“What Exceptional Leaders Know”

Written by on October 27, 2014


The highly anticipated What Exceptional Leaders Know by Tracy Spears & Wally Schmader is now available for purchase through Amazon.com and other booksellers. Here is a summary of seven of the important themes found throughout the book.

  1. Exceptional Leaders know that leadership is influence.

When you boil down everything a leader can do to succeed with a team, you end up with one word: influence. Exceptional leaders influence decisions, enthusiasm, actions, possibilities, confidence, beliefs, direction, and culture. Influence is what an exceptional leader does, and it shows up in myriad ways. The tactics can and will change; the definition will not.

  1. Exceptional leaders know that leadership is not a talent.

Leadership is a skill and a craft. It can be learned only through a unique combination of study and experience. When people describe a “talented” leader or a “born leader”, they’re either mislabeling the leader’s hard work or they’re describing the leader’s charisma. Of course, charisma and leadership are mistaken for each other very often, but they’re not at all the same. Charisma is to leadership what a fresh paint job would be to a car. It can make for a more appealing presentation, but the actual performance will come from some deeper and more powerful place.

  1. Exceptional leaders know how an understanding of personalities and temperaments allows them to succeed with different kinds of people.

We’ll spend some time on this one because it’s a real learning gap for a lot of us. It’s amazing how much time leaders and managers spend thinking about incentives and promotions and how little we spend learning to understand temperaments and what motivates different kinds of people. A leader who does not study temperament theory will not be able to lead a broad group of diverse people. This will be the lid on their leadership potential. Do you know how to influence every type of person? Do you know what makes them tick? You will.

  1. Exceptional leaders understand that they’re a work in progress.

The best leaders, the most effective leaders, and the leaders with the most upside all get this. We all need to see ourselves as people who are actively improving. We are learning leaders, we are observers, and we are students. Show me a leader who thinks he or she has nothing to learn, and I will show you someone who will be obsolete in a matter of a few years (if not already). This is a persistent misunderstanding of ineffective leaders; they just don’t understand that when you quit working on yourself, you’re admitting that you have no upside. The work-in-progress leader is an attractive leader who will gather skills, insights and followers very quickly. This is you.

  1. Exceptional leaders know the difference between leadership and manipulation.

A lot of the “leadership” executed by non-developed leaders is actually just some form of manipulation. There’s a time for both, but it’s crucial to understand the difference and to know what you’re doing. Manipulation can be used successfully and honestly by a leader who understands that it’ a short-term strategy. It cannot take the place of a real purpose or mission for your team. Developed leaders can discern what their teams need and when they need it. They make strategic decisions that will not put their credibility or long-term goals at risk.

  1. Exceptional leaders understand the importance of self-awareness.

This is the only leadership trait on this list that often gets worse for leaders with lots of experience. New leaders are often too self-aware, and this self-awareness naturally recedes to a healthy (and effective) level with time. Experienced leaders, though, can totally lose touch with the crucial importance of self-awareness. There are experienced leaders who never even consider how they’re being perceived or the impact they may be having on their teams. In the worst cases, this lack of understanding can undo a lot of good work and severely stunt the leader’s effectiveness. We’ll dig into this one to show how to avoid that outcome.

  1. Exceptional leaders are thermostats, not thermometers.

The best leaders know that they’re responsible for the environment. They’re not just there to quantify and understand what is happening with their teams or organizations; they exist in their roles to create and maintain a high-performance environment. The thermometer is there to tell the temperature, but the thermostat is there to set the temperature. Max DePree said it best: “The first responsibility of a leader is to define reality.” That reality is a complex mixture of personalities, objectives, and challenges. Exceptional leaders know that it’s their privilege to influence these variables in lasting and meaningful ways.

Please share your comments on these themes and other crucial concepts that exceptional leaders know. With this book we hope to begin an ongoing dialog with progressive leaders who understand the impact that a learning leader can have on their teams and beyond.


Wally Schmader & Tracy Spears