What Matters More Today than Yesterday in Leadership: A call for egoless leaders

LeadershipCulture RiskBoard and CEO AdvisoryHuman Resources OfficersExecutive Search
min Report
Alain Ishak
February 12, 2019
3 min
LeadershipCulture RiskBoard and CEO AdvisoryHuman Resources OfficersExecutive Search
A different management style that is based on trust, confidence, and engagement is emerging and being adopted by successful organizations.


Leadership styles matter

A major North American transportation company is losing market share as overall industry revenues rise. The autocratic personality and top-down, hands-on leadership style of its CEO is one of the problems, compounded by those on the management team, who don’t engage the workforce. Management is slow to implement recommendations from the field that could streamline and optimize operations, which creates frustration amongst employees.

In East Asia, a telecommunications company is concerned that it is losing its competitive edge. Its business model has been disrupted by the impact of new technologies and other innovations. The CEO has typically employed a unidimensional leadership style, focusing on some key strengths that have worked for her in the past. However, the shifting interests and relationship-oriented values of its younger workforce have put pressure on management to evolve. The board questions whether she has the flexibility to do so.

These two examples – of autocratic and situational leadership – are indicative of why organizations are rethinking what makes a leader successful. Boards are concerned that top executives lack the mix of qualities needed to inspire an organization with a clear vision for the future, spearhead day-to-day operations, implement organizational change, and motivate a workforce to transition to the new digital economy.

From this introspection, a different management style is emerging and being adopted by successful organizations. We call it egoless leadership. It is based on broad concepts of confidence, trust, and engagement. Its focus is on future capabilities, where management potential, rather than achievement, is the new performance metric.

In the egoless leadership model, leaders and their personality characteristics are major drivers of organizational culture. A leader’s personality has a direct impact not only on his/her performance but also on broader engagement and team performance. Egoless leaders put the needs of the organization ahead of their own, and act in a way that will serve the business first and foremost rather than themselves.

This model also recognizes that successful leaders often exhibit contradictory traits. The paradoxical combination of these traits is not an obstacle to success per se, but leaders must learn to manage them – to find a balance between the innate tensions that inevitably arise between them.

Russell Reynolds Associates’ Leadership Span model addresses this specific challenge, as it highlights four major dualities that characterize a successful transition into senior leadership roles. Research indicates that successful leaders can “span” or demonstrate these contradictory traits in different situations over time. The range of traits captured in the Leadership Span model is the new measure for assessing leadership potential and predicting leadership effectiveness. Potential is a matter of degree, and balance is key.

Core Leadership Competencies

As illustrated, there are four core leaderships traits/themes in the Leadership Span model:

1. Pragmatic – Disruptive 

Setting strategy - Decentralized decision-making.

This leadership span highlights the speed at which business in a knowledge-based economy is conducted. The decision-making process is increasingly decentralized. Decisions cannot always be resolved at or escalated to the top; the pace of business is simply too fast to allow this to be done effectively. Therefore, the decision-making process must be consultative and, sometimes, shared.

The successful leader is pragmatic and accepts that decision-making processes are diffuse.

But he or she is not afraid to push for and effect change, even if it is disruptive. The leader accepts this challenge, despite the obstacles that the new, more fluid decision-making parameters may impose on implementation.

The onus is on the leader to articulate a clear strategic vision and structured framework within which people can act – often independently – without being burdened by processes, procedures, and strict hierarchies. The leader oversees or manages change but does not necessarily implement it. The leader establishes his or her credibility and authority by articulating a realistic attainable vision. Then, lets go of the need to control information and monopolize decision-making.

2. Reluctant – Risk-taking 

Executing for results - The need to hold people accountable.

This leadership span component emphasizes the idea that leaders will take risks when opportunities present themselves but will do so cautiously and in a timely manner. They will act to seize opportunities and drive higher performance. They balance an entrepreneurial style with a calculated risk-taking mindset. Mostly, they continue driving results in an ambiguous environment.

Leaders are responsible for creating an organizational culture that champions engagement. They mitigate risk, try to anticipate the impact or consequences of said decisions, and seize opportunities that impact the bottom line. They prioritize key objectives, effectively manage resource allocation, and drive change. They understand the need for detail, but mostly, they use the right level of detail while maintaining a clear bias for action.

That said, leaders who execute for results must also be flexible. They understand that performance comes from people and they cultivate a team whose members are held accountable for results. There are risks inherent to this approach, but the rewards can be significant and measured in terms of increased employee engagement and motivation.

Successful leaders take responsibility for actions and outcomes. They recognize when they need to present a commanding presence that will compel others into action. They know how to stretch their and others' performance and they demonstrate the grit to move ahead and persevere.

3. Vulnerable – Heroic  

Leading teams - Focusing on people to create an environment in which they can succeed.

A leader recruits and develops qualified people based on their capabilities and values. He or she is not afraid to hire individuals with professional skills and specialized industry knowledge that he or she may not personally possess.

A leader is not afraid of being exposed or vulnerable – of having to surrender a degree of personal power and prestige, and the authority and control that go with them, in order to attain organizational goals.

This idea may seem courageous and, even, audacious or heroic. But the pace and complexity of business afford a leader no other choice. He or she cannot be omnipresent or all-knowing and must be comfortable with this limitation. He or she must channel the skills and capabilities of others to suit his or her strategic vision. The goal is to maximize organizational potential by maximizing the potential of its people. The leader empowers people to use their skills and knowledge and to assume responsibility for their decisions and actions without fear of being judged. They have the confidence to not be threatened by others.

In terms of core leadership qualities, there is a clear shift in the motivational level. From demonstrations of the pure, personalized power that epitomized management practices in the past, when decisions were often imposed on others, there is a movement toward socialized power whereby the leader tries to engage and influence others and convince them to take the desired action. They are humble, display self-awareness, and put the team and organization's needs ahead of their own.

The successful leader is no longer fearful of championing employees and helping them to develop their skills. He or she is prepared to let others take the stage and, eventually, to assume leadership roles in their own right.

In this leadership span component, as with the three others, balance is the key. A leader cannot think of and do everything. He or she builds confidence by trusting in others, which is key to ultimate success.

4. Connecting – Galvanizing 

Relationships and influence - Recognizing the complexity of the role (business context, environment, and organization).

Given that business is truly interconnected on a global level, decision-making processes are increasingly complex. They require inputs from a wide variety of sources and, by necessity, are increasingly inclusive and collaborative.

Organizational success depends on an all-encompassing strategy to facilitate two-way information flows / and sharing both within and between departments, subsidiaries, and managers at all levels. The successful leader serves as both a connector and a catalyst to facilitate this process by building bonds within and bridges between teams.

He or she leverages the capabilities of others and draws on resources and inputs from a variety of sources to engage others in a collective or collaborative decision-making process. He or she builds and energizes tightly-knit teams at the business line and departmental levels, and connects them with the wider ecosystem of internal partners and external stakeholders in which the organization operates. The successful leader serves in some respects as a go-between these various groups. He or she brings people together around common interests and objectives and galvanizes their efforts to achieve common goals. He or she ensures diverse interests are communicated, understood, and promoted.

These relationships serve to engage various stakeholders. Interconnectivity allows them to influence decision-making and implementation processes and to be recognized for their contribution to the achievement of organizational goals. The leader energizes collective efforts because he or she shares responsibility and credit for success, as well as accountability for failure.


There is no consensus on the critical qualities of effective senior leaders. In fact, effective leaders must demonstrate a complex mix of abilities and traits, including many contradictory qualities. But academic research and scientific study conclude that CEO personality characteristics are a major driver of corporate and organizational culture and provide an objective measure of firm performance.

Leaders need to rely on strong people and empower them with responsibility. Strong leadership is a combination of many factors, but trust is essential. The successful leader needs to know his or her team members. Our business environment is too complex for any one individual to know all there is to know. No one has all the answers. But the true leader seeks guidance and cuts through the clutter of competing ideas to engage teams and solicit their advice. With this information at hand, he or she can act quickly and decisively when faced with opportunities or the need to drive change.

In summary, leaders need to make the following shifts:

  • From autocratic to inclusive 

  • From bureaucracy to empowerment and trust

  • From savior to facilitator

  • From judging performance to holding people accountable for performance

At the core of these four shifts is the need for leaders to put people first – to put employees at the center of their thinking. Therefore, egoless leadership is critical to organizational success.