The word elite (like many other words) has taken on negative connotations in recent years. When you manipulate our language and choice of words to align with a specific narrative, then over time, if they’re used in that context, they can evolve to mean other than their original definition.

If you review the definition of the word elite, you’ll find that it means to stand out from the rest, or best of class.  

I was mentored by one of the most elite leaders in history, Sam Walton, the founder of Walmart. I encountered him at the age of 16 and it didn’t occur until years later that he was teaching me lessons in leadership even then. One of his principles was to surround yourself with the very best people you can find. As a result, even at my young age, he saw something in me that I didn’t see in myself and invested in me personally for the next 35 years.

A simple definition of elite leadership can be hard to pin down, but I think we all know it when we see it. I’ve been studying and working with elite leaders from many sectors for years and it’s obvious when I meet them. They just get it!

But what is it, specifically, that defines an elite leader? And what makes them stand out from everyone else?

It starts with their mindset. Every elite leader I’ve met has a remarkable clarity on winning for the organization, for the team, and for themselves (in that order). Moreover, this clarity on winning doesn’t come at the cost of others losing. Instead, it’s a relentless focus and determination to achieve goals and see others realize their goals in the process. Their focus on winning is all about having integrity between their words and their actions and in their relationships with others. It manifests itself in moment-to-moment behaviors, choices and decisions that benefit all those around them rather than their own self-interests.

Elite leaders have the following consistent characteristics:

Listen. Sounds so cliche now, doesn’t it? If you’re paying attention, however, we’re seeing the skill set (yes, I said skill set) of listening becoming a lost art. Elite leaders understand that listening is an essential skill for getting things done, and they work hard at developing their listening abilities. If you’ve listened to any of my Podcasts or Leadership Broadcasts, I often refer to becoming prolific with profiling, body language translation and non-verbal communication, in order to keep improving my listening skills beyond what I hear, to what I also ‘hear’ with my eyes.

PauseInstead of making knee-jerk reactions, elite leaders pause enough to actually think before making decisions and taking action. They resist the tendency to jump at the first good idea or solution. Instead, they take the time to explore different alternatives before proceeding with a course of action. They understand that it always costs more to do it over than to get it right the first time, both with events and even more so with people.

ReflectElite leaders are self-aware and tune in to their own biases and blind spots. They understand how and where these can get in the way, and build in the practice of regularly analyzing and questioning them. They constantly update their thinking to stay on top of their game.

ExpandUnderstanding that tunnel vision is not conducive to winning, elite leaders actively seek the wisdom and advice of others, especially those with different backgrounds and points of view. They appreciate the value of having multiple perspectives. I’ve said for a long time that it’s an advantage to be open-minded, but not so much that your brain falls out. 🙂

ExploreElite leaders talk more about possibilities rather than about events that may never happen. They ask Why? rather than Why not?. They focus on what could be versus what might get in the way. Sam Walton taught me to always ask Why at least five times, because more than likely, you won’t get the answer the first four.

Self-correctWhen elite leaders make a mistake, they self-correct by acknowledging it, adjusting, and refocusing on winning. One of the most obvious gaps in leadership today is the unwillingness of our most visible leaders to admit they made a mistake.

Learn Continually. Elite leaders constantly work to hone their craft. No matter how much success they achieve, they’re driven to get better at what they do. They’re continually curious and motivated to keep learning in order to stay abreast of the current environment and equip themselves to pivot in real time as the situation requires.

Most of all, elite leaders are always focused on moving forward, which requires learning from the past without getting stuck there.

When things go wrong, they don’t point fingers or assign blame. Instead, they do it again to get it right, or they guide others to do it again and get it right. They work to make others successful, and strive to create an environment that supports everyone achieving their goals.

Truth be told, that kind of environment doesn’t seem to be in enough demand in today’s culture, does it?

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