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16 traits of the world’s most successful people

Sep 02, 2023

Unravelling the most famous definition of success through the eyes of a leader.

I want to interrogate the Success Ladder by Napolean Hill and focus on what it means for leaders because, for some of us, this is how we measure ourselves. It has been referred to as the magic key to success. The 16 important traits demonstrated by the world’s most successful people as researched by Hill over a 12-year period, interviewing and observing more than 12,000 men and women.

Could understanding this be the key to leaders prioritising our efforts and helping our teams to do the same? 

I believe it has the potential to be.

So, let’s unravel.

Successful people . . . 

Have a definite aim and plan to execute 

This is perfectly suited to the role of leader. They need to be intentional, champion the role of a vision and create a framework for how this intention and vision will be delivered.

Are self-confident

I secretly hoped this didn’t need to be a trait, But given this can be learned and that as a leader, people are looking to follow their example, exerting self-confidence makes sense. I would encourage the definition of self-confidence to be widened to include confidence and belief in the team, project, business and vision. Confidence in your own strategic, technical or design capabilities too. Rather than an outdated stereotypical version of confidence that refers to extroverts or authoritarian leaders who love the sound of their own voice. 

Okay, rant over.

Show initiative to get started

I love this one. I often refer to courageous leaders as people who are willing to ask the difficult questions that no one else is asking or willing to propose an idea that may seem a little off the beaten track, just to get teams to think more creatively. I also love the courage of a leader simply saying they don’t know the answer to a particular challenge but invite others to propose some crazy ideas to get the problem-solving started. So, for me, this is a brilliant prompt that can take on many forms.    

Are imaginative

Ooh, we can do this, can’t we?! The more curious we are the better leaders we will become. We also need to be able to see a future that others potentially can’t, to show what’s possible and to lead with conviction toward it.

Are active and keep going

We know that action cures fear and doing gets things done. I just think leaders need to be careful about being busy or active doing the wrong things. For example, getting caught in the details or lost in the vision. There is action that leads to progress and action that presents obstacles and complexity. Knowing the most production actions for yourself and your team is possibly one of the best traits you can have.

Are enthusiastic

Yes! Has anyone else tried to follow the lead of someone with less energy than you? It’s hard, isn’t it? Not impossible, but you start questioning why you’re doing what you’re doing and probably lower your energy and outputs as a result too. I completely understand that not every leader can be pumped full of energy, but if they don’t have this contagious sense of passion or enthusiasm for the task at hand, how can others get behind it? For me, this is one of the crucial aspects of being able to bring people with you. 

Can lead themselves

Described as practising self-control or the ability to lead yourself and be disciplined about your emotions. I don’t know about you but this is one of the trickiest ones for me. I’m as disciplined as they come, and I’ve been described as calm in the face of challenges. But for me, the internal emotions are running riot and it’s hard to not get frustrated by circumstances that either appear from nowhere or are just extremely challenging. Having declared this, I can see why this is an important character trait for leaders especially. Work in progress or otherwise!  

Aim to over-deliver

Going beyond what anyone expects of you is a noble ambition. It also helps to keep the passions alive and the personal growth real. I dare say it prompts recognition and reward too. However, leaders who set overly unrealistic ambitions for themselves or their teams or succumb to clients who do this for them, can cause a culture of burnout which ultimately leads to failure. In my mind, stretching far enough to motivate and grow is the ambition, and making a judgement on what this looks like from your specific project or business perspective is the name of the game. Over-delivering on an exceedingly good design or on providing higher sustainability performance is one angle. But please don't take this out of context. It's not about overworking yourself or your teams and you need to be very conscious to manage expectations for what you are delivering along the way.  

Have an attractive personality

Being likable, relatable and genuine helps.

Enough said.

Know how to separate truth from bias

Seeking the truth even when it’s uncomfortable is probably one of the hardest things to do as a leader, especially working within large teams or organisations. It’s impossible not to have grown up with embedded biases and opinions. But I think the essence of this character trait is being able to recognise where your biases are creeping in and to remain open for as long as possible to other people’s points of view and experiences. This goes to the very heart of what it means to lead diverse and inclusive teams. It also speaks volumes for courageous leaders who are willing to face criticism or hear details about potential areas of failure up ahead. When leaders create a safe space for the truth to emerge we will see happier teams and better outcomes for our efforts. Win, win.

Are focused

It’s a superpower to be able to focus your attention in the right areas for long enough to deliver on your ambitions. The good news is that it can be mastered. Find the hacks that work best for you. Oddly, my kids have taught me to get my focus habits on track. My go-to is plugging atmospheric white noise music into my headphones and tuning out of the chaos around me for 45 - 60-minute stints. 

Are persistent

Tenacity is a clear success trait. We hear stories of the rise of the underdog entrepreneur or athlete using sheer grit and the cumulative power of marginal gains over time. Achieving success through the relentless belief in their ambitions and a persistence to follow through on actions. This is why I’m such an advocate for leaders championing a vision. Without this, the persistence is lost and the direction is muddled. Purpose gives you the reason to be persistent.       

Resilient to failure

They say building resilience is like training a muscle. I believe it works in tandem with self-confidence. Both can be learned behaviours and strengthened over time. Both need evidence to be stacked in their favour and each has their own rewards. For leaders, being resilient means you can stay focused, seek the truth, remain likable even if you’re feeling challenged, and find a level of enthusiasm that others desperately need from you to keep going. This doesn’t mean you need to be poker-faced through the tough days. I think it’s essential that teams see their leader as human which comes with being vulnerable. Humanising leadership is undervalued in my opinion. As is developing a healthy relationship with fast forms of failure.

Are sympathetic

Being sympathetic and tolerant of those around you is one of the most respectful traits one can have. You can call this a soft skill or just basic kindness and social spirit. It’s brilliant to see this actually pays off!

Work hard

In many ways, this is persistence and focus all rolled into one. But no matter what stage in our career we are, I think we all want to see this validated as a success trait. Because, funnily enough, after we achieve a goal that we’ve set for ourselves we are quickly pursuing the next. As though, enough is really never enough! Again, please don't take this out of context or to the extreme. Working hard in my opinion is working smart and sustaining a healthy momentum. Not a culture of heroic burnout.

Are empathetic

Described by Hill as the final golden rule that prevents our ego from using all of the previous traits to gain too much power and ultimately undo all of our good work! 

Having regard for others and imagining how others might be thinking or feeling is a crucial aspect of leading as an enabler. For those who tune into my belief that leadership is an enabling and curatorial role, you will not be surprised by my stance here.    

As we can see, empathy alone won't make us successful. Nor will just applying a hard graft or having a brilliant idea. 

I recently mapped out this ladder and made a visual for how I was tracking against each of these traits.

If you do the same I promise you will be genuinely surprised where you sit. 

Too often we don’t give ourselves enough credit, or we simply focus on our weaknesses.

Please don't forget about the power of your strengths to outweigh any perceived weakness, or the capacity to grow and improve in any area you choose.

Enabling your success.




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