8 Conditions for Leveraging the Genius of Executives

A sense of purpose and a sense of other people are the leading mindsets for great leadership.

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By Eric Jackson

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There are many widely divergent paths to success as a business executive. While some executives are highly directive, some lead by consensus. Some bring calm, while others thrive in chaos.

Related: 5 Unforgettable Leadership Qualities for Successful Entrepreneurs

No matter their unique style, business leaders -- as do all people -- sometimes experience being "in the zone." That occurs when they're hitting their stride and feeling strong and effective; things are "coming together." Most executives can remember times when they accomplished great things and were completely satisfied with their results.

But they may also recall struggles they overcame: They may have failed before they succeeded; but looking back, they can see that they stayed the course and delivered the outcome they wanted.

Of course, things are not always so rosy. That's why leaders will often ask, for themselves and others, "Why do we execute brilliantly sometimes, and not all the time?"

At Gap International we've studied this question for many years. Our aim has been to understand how to draw out sustained extraordinary performance by leveraging the genius of organizational leaders. Over the past two years we conducted in-depth interviews of 503 global executives, inquiring about their most memorable accomplishments. The executives were from many different backgrounds and nationalities and worked at different levels in their organizations. The interviews focused on the mindsets these respondents felt were operating when they were being their best and delivering the strongest results -- that is, when they were leveraging their genius.

We compiled a list of eight recurring themes (with subcategories of ideas and attitudes) in the mindsets of executives when they were performing at their best. These themes, in order of frequency, were:

A Sense of Purpose

Perhaps the catalyst for any extraordinary action is the intention to make a meaningful contribution to other people or to the world. This intention seems to elevate leaders' energy and bring their best to the fore. Sometimes the business world is seen as a place where only the strong survive, and leaders must focus predominantly on their own success to thrive. But the survey data suggested that success in the business world often comes when a leader pursues a larger commitment to contribute to a greater goal.

Related: 8 Qualities of Leaders Who Deliver Value Every Day

A Focus on Other People

Achieving exceptional outcomes always requires the contributions of others. The higher the level of a leader, the more he or she has grown to understand the advantage of being connected and committed to others. Successful executives know that they need to influence whole organizations to build success. Team members who feel support and appreciation are more willing to give their best. Having others win leads to success for the leaders as well.

A Focus on the Self

This theme entailed self-acceptance, self-awareness, confidence, trust in oneself, ownership, accountability, integrity, wholeness and balance.

Positive Outlook

What was described here was a sense of freedom, choice, possibility, optimism and positivity.

Experience of Life

Fun, joy, ease, happiness, environment, space and game were some of the words used to describe respondents' experience of life.

Maximization of Possibilities

Finding solutions, finding a structure and logic, optimizing and making the most of an opportunity were the attitudes mentioned here.


This attitude entailed learning, curiosity, discovery, innovation and creation, as well as risk, challenge and "going for it."

Getting It Done

The fine print here included perseverance, persistence, follow-through, hard work, effort, a focus on outcome and winning.

The first two mindsets, "purpose" and "other people," came in way ahead of the others. Researchers studied the most significant expressions of genius and found that 499 of the 1,962 expressions described (25 percent) cited a "purpose" mindset; and 412 (21 percent) contained expressions of the "other people" mindset.

What do these two elements in particular have in common? According to the study, executives said that in their moments of highest accomplishment, they were externally focused on the success of those around them and on the larger purpose they saw in their work. This may be the most important overarching conclusion to come from the data.

Certainly, talents and skills do not fundamentally change from day to day, but mindsets can vary widely, depending on circumstances. And they can be consciously addressed.

Our research, hopefully, reminds executives that regardless of circumstances or events, setbacks or disappointments, victories or accomplishments, a mindset that includes a sense of purpose and a focus on other people can propel leaders to high levels of accomplishment, helping them to "leverage their genius."

Related: The 5 Qualities Teams Look for in Their Leaders

Eric Jackson

Vice President, Gap International

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