaps unintended, but perfectly predictable consequences.

Global warming and inequality are the direct results of decisions taken by business and political leaders. And more disruption is coming as machine learning, robotics and automation upend job markets, placing many tens of millions of people at risk of unemployment. Then factor in how these issues could be magnified with Africa's projected population growth to 20%, 30%, or even 40% of the world's population over the next decades?

Today's leaders must now place the planet before profit, have the curiosity to explore more ethical business systems, and have the courage to stand up against the institutions and systems that will resist change.

Purposeful, curious, and courageous leadership is mission-critical for ensuring the future sustainability of our planet.

So, if you focus on building your life around purpose, curiosity, and courage, perhaps you will be remembered as one of those great leaders who positively changed the world for the benefit of all.

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Colin Iles

Colin helps courageous and curious leaders find new opportunities with disruptive interventions in innovation, culture, leadership and strategy. Learn more at