The Four Capacities Every Great Leader Needs (and Very Few Have)

When I was a very young journalist, full of bravado and barely concealed insecurity, Ed Kosner, editor of Newsweek, hired me to do a job I wasn't sure I was capable of doing. Thrown into deep water, I had no choice but to swim. But I also knew he wouldn't let me drown. His confidence buoyed me.

Some years later, I was hired away by Arthur Gelb, the managing editor of The New York Times. This time, I was seduced by Gelb's contagious exuberance about being part of a noble fraternity committed to putting out the world's greatest newspaper.

Over the last dozen years, I've worked with scores of CEOs and senior executives to help them build more engaged, high performance cultures by energizing their employees. Along the way, I've landed on four key capacities that show up, to one degree or another, in the most inspiring leaders I've met.

1. Great leaders recognize strengths in us that we don't always yet fully see in ourselves.

This is precisely what Kosner did with me. He provided belief where I didn't yet have it, and I trusted his judgment more than my own. It's the Pygmalion effect: expectations become self-fulfilling.

Both positive and negative emotions feed on themselves. In the absence of Kosner's confidence, I simply wouldn't have assumed I was ready to write at that level.

Because he seemed so sure I could--he saw better than I did how my ambition and relentlessness would eventually help me prevail--I wasted little energy in corrosive worry and doubt.

Instead, I simply invested myself in getting better, day by day, step by step. Because we can achieve excellent in almost anything we practice with sufficient focus and intention, I did get better, which fed my own confidence and satisfaction, and my willingness to keep pushing myself.

2. Rather than simply trying to get more out of us, great leaders seek to understand and meet our needs, above all a compelling mission beyond our immediate self-interest, or theirs.

Great leaders understand that how they make people feel, day in and day out, has a profound influence on how they perform.

We each have a range of core needs--physical, emotional, mental and spiritual. Great leaders focus on helping their employees meet each of these needs, recognizing that it helps them to perform better and more sustainably.

Arthur Gelb helped my meet not just my emotional need to be valued, but also my spiritual need to be engaged in a mission bigger than my own success. Far too few leaders take the time to figure out what they truly stand for, beyond the bottom line, and why we should feel excited to work for them.

3. Great leaders take the time to clearly define what success looks like, and then empower and trust us to figure out the best way to achieve it.

One of our core needs is for self-expression. One of the most demoralizing and infantilizing experiences at work is to feel micromanaged.

The job of leaders is not to do the work of those they lead, but to serve as Chief Energy Officer -- to free and fuel us to bring the best of ourselves to work every day.

Part of that responsibility is defining, in the clearest possible way, what's expected of us--our concrete deliverables. This is a time-consuming and challenging process, and most leaders I've met do very little of it. When they do it effectively, the next step for leaders is to get out of the way.

That requires trusting that employees will figure out for themselves the best way to get their work done, and that even though they'll take wrong turns and make mistakes, they learn and grow stronger along the way.

4. The best of all leaders--a tiny fraction--have the capacity to embrace their own opposites, most notably vulnerability alongside strength, and confidence balanced by humility.

This capacity is uniquely powerful because all of us struggle, whether we're aware of it or not, with our self worth. We're each vulnerable to believing, at any given moment, that we're not good enough.

Great leaders don't feel the need to be right, or to be perfect, because they've learned to value themselves in spite of shortcomings they freely acknowledge. In turn, they bring this generous spirit to those they lead.

The more leaders make us feel valued, in spite of our imperfections, the less energy we will spend asserting, defending and restoring our value, and the more energy we have available to create value.

All four capacities are grounded in one overarching insight. Great leaders recognize that the best way to get the highest value is to give the highest value.

Reprinted from

Tony Schwartz is President and CEO of The Energy Project, a company that helps individuals and organizations fuel energy, engagement, focus, and productivity by harnessing the science of high performance. Tony's most recent book, The Way We're Working Isn't Working: The Four Forgotten Needs that Energize Great Performance, was published in May 2010 and became an immediate The New York Times and Wall Street Journal bestseller. Follow him on Twitter @TonySchwartz.

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  • Lita Cox

    Tony, what a great article! I have had so many experiences in my life, working for people that micromanaged, didn't know how to manage, or try to do it all themselves, while the rest of us wondered why we were there.
    I love your definition of CEO- Chief Energy Officer. I learned so much from all those that I worked for and with in teams, many times telling myself, "this is what I don't ever want to do as a leader when it becomes my time to lead."
    I have a laminated card on my desk that says "the greatest leader forgets himself and attends to the development of others." I personally don't agree with "forgets himself...", I just think staying in check with myself, making sure that it doesn't become my agenda, always allowing people to do what they do best, finding the great potential in others, nurturing that talent, being adaptable and flexible to changing course when needed and knowing that motivating others comes from "leading by example."

  • Francie Dalton

    BRAVO Tony. You've produced an arresting combination of wisdom and humility in this post. Beautifully done.
    Further validating the veracity and importance of your points, I offer the following.

    1. Leaders who take risks in stretching their employees, such as increasing span or scope before one is quite ready, enjoy the loyalty and discretionary energy of those employees. Both variables (the leader's trust and the trusted one's reciprocal commitment) are visible to others in ways that are influential and inspirational, which can serve as powerful mechanisms of retention.

    2. That there are impacts on performance caused by the presence or absence of a holistic frame of reference at the leadership level is unassailable. And it's NOT soft stuff! The degree to which employees trust their leaders, strive to meet or surpass expectations, and stay with their organizations despite hard times, dramatic change, or more attractive options is directly related to how they think of and feel about them. Such emotions cannot be commanded however; they must be elicited. Tailoring messaging as you suggest, so that it resonates with individuals, is the essence of inspirational leadership, and helps ensure that increased productivity is the deliberate, voluntary choice of each individual. Clearly, your article resonated with me - and part of the reason was because you shared some of your self in your writing, and allowed me the privilege of feeling as if I were getting to know you a bit.
    A great resource for how to to tailor messaging can be found at:

    3. Of the four capacities you cite as being essential to great leadership, the one most often missing is the ability to articulate "concrete the clearest possible way". While they may know exactly what they want, my experience reveals that what they communicate as expected outcomes are notoriously in-explicit, devoid of quantitative and/or qualitative metrics. A great tip that will make leader expectations explicit is the use of the fill-in-the-blank question. Learn how to use at:

    Once again Tony - thank you for a quality of writing that captured and retained my attention, and for tips that will - bottom line - augment my business.
    - Francie Dalton

  • Scott Asai

    Great leaders also coach. It's more about how you develop a leader than prove to him/her how great you are. Care more about who you are investing in than yourself.

  • Heidi Kraft

    Always enjoy your work Tony. What I find common in all four traits is the ability to slow down, be connected those you lead and be generous with time, energy etc. In that way, a 5 minute interaction can make a huge difference as a leader.