Leadership Physiology: What Makes a Successful Leader?

During our last discussion, we talked about the anatomy of leadership. By “anatomy”, I refer to what the structure looks like… How it fits together. What pieces join to form a need for leadership? As we all know, however, you can look good on paper, but when it comes to how the whole thing actually moves? How do things flow and squish into the cracks to fill the gaps and make it solid? The “physiology” of leadership can vary widely based on the people, the circumstances and the resources involved.

Have you ever been on a team with a leader you absolutely love, worship and adore? Would you follow him off a cliff if he asked? Would you spend your nights and weekends if she asked you to work overtime on a critical project? Why is that? Is it because you believe in the worthiness of your team’s ultimate goal? That’s great if you do! But what if that goal is a little, um, fuzzy? Would you still follow that leader to the ends of the earth? What is it about that person that incites this kind of loyalty and devotion?

Now let’s look at the opposite side of this coin: You have a great project. It’s noble. It’s long-lasting, benevolent, has far-reaching effects… and you’re being paid handsomely to get this project done. This sounds like a total win! How could this go wrong? Well, what if you can’t stand your team leader? What if that person is abrasive, uncommunicative and always tries to take the credit for your hard work? Is your dedication to that project going to be the same? I’m sure we have all experienced the proverbial “horrible boss” in our time. How much of an impact does that leader have on the overall success of the team? If you’re like me, it can matter quite a bit.

There are a lot of types of Leaders out there, and accordingly, there are a lot of expert opinions on leadership styles. I am not an acolyte of any particular Expert Opinion, but it’s easy to find examples of this. Tony Robbins is one of the first names that pops up during any internet search on leadership. Millions of people subscribe to his platform and to his social media sites. His speaking engagements often look like rock concerts. His bombastic style of building self-confidence has even included “fire walking” as a part of his training courses [I speak from no personal experience, mind you, but you can easily find these stories.] People love this guy! Why is that?

Simon Sinek, on the other hand, seems like the anti-Robbins. He has no theme music or spectacular stagelighting. He uses only logic and examples to convince you of his argument. When I watch video clips of Sinek speak, it almost seems like he just rolled out of bed and showed up at the Starbucks. Mind you, I am a huge Simon Sinek fan as we established in my first post in this leadership series, so I mean no ill will here! His simple style and direct content inspire a die-hard following. Why is that?

Josh Linkner is also a thought leader these days. As a fellow Detroit native, I’ve seen him speak live more than once. He advocates for creative disruption, an idea where you purposely turn established ideas on their heads as a way of finding new approaches to problem-solving. Linkner is an established entrepreneur and also a talented jazz musician. His books have been on the New York Times bestseller list. People like him. Indeed, he’s a charismatic and dynamic guy. People listen when he speaks. Why is that?


The common theme on the exterior for all three of these examples is that all of these Expert Opinions on leadership are great storytellers. Who doesn’t love a good yarn? Heck, Steven Spielberg is such a great storyteller than he could probably sell out crowds if he ran an insurance seminar. We love stories. We need stories. If you can put together a well-told tale, people will probably stop and listen to you.

But is storytelling the only thing that matters if you want to be a good leader? I think not. Teams work better if there’s a little substance to go with that sparkle. So what else do our Expert Opinions have in common that sets them apart from others? I would propose three simple things make up this difference:


If you don’t know where you’re going, it’s going to be hard to get there. If Moses had a specific geographic location in mind rather than just “The Promised Land”, would he have gotten there sooner? It’s a facetious question, I know, but you get the idea… If you can clearly define your goal, it will be easier to get there. More importantly, it will be easier to convince others to join your cause. If you team can understand the purpose of your goal and why it is important, your leadership failings may be more forgivable– the goal itself may help motivate others to follow your path, even if you are having a less-than-convincing day.


Who gets killed in every horror movie? The guy who isn’t paying attention! We all know this! A leader will perform better if he or she understands the environmental factors that may affect how the team reaches the goal. If you know the playing field well enough, you can use this knowledge to pick the right moves… or at least to avoid the wrong ones. Tiger Woods knows where all the sandtraps are. Justin Verlander knows how far away home plate is from where he stands. Des Linden knows that Boston Marathon course like the back of her hand. When something starts to fall apart, a good leader needs to adjust on the fly. Without awareness, it’s hard to be flexible when the need arises.


So simple, yet so hard to achieve… How does a good leader motivate a team? By getting inside of their heads. Each team member has his or her own needs and motivations. Tony Robbins understands this when he speaks. So do Simon Sinek and Josh Linkner. If you can figure out what these are, you are more likely to get what you need from each person. Now this doesn’t mean that you have to send chocolates and flowers to everyone. Motivations vary widely. Some people respond well to the “Team Challenge” approach. Other people perhaps need more gentle positive reinforcement. And when team members fall short of their objectives, a good leader might ask, “Why did that happen?”

  • Was there a time management problem?
  • Missing resources?
  • Did he/she have an unexpected personal issue?
  • Does he/she not understand the goal?
  • If this is a repeated issue, is it because the team member has a difficult personality, or has this person just missed an important skill set?


In my last post, we looked at the Leadership Map. This was a simple flowchart meant to break this process down to its most basic parts. Today, I would suggest that we move this concept into practice. In this edition’s Downloadable Goodness section, I have included a Leadership Plan PDF. This worksheet is meant to help you walk through the steps from our map for your own leadership project. I would invite you to try filling it out for one of your current projects just to see how specific you can be. Often, I find that by articulating my goals or my steps, I gain a better understanding of what I really need to accomplish. What do you notice as you go through this process?


The Lonely Surgeon — Leadership Map

The Lonely Surgeon — Leadership Plan

Over the next few posts, we’ll spend a little more time dissecting out The Big Three leadership qualities we introduced today. But for now, we’ll start by putting just a few of these puzzle pieces together.

Until then…


Photo Credit: Prawny | Pixabay