The director of Northwestern University’s Center for Leadership, Adam Goodman, is a good friend and advisor to Lead Belay. He’s told me more than once that anyone can be a good leader if they have two things:

    1. A willingness to invest in themselves and grow; and

    2. Enough self-awareness to recognize that they don’t have it all figured out and to see where they can grow.

    I hope he won’t mind, but I’ve added a third of my own:

    3. Empathy. It doesn’t have to be off the charts, but frankly, a leader can’t be a narcissist.

Occasionally, and in the short-term, leaders can get away without these three attributes. But for long-term success, leaders need each of these things. At Lead Belay, we’re building long-term leaders.

The Will to Grow

This takes work and effort. You have to be willing to dig in, sometimes deep.

For most people, the work they want to do to grow is whatever they’ve done in the past. After all, we humans turn to what we know best. For learning as adults, this usually amounts to reading books or taking classes. When we were designing our Emerging Leader Ascent at Lead Belay we heard from so many new managers that those old “go to’s” weren’t giving them the support they needed. There was no way for them to know if what they were doing was working, and they often felt overwhelmed by all of the options.

If you’re truly willing to grow, you have to be willing to put in the time and effort, but in new and different ways. Some of them might even make you feel uncomfortable, and they might be hard. In order to grow, you have to have a growth mindset, or, as defined by Carol Dweck in her book Mindset, the belief that your skills and intelligence can be improved with effort and persistence. By working on your flaws, accepting failure as an opportunity, and being willing to take risks, you are one step closer to becoming a great leader.


Great leaders aren’t people who think they have it all figured out. If they have this mindset, they often won’t have the willingness to grow. Red flag: if you often take an argumentative stance or spend a great deal of your time defending your way of doing things, you’re not in the right place to become a great leader.

Great leaders find confidence in insecurity. That doesn’t mean great leaders are insecure. Far from it, usually. But it does mean they recognize that there is room to do better and grow.

No narcissists allowed

Easier said than done, if you are one, I know. Great leaders can’t be narcissists. If your empathy is at zero, it’s almost impossible to move the needle. But if you have even just a small bit of empathy, it’s not as hard as you might think to build up to a lot.

At Lead Belay, we offer a healthy amount of opportunities for uncovering ways to relate to others in order to empathize with and understand others. It’s the core of our program, and out of all our participants, the very few who haven’t found it useful were… narcissistic (with super high confidence).

With the attributes of willingness to grow, self-awareness, and empathy, plus support, any leader can become a great leader. Unfortunately, not all leaders have these traits, and many of them are still (unsuccessful) leaders. I’m sure you can think of one, and I’ll go first.

Right out of college, I worked at the Wall Street investment bank Lehman Brothers. It was a harsh place to work, full of people who motivated others exclusively by money and fear. The payscale was like no other job in the world. But I paid for it in human decency.

Mistakes were constantly made, as they always are, but they were covered up far more than they were ever corrected. We were all exhausted from the long hours required, not so much because the work was hard, but because we were all working so much harder than necessary to deal with all the errors without getting caught by the so-called leaders of the organization. It was a vicious cycle that you could only get out of by leaving, which I did after just one year.

At Lead Belay, we know that’s not a recipe for long-term success. We assess our participants for these three attributes and provide them with the skills and tools to help them in their leadership journeys.

We don’t require perfection, and we don’t promise it either. We’re about growth, discovery, and pointing you in the right direction. And we’re here for the willing.


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