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The Effectiveness-Lab

The INTANGIBLES that set quintessential leaders apart from the pack

Leaders do not need technical skills in the core business of the organisations they lead, to achieve success in their jobs. I am sure that you and myself possess transferable leadership skills that can lead us to success in any industry. You do not have to look further than the renowned World-Bank for a good example of transferable leadership skills, applied in a technically complex business eco-system. The current president of the world bank Dr Jim Yong Kim, Is a medical doctor by training, leading one of the world’s most influential economic power houses. I am not sure that Dr Kim uses much of his technical skills as a physician, in his job at the world bank.

The INTANGIBLES! Pic. credit:
            The INTANGIBLES!
         Pic. credit:

So, how do leaders like Dr Kim succeed in leading organisations and people below them, that are more competent than them in the core business of organisations they lead?

Well, those accustomed to the linearity and liking for order, as opposed to discontinuity, will think that certain generic leadership characteristics bring success to the Dr Kim’s of the world.

Indeed, the literature on leadership provides fresh off the factory floor, characteristics of the quintessential leader. The hypothesis is that: if you possess all or the majority of the characteristics below, you are firmly on the path to quintessential leadership:

According to Forbes Magazine, these characteristics make a great leader:

  • Honesty
  • Ability to delegate
  • Communication
  • Confidence
  • Commitment
  • Positive attitude
  • Creativity
  • Intuition
  • Ability to inspire

Profiles International also lists its ten characteristics to great leadership:

  • Honest
  • Communication
  • Confidence
  • Inspiration
  • Positivity
  • Delegation
  • Commitment
  • Humour
  • Creativity
  • Intuition shares nine leadership characteristics from its work on great leadership:

  • Awareness
  • Decisiveness
  • Empathy
  • Accountability
  • Confidence
  • Optimism
  • Honesty
  • Focus
  • Inspiration

Yes, all the above characteristics are a prerequisite to quintessential leadership. However, there is one critical determinant of quintessential leadership, that the above linear characterisation of leadership misses – the INTANGIBLES

There are certain INTANGIBLES that quintessential leaders have, and that happen in the background, prior to the manifestation of the above orthodox characteristics. The intangibles, as the name goes, cannot necessarily be listed as products/characteristics of a quintessential leader. They are soft-habits, gut-feelings that are innate to the DNA of a quintessential leader and not easily copied

The intangibles:

Leaders that drive organisations to greater heights possess certain soft and Invisible elements. These come before the technical characteristics we are all accustomed – the so-called leadership characteristics

In truly quintessential leaders, look out for the intangibles below:

  • Pendulum oversight by leaders. Leaders that exhibit this intangible have the ability to swing like a pendulum between strategic, tactical, and operational level issues. This is not the so-called management-by-walking-about and should not be confused with micro-management habits. Pendulum oversight leaders have a good command of what happens at the frontline of organisations, mid-level structures and all the way to the executive and board levels. More importantly they bring the ability to not only swing like a pendulum across these three levels but can seamlessly connect the dots at the three levels, 24/7, moreover both physically and virtually. The latter balance is hard to attain, and a reason why many leaders default to the physical pendulum oversight, and end up being baptised micro-managers.
Pendulum oversight Pic. credit:
 Pendulum oversight
  • From the above pendulum-oversight, leaders attain a helicopter-view position of their organisation and with that, put into practice their knack for identifying black spots across the organisation. Such leaders have a unique aptitude for telling where such black spots are or might appear. Leaders can then direct management efforts towards the black-spots. Such leaders are clearly in cruise mode/control and get the trust of the cadres below them.
  • The cumulative effect of adopting pendulum-oversight and a helicopter view position that supports the identification of black spots, brings out a unique yet critical intangible in quintessential leaders. The capability to relate what they observe, to the people that work for them in the organisation. The relating in the latter scenario is not about identifying who is doing their work or not, and bestowing punishment or reward on them, but empathising. Quintessential leaders have the unique DNA that puts them in their workers shoes, small, medium, or big as theirs. In doing so, they get to understand why workers behave the way they do. It is when a leader can understand the underlying cause of a worker’s behaviour, and ultimately achievement or non-achievement, that they can get the best out of them. Empathetic leaders are comfortable with the commitment-to-development of their workers.
  • With leaders in the know of why workers behave the way they do, they can deploy viable and sustainable commitment-to-people-development strategies. Moreover, such leaders do the latter without dependence on complex and archaic HR talent-gap identification systems. Such capability comes naturally to them and in such leaders, is a mobile talent development unit
  • Armed with the above four, a quintessential leader attains the ability to seamlessly make small yet significant incremental changes to the value chain of the organisation. Friends, there is not the time to wait for large scale change-episodes at organisations. Quintessential leaders make change a seamless part of their organisations value chain. Such leaders shall convince their staff to sign a contract with the organisation, that is only honoured by the organisation if there is continuous search for newness and change.

Can business schools, leadership development colleges teach the five intangibles above? In all fairness, at least one intangible, empathy, is listed in the orthodox characteristics shared earlier in the blog

However, generally speaking, leadership literature and those recruiting and selecting leaders disregard the INTANGIBLES.

Why do we disregard the intangibles in leadership discourse?

First and foremost, the leadership characteristics outlined earlier on in this blog have become generic commodities that you and myself can go and buy at a top or even mediocre business school. Leadership coaching, a growing industry, is artificially developing us leaders, by implanting orthodox leadership characteristics – welcome come to the age of ‘artificial’ leadership. All you have to do is show evidence of the orthodox list in your leadership toolbox, and you will be elevated to the status of quintessential leader. I cannot blame those that disregard the INTANGIBLES after all, why bother with what is not seen and valued?

Second, there is a tendency to confuse tenure and leadership pedigree at interview time. For example – I have been on interview panels where interviewees have argued and got jobs, on how long they have worked in senior leadership positions.

I have serious concerns about the shallowness of the orthodox interview: I may have to my professional clock, years of senior leadership experience, but how is that related to being a quintessential leader? I may have been exposed to complex leadership situations and came out on the other side still alive – but how do you tell, my actual footprint and value addition in such complexity?

The orthodox interview process, in my opinion, cannot be relied upon to identify quintessential leaders. It does not address ‘interviewing for the intangibles’. Organisation and HR specialists should move away from the orthodox interview. It is linear, boxed, easy to coach for – for those in doubt, go ahead and read this example of interview dynamics from the development industry

What should organisations look for in quintessential leaders?

Well, simple answer, INTANGIBLES!


13 responses to “The INTANGIBLES that set quintessential leaders apart from the pack”

  1. […] people at organizations feel valued, respected, included and relevant. A leader should have the ‘intangibles’ to deliver a feel-good […]


  2. […] close analysis, the intangibles below, [read: quintessential leadership traits at the Effectiveness lab] directly impact […]


  3. […] Yes, all the above characteristics are a prerequisite to smart leadership. However, there is one critical determinant of quintessential leadership, that the above linear leadership characterization misses – the INTANGIBLES […]


  4. […] as leadership success factors continue to shift from the technical and academic foci towards the intangibles, effective leadership is becoming a matter of the heart and soul? Heart and soul matters aren’t […]


  5. […] INTANGIBLES that set quintessential leaders apart from the […]


  6. […] ALSO READ: The INTANGIBLES that set quintessential leaders apart from the pack  […]


  7. […] ALSO READ: Intangibles that set quintessential leaders apart from the pack […]


  8. I would say the main thing you have to do when in a leadership position is to understand that the way you think something should be done isn’t the only way to do it and might not be the best way at all. You have to understand everyone brings good ideas to the table, listen to everything everyone has to say and make sure everything is voted on. Delegate. Have at least a separate secretary/treasurer, that is a lot of work, unless you love that sort of work.

    Most of all, never underestimate the power of politics, even in a little helicopter club. Things sound awesome when a group of guys decide to form a club, but eventually big fish/small pond syndrome can set in, resentment can fester if a minority starts creating problems for the majority just for their own benefit. You only have to do a search for all the threads complaining about club politics to see what works and what doesn’t work. All I can say is make sure it stays about the goal: flying helicopters and not about someone’s personal agenda. Good luck…


    1. Dear Anas – thanks for reading the blog! I hear you re.: the political dynamics in any group and the tendency by leaders to disregard signals!


  9. […] with the above emotional intelligence, bottom of the funnel leaders posses critical leadership intangibles. The Invisible and virtual nature of their leadership pedigree allows them to manoeuvre […]


  10. […] week, my blog explored the orthodox characteristics of a leader. Perhaps it may help us all to pause and explore the characteristics of a manager. You will quickly […]


  11. Herbert Mugumya Avatar
    Herbert Mugumya

    Dear Apollo,
    Since you started this blog, todays post has attracted my attention more. I have always believed there can be a different way of assessing leadership and management skills. In the past one year, I have sat/done more than 10 interview seesions 90% over skype or phone. What I do hate are those same questions everyone on the othe side asks. e.g. what is your management syle? do these organizations share same interview questionnaire? do I have to regurgitate same answers to everyone who asks same question? We all miss out on the intangibles! how do we move beyond the rhetoric questions? We need find more ways to guide recruiters and interviewers to assess leadership skills. Although I pass some of these interviews, I hate to ask same questions when I am the one interviewing. This colonial way of attracting senior executives has to change. Perhaps, HR managers need to go back to school to rethink their theory and practice.

    Have a blessed Sunday.
    Warm regards from Dar.


    1. Kairu as ever, thanks for reading my blog, and liking this one in particular

      I couldn’t agree more with you Kairu – how can we get HR practitioners to change their ways?

      We need a more realistic approach to interviewing friend. I have seen some organisations that are moving in the right direction on this subject

      At our age and experience – you are right, you can get tired of the orthodox, tell us about yourself, give us specific examples of…., interview

      Greetings from a pleasant Nairobi!


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About Me

Apollo B. Gabazira is an Ugandan OD. junkie fascinated by matters that render organisations/individuals effective or not. He blogs on effective leadership and management. He is a devoted green-farmer and breeds the Ayrshire cow at Nakabugu, Luuka district, Uganda. Apollo is quite effective at what he chooses to do.


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