Byte of Prevention Blog

by Jay Reeves |

Top 50 Leaders Have One Thing in Common

The men and women who made Fortune’s World’s 50 Greatest Leaders list are a remarkably diverse bunch – ranging from chefs to coaches – but they all share one trait in common.

They all have what psychologists call “hardiness.” More than just a can-do attitude, hardiness is a sense of optimism, resilience, and personal empowerment.

“Hardy individuals don’t see the world as threatening or see themselves as powerless against large events,” writes Fortune’s Geoff Colvin. “On the contrary, they think change is normal, the world is fascinating, they can influence events, and it’s all an opportunity for personal growth.”

North Carolina’s Reverend William Barber made the list. So did New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, actor Michael J. Fox and NCAA basketball championship coach Tony Bennett of Virginia.

The profiles of the 50 hardy individuals on the list provide a master class in leadership. Read the full list here.

Six Lessons on Leadership

  1. Great leaders are great listeners. Topping the 50 Greatest list is a twosome: Bill and Melinda Gates. Among their many strengths, Fortune cites one in particular – the ability to listen – as their true superpower. Here’s how a former staffer at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation described Melinda’s listening style: “She was literally leaning in, listening very attentively, not interrupting, but acknowledging that she had heard. You know how sometimes people just have a blank face and you don’t know whether you’re being heard? It was wholly different with Melinda. She acknowledges, she nods, she listens—and without interrupting, she asks really astute questions.”
  1. Great leaders bounce back from defeats. In 2018, the Virginia Cavaliers became the only top-seeded team in NCAA March Madness history to lose to a 16th seed in the first round. A year later, they won it all. But when Coach Bennett looks back at last year’s bitter end, he doesn’t see a setback: “It bought us a ticket here.”
  1. Great leaders have personal courage. Anna Nimiriano is editor-in-chief of the Juba Monitor newspaper in South Sudan, where her quest to tell the truth in an authoritarian state puts her in constant danger of being jailed or killed. It doesn’t stop her. “It’s striking how courage is a theme running powerfully through this year’s list,” say the editors of Fortune. “Whether in business, government, education, sports, or NGOs, these leaders take action before others do, leading from out front, where the risk is often dire and their own future least certain. Everyone has something to lose, and many on our list risk possessions that most people value highly: reputation, career, fortune, esteem.”
  1. Great leaders don’t wait to be asked. “Consider José Andrés, who gets to disaster zones with his World Central Kitchen team, sometimes before the NGOs are even set up,” writes Fortune’s Clifton Leaf. “They’ve served nearly 4 million meals in Puerto Rico since Hurricane Maria. ‘We don’t sit waiting for someone to tell us what to do,’ he says.”
  1. Great leaders are innovators. Doug McMillon, CEO of Wal-Mart, and Lisa Woods, the company’s Senior Director for U.S. Benefits, worried as healthcare costs rose to record levels. They knew the weight of that burden falls disproportionately on its 1 million U.S. employees and their families. Finding no existing solution, they created their own: “Woods launched the Centers of Excellence (COE) program in 2013, enabling workers to travel to top hospitals Walmart contracts with for select procedures. The company foots the bill and has found it’s worth it. More than half the employees referred by their local doctor to get spine surgery, for example, have learned from a COE that they don’t need it. For those who do, an operation at a COE decreases the chance of readmission by 95 percent. Walmart has found that ­employees treated at a COE recover faster, too, returning to work three weeks earlier.”
  1. Great leaders bring people together. “We are one,” said New Zealand’s 38-year-old prime minister Jacinda Arderne, after 50 people were killed in the worst terror attack in her country’s history. With empathy and humility, she guided her nation through its grief.


About the Author

Jay Reeves

Jay Reeves practiced law in North Carolina and South Carolina. He was Legal Editor at Lawyers Weekly and Risk Manager at Lawyers Mutual. He is the author of The Most Powerful Attorney in the World, a collection of short stories from a law life well-lived, which as the seasons pass becomes less about law and liability and more about loss, love, longing, laughter and life's lasting luminescence.

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