The challenges facing today’s business leaders are unprecedented in history. This is not to say that the life of, say, Marco Polo was a cakewalk, but that challenges have sprung up from a connected, global economy that no one could have predicted even a century ago. Today, going international doesn’t require a business to be huge, and in many cases, it doesn’t even require a business to have branch offices in different countries.

Expectations are different too. No one wants to (or has to) wait for answers, and businesses have to be nimble and flexible while still providing value above and beyond what used to be expected. Information is power, and the people and businesses buying products and services have more information instantly at their disposal than ever. Usually if one provider disappoints, there are plenty of others ready to step in and fill the gap. What does leadership mean in the 21st-century world of business? In many ways, it means the same thing it always has: passion, commitment, decisiveness, and the ability to inspire, for example. But there is less room for trial and error, and recovery from setbacks has to be swift and sure. In short, leadership must be highly intelligent on many fronts.

Intelligent Leadership

Expectations for today’s business have never been higher in terms of flexibility, quality, and expertise. 

But what does “intelligent” mean?

Naturally, it includes subject matter expertise, but so much more is required. Emotional intelligence is necessary in our always-connected world, and the ability to see several moves ahead, like a chess master, is essential too. Self-knowledge, coupled with a vast knowledge of resources and how to make use of them are indispensable components of intelligence, and self-knowledge must include an understanding of our own blind spots and shortcomings. What is intelligent leadership, and how does a person develop it?

How to Define Leadership

At its simplest, leadership is the ability to motivate people to achieve a common goal. In business, leadership is closely associated with bottom-line results, but can a person who gets unprecedented quarterly profits at the expense of the people doing the work really be called a leader? Won’t hiring and staffing issues eventually catch up to them?

Leaders have to have both strategic and tactical vision, and can never forget that without the people doing the work, it all falls apart. And though some iconic leaders have been spoken of as “born leaders,” the best leadership is the product of hard work and commitment. Sure, some people have stronger innate qualities like assertiveness and empathy, but great leaders don’t simply emerge from nowhere, fully formed and ready to take charge.

Neither can leaders be defined by their “type.” Great leaders may be more authoritative, or more democratic. They may be charismatic or deadpan. Yet they all have several things in common. The main thing outstanding leaders do is that they make their world (or the world) better. Additionally, they know how to maintain a positive attitude without being in a state of denial, and ultimately, they understand the importance of building the next generation of leaders.

Effective Leaders

Effective leaders not only improve their environment, they ensure others will continue to do so after they’re gone.

Poor Leadership and Its Consequences

The destructive power of bad leadership can be astounding. There are several possible causes of bad leadership, including:

  • Lack of communication
  • Unclear communication
  • Micromanagement
  • Not making expectations clear
  • Intimidation of team members
  • Low emotional intelligence

Bad leadership is costly, directly and indirectly. For one thing, the hard costs of turnover when a leader has to be fired and replaced can be staggering. The indirect costs, however, can be even worse. Team performance suffers under poor leadership, as does employee development. Tomorrow’s leaders, who may be able to recognize how bad the situation is becoming, may be the first to jump ship, which means it may be harder to plan for future leadership succession. Eventually, the entire organizational culture can turn toxic, and it can be plagued by high turnover, poor morale, and declining business performance.

What Is Intelligent Leadership?

Intelligent Leadership is a comprehensive leadership concept. It is designed for exceptional people who want to break through the (largely self-imposed) limits that prevent them from reaching their full potential. It is effective, strategic, operationally sound, and is practiced by energetic, passionate people. Intelligent Leadership doesn’t just happen, but is the product of intentional choices and practices that have the ability to unlock opportunities beyond what might be apparent at first.

Intelligent Leadership involves cultivating the heart, mind, and soul in order to bring exceptional leadership skills to an organization. In John Mattone’s book Intelligent Leadership, he describes a process based on empirical research that uses a leader’s inner-core strengths and outer-core competencies.

Intelligent Leadership Competencies

Intelligent leadership rests in the sweet spot of commitment to excellence, inner-core strengths, and outer-core competencies.

Inner-core strengths include traits like character, positive emotions, positive beliefs, self-concept, and values. Outer-core leadership competencies are made up of a person’s capabilities, commitment, and connectedness. When inner and outer core are aligned, and when a leader recognizes what they:

  • Can do
  • Will do, and
  • Must do

They have the building blocks for Intelligent Leadership success. With the guidance of the intelligent leader’s ever-improving competence, teams come to form powerful, engaging organizational cultures where people make their own free choice to commit to giving their best effort and continually seeking to improve. The intelligent leader – the outstanding leader – must possess a clear vision of the capabilities, commitment, and alignment of inner-core values and outer-core competencies required to lead effectively. The definition of leadership success isn’t really unique to each organization, though each leader is unique. There exist some fundamental, universal target behaviors and characteristics of Intelligent Leadership, and John Mattone has explored them in great depth.

How Does It Differ from Traditional Leadership?

Traditional leadership as we usually think of it is goal-oriented. It has to be. Why bother having a leader if there are no goals to be accomplished? Intelligent Leadership is, in addition, vision-oriented: what is our situation right now, what is our best possible outcome, and how can we put our resources and strengths toward achieving that? Leaders must be skilled at guiding operations toward goals, and there are countless ways to do this, good and bad. Setting down objectives and ensuring proper resources are available are positive, effective ways of guiding a team toward goals. Micromanaging, or at the other extreme, trying to lead by fiat (“Make it happen, however you have to do it.”), are ineffective ways of doing moving toward goals.

Micromanagement is counterproductive

Micromanagement is remarkably counterproductive in a leader.

A leader cannot be focused on the past, but must be able to look realistically at the present situation, with its good qualities and its bad ones. With Intelligent Leadership, a leader not only has a focus on the here and now, but also puts practices into place to ensure the good work outlives their tenure. This involves recognizing and cultivating emerging leadership. Leaders cannot lead effectively unless they know themselves. We all know that trying to be someone you fundamentally are not eventually derails. Therefore, leaders must know, “This is how I am.” Intelligent leaders, in addition to knowing “This is how I am,” know their own character and values, as well as how they are manifested outwardly in their work.

In summary, the main difference between leadership and Intelligent Leadership is that the latter takes it to a more expansive level. John Mattone didn’t just come up with these concepts from scratch, but developed them as the result of extensive global experience over the span of more than three decades. He has also conducted extensive research on talent management and executive development, consulting with hundreds of organizations, and has leadership coaching experience with over 200 executives.

Who Needs Intelligent Leadership?

Any organization that wants continuing success needs Intelligent Leadership. Theoretically, an organization might not require Intelligent Leadership if it were temporary, devoted to a single goal, and ready to disband once that’s over, but even that would be short-sighted. Intelligent Leadership isn’t only devoted to getting excellent results right now, or this business quarter, but indefinitely thereafter. Implementing Intelligent Leadership requires first finding leaders and future leaders with the potential for greatness, and helping them develop their unique leadership gifts and talents while understanding their own weaknesses so they can address them. And it continues with keeping an eye out for emerging leaders of tomorrow, because succession planning is essential to any organization that wants long-term prosperity.

The world in general, and the business world in particular, will only become more complex, more demanding, and more accountable in the Information Age. A business that doesn’t care whether it exists in ten or 15 years may not need to worry much about leadership, but some would argue that guiding an organization to a singular accomplishment isn’t really leadership at all. In short, the realities of today’s world require Intelligent Leadership.

How Can Leadership Coaches Help?

Leadership coaching

Leadership coaching helps leaders further fine-tune strengths, while bridging skills and performance gaps.

Coaches, in general, can have outsized influence on people’s lives. John Mattone regularly asks executives to tell him about the great leaders in their lives, and often that person is a former coach. Great leaders often have role models as inspiration, but when it comes to the people who actually made a difference in their lives, a parent, teacher, or coach is often credited. Leadership coaches can make an immense difference to the person who is soon to assume a leadership role. When someone must perform as a leader before having been adequately trained and coached, the learning curve is steeper, and the risks are higher.

Perhaps it is ironic, then that when he coaches executives, John Mattone explains that taking the more difficult path is the right decision. Saying no to decisions that don’t align with what is true and ethical can be difficult. But the difficulty is short-term. Over the long term, making those difficult decisions lead to better-operating results without the stain of ethical or moral lapses and other long-term consequences.

Targeted coaching that aims for real prescriptions for strengthening both a leader’s inner and outer core characteristics helps today’s and tomorrow’s leaders recognize and seize the amazing opportunities they will encounter. At the same time, coaching helps them avoid and mitigate risks that are increasingly common in a fast-paced, high-stakes business world. It is the leaders who are willing to understand what’s in their hearts and minds, and who are honest and objective about their inner- and outer-core characteristics that have the greatest chance of not just being good leaders, but of being legendary ones.

What Benefits Come with Intelligent Leadership?

Even the best leader is imperfect, and no one should think of Intelligent Leadership as being entirely without flaws, but the benefits of Intelligent Leadership can be disproportionately good compared to the effort that goes into it. One of the main benefits of Intelligent Leadership is that everyone works within the security of knowing their leader has consistency of character. The leader is not going to change the rules, lie, or otherwise throw people under the proverbial bus to make things easier in the short run.

Another critically important benefit of Intelligent Leadership is that it saves time. Intelligent Leadership is deliberate and clear in communication. Team members don’t get mixed signals or conflicting instructions, so time isn’t wasted clearing up confusion or going back and redoing things that were done incorrectly. Everyone moves forward, without having to backtrack, and that fuels momentum to accomplish big goals.

Deliberate communication

Clear, deliberate communication saves time and empowers team members.

Intelligent leaders set an example for others, and at the same time they make sure others know how valued they are. Everyone, whatever their function in an organization, needs to feel appreciated in order to bother giving their best, and Intelligent Leadership understands and practices this. At the same time, intelligent leaders continually thirst for wisdom. They know they never will have “arrived,” because the world will continue to change, like it or not. The benefits of Intelligent Leadership are evident in the moment, and they’re evident over time. Today, team members know what is expected of them and know they are appreciated. Tomorrow, they will be able to look back on something amazing and have the satisfaction of knowing they were a valued part of it.

Some Real-Life Examples of Intelligent Leadership

Examples of outstanding leadership take different paths and arrive at different destinations, but they all combine passion, humanity, hard work, and accountability. One example is Theo Epstein, President of Baseball Operations for the Chicago Cubs. Not much united Americans in the fall of 2016, but even the most casual baseball fans couldn’t help but be moved by Game 7 of the World Series that made the Cubs into champions. Epstein has demonstrated the importance of understanding the human qualities of players that turn a group of athletes into a true team: one that is greater than the sum of its parts.

Jeff Bezos would make most people’s lists of leadership superstars, having revolutionized retail with, and having revolutionized the business of IT with Amazon Web Services. Amazon has even won Academy Awards, leading some to wonder if there’s anything this company can’t do. Chief executive officer of Lloyd’s of London Inga Beale has had tremendous impact on business in the City of London. She has focused on modernizing Lloyd’s of London by embracing technology, and assists London Mayor Sadiq Khan in an advisory role. She has been granted the title of dame by the Order of the British Empire, and has been outspokenly committed to increasing workplace diversity.

Organizations develop

Intelligent leadership allows long-established organizations to continue to develop and thrive.

Zimbabwean Strive Masiyiwa is not only successful in business, but is a devout philanthropist, having founded with his wife the Higher Life Foundation that provides scholarships and food to destitute orphans in his country. He has also used his considerable influence to pursue sustainable investment and leadership in environmental policy to help preserve the African continent’s natural resources. Intelligent Leadership isn’t about fitting into a mold, but about shaping one’s own destiny with tools like hard work, integrity, compassion, and the ability to listen.

Whether or not a person reaches the status of world-renowned leader, their character (or lack thereof) has an enormous impact on how they are remembered, regarded, and talked about. The conscious choices we make wherever we stand on the corporate ladder add up to strong or weak character. It’s often not easy to make the right choices, and everyone is sure to make mistakes sometimes. But Intelligent Leadership puts a person in a contest not with others, but with themselves, and a habit of continually striving for improvement, authenticity, and just plain doing what is right, even if it’s hard, is what eventually turns a good leader into a great one.

John Mattone is the author of several books, including Intelligent Leadership: What You Need to Know to Unlock Your Full Potential. Here you can learn the details of inner- and outer-core characteristics, your own tendencies, and the risks your unique leadership style entails. Better still, you will learn how to make the most of the gifts you possess, and how to address areas where there is room for improvement. Intelligent Leadership means much more than just “intelligence plus leadership.” The leaders who have achieved it are the ones who have left their mark and inspired others, paving the way for the exceptional leaders of the future. If you want to learn more, you can contact John Mattone to learn more. 

Glossary of Terms

Emotional intelligence – a person’s ability to maintain awareness of, express, and control their emotions, and handle interpersonal relationships with maturity and empathy

Inner-core strengths – a person’s values, character, thoughts, emotions, and beliefs. In other words, inner-core strengths are fundamental to what makes a person themselves and unlike anyone else.

Intelligent Leadership – a concept developed by John Mattone that integrates a leader’s inner strengths and outer competencies to maximize leadership success

Leadership – a set of inner qualities and competencies that allows a person to inspire and guide a team toward a common goal

Leadership coaching – a type of executive coaching specifically designed to increase an executive’s leadership ability, strengthen competencies, and address deficiencies

Micromanaging – managing with excessive, unnecessary control or attention to detail that ultimately disempowers the person attempting to perform the task being micromanaged

Outer-core competencies – the skills, knowledge, and abilities that allow a leader to know what they can do, must do, and will do to create a blueprint for success

Succession planning – the process of identifying and developing leaders so they will be prepared to replace existing leaders when they are no longer present

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