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The ‘je ne sais quoi’ of leadership


By Nicole Albutt | November 7, 2019

People often have a hard time describing the qualities of good leadership, and instead will describe how a leader makes them feel.

Whenever I work with clients on the topic of leadership, there is always at least one person who struggles to articulate what good leadership looks like. When pressed, they typically say “you just know it when you see it.”

More often than not, this takes us into a more fundamental debate. Can you describe good leadership? Can you really develop it — or is it something you have or you don’t? And therefore, crucially, is there really any point investing time, money, and energy in it?

I’ve explored this idea with a number of clients, both HR professionals and those in leadership positions. Here’s how it normally goes:

  • I start by asking people to bring to mind someone they hold up as an inspirational leader. It can be someone they have come across in their work life, or someone in the public eye. Most people find this pretty easy. A personal favorite of mine was a people and operations director who named Captain America.
  • Then we move on to what it is about them that makes them inspirational.

And this is where it gets interesting.

Simon Sinek is the bestselling author of Start With Why, a book on inspirational leadership. His TED Talk of the same name is currently the third most popular TED video of all time.

Without exception, people start by describing how that individual makes them feel. The impact of their words and behavior on those they lead hits on an emotional rather than a rational level. In the words of Simon Sinek — it’s about their why more than their what. For me, it’s the energy I feel when a leader brings to life the purpose of what I do, the difference it makes to the real people in my clients’ organization.

The notion of leadership clearly evokes an emotional response, although by and large it is not naturally approached in an emotional way. It is far more common to be leading by doing, rather than leading by feeling.

I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

Maya Angelou

This feeling, or “je ne sais quois,” also plays through to the development work we do with leaders. Often the first step to becoming a “better” leader (if there is such a thing) is an awareness of the impact you have on others — how your style, approach and actions make others feel. Psychometrics and 360 feedback shed light on this. It’s amazing how often I hear leaders say “I just didn’t realize” when they explore their feedback. The most rewarding part of these discussions is working together to create tangible action plans, the small things a leader can do differently to change how they impact others, and, crucially, how they make them feel.

So let’s help our leaders understand this. Let’s help them connect with their people on a human level. And let’s help them create an impact which lasts.


Nicole Albutt
Consultant – Talent and Rewards

Nicole Albutt works with global organizations across sectors on leadership capability and development.

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