There's the popular image of great leaders involving lots of stern-faced seriousness and pointing confidently into the future, and then there's real-life great leadership. According to a host of experts, the two often look nothing alike.
The charismatic and ever-confident giver of rousing speeches of our imagination and Hollywood central casting is nothing like the empathetic, humble, and intellectually curious reality that it really takes to inspire a team. Here are a few examples of the things great leaders do here in the real world:
1. They lead as little as possible.
How do you empower the people around you to do their best work? Not, surely, by constantly telling them what to do. That's the message from U.S. nuclear submarine commander Captain David Marquet, for one, who notes that the best leaders lead least, giving power back to their subordinates as much as possible and only stepping in to set priorities, guide decision-making, and take on the toughest calls.
2. They're boring.
When Google sifted through immense troves of data to determine what makes a great leader, what quality did they come up with? Nope, nothing like soaring oratory or razor sharp smarts. What mattered most was being boring. For day-to-day leadership, simple predictability, the search giant found, frees a leader's team to focus on their actual work rather than office politics or needless consultation.
3. They skip the status symbols.
Mark Zuckerberg sits in an open plan office with the rest of his team. So does Evernote founder and CEO Phil Libin. In fact, according to Libin, at his company "there are no perks that are signs of seniority. Obviously, there are differences in compensation, but there are no status symbols."
Is this just the wacky preference of a few tech visionaries? Nope, the best leaders gain influence not by intimidating others with a bigger chair, a fancier office, or even a more impressive title. Instead they earn their respect through their actions. Sure, they may enjoy some perks of the job, but fundamentally they're not interested in flaunting power for power's sake.
4. They listen more than they talk.
Ask a person to picture a leader and almost always they will imagine someone in front of a crowd talking. That's a part of leadership, but as several leadership experts point out, it should be a pretty miniscule part. Great leaders spend way more time listening.
"The late, great Stephen Covey (talk about world's best leaders) said that highly effective people 'seek to understand before they seek to be understood.' Great leaders do this by asking questions far more than they wield answers. Questions are the most powerful tool in a world-class leader's toolbox," notes author Mike Michalowicz on OPEN Forum, for example.
But listening isn't just about asking questions, it's also about careful attention, claims founder and creative leadership expert Chris Barz-Brown in Fast Company. If you want to be a truly great leader, "let people talk without interjecting or commenting. Look them in the eye and focus on what they're actually saying, without judgment," he instructs.
5. They're not always busy.
Warren Buffett spends 80 percent of his time learning and thinking. Bill Gates goes off the grid for a week every year for deep reflection. LinkedIn CEO Jeffrey Weiner sets aside two hours every day just to think. Contrary to stereotypes, the best leaders aren't always frantically busy. They know that having the maximum impact means leaving time for deep concentration and uninterrupted pondering (and yes, even adequate rest).
6. They read (a lot).
What other habits do Warren Buffett and Bill Gates share? One that's also recommended by Mark Zuckerberg, Sir Richard Branson and tons of other leadership icons -- simply reading a lot. When Buffett was asked how to get smarter, he had a straightforward answer: "Read 500 pages like this every day. That's how knowledge works. It builds up, like compound interest. All of you can do it, but I guarantee not many of you will." Exceptional leaders are among the few who make time to build their knowledge.
7. They know their purpose.
Steve Jobs in the quintessential example of the leader with a crystal clear purpose and an astounding ability to communicate that purpose to those who worked with him. Like Jobs, all great leaders know why they do what they do. (Bonus tip: it's often about serving others.)
A Huffington Post piece on the essential qualities of natural leaders includes a quote that Joey Reiman, CEO of BrightHouse, wrote in The Story of Purpose: The Path to Creating a Brighter Brand, a Greater Company, and a Lasting Legacy, which captures this well: "Purpose leaders don't manage; they mesmerize. They don't execute initiatives; they lead crusades. Their brands are not labels but flags that should evoke the kind of patriotism we have for the countries we live in... These leaders want to change the way the planet works--or as Apple's Steve Jobs is widely quoted saying, 'to make a dent in the universe.'"