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Les McKeown's Predictable Success Blog

  • May 7, 2023
  • minute read

The 3 Sub-Conscious ‘Tells’ Of Great Leaders 

Listen to Les McKeown read this blog post:

I've spent my life accessing other people's leadership skills. It's not a nice thing to have to do, and I wish I didn't have to do it.

I had to start back in my days as a serial entrepreneur when I was heavily dependent on the trustworthiness and dependability of others (to name just two of many important traits in one’s business partners).

It necessarily continues today in my coaching and consulting work. These days the assessments I make can be less hurried, more considered, but none the less I'm also acutely aware that it's a far-from-perfect process; however the nature of what I do requires it.

So, reluctantly, I've done it - many hundreds, probably thousands, of times. 

And while I've often come to the wrong conclusions (less often, over time), when you repeat any process that frequently there will eventually be an aggregation of patterns that manifest themselves.

My overall conclusion is this:

Most truly great leaders are nothing like those portrayed in modern culture.

Of course, whether it’s a blockbuster TV series (you know the one I mean); the most recent docudrama about the implosion of a toxic tech co, or a broadway play, histrionics sell.

After all, who wants to watch a screen for 90 minutes when nothing gripping really happens?

Despite that, and despite the fact that, yes, I have encountered many carpet chewing, abusive, even malevolent leaders; the truly great leaders, those who I have personally witnessed achieve something great, and who have left a legacy of success show different characteristics altogether.

Characteristics that, frankly, no-one is going to make a TV series about, but which truly do lie at the core of lasting leadership greatness.

Here are the three characteristics I see most often in the subconscious 'tells' of great leaders:

1. Placidity

Most truly great leaders (as opposed to short- or medium-term shooting stars) have as their default mode an even-tempered, centered focus on what's happening 'in the room'.

That's not to say they can’t, or don't, exhibit anger, impatience or other unbalanced emotions at times, but it’s rare, and if and when it happens, it’s rarely manipulative or uncontrolled.

In order to achieve this state of placidity, most truly great leaders have either acquired acute time-, priority- and crisis-management skills, and/or have a highly-developed power of concentration that allows them to block out all the other issues screaming for their attention while focussing on the issue at hand.

"Truly great leaders have as their default mode an even-tempered, centered focus on what's happening 'in the room'" - Les McKeown, Founder and CEO, Predictable Success.

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A leader's placidity (not to be confused with passivity) is most often evidenced by an ability to focus, uninterrupted, on what they are doing at any given moment without the existence of (or worse, a need for) undue distraction.

For those who interact with a placid leader, it’s often accompanied by a sense that… 

  • they’re wholly focused on you, and you alone;
  • that this conversation - the one they’re having at this moment with you - is the most important thing for them to be doing right now; and
  • deceptively (because it isn’t true), they have all the time in the world 

2. Detachment

By detachment, I don't mean a lack of passion or commitment, but rather a separation of personal ego from outcome.

This in my experience is the key differentiator between the truly great leader and the merely brilliant one - the ability to care deeply about what they do, but not to be so identified with the outcomes of decisions as to require self-justification.

Detachment (as defined above) shows itself in many interesting ways: a lack of pre-judgement; no need to name-drop, boast or justify; openness to outside ideas; lack of pre-or post-rationalization; willingness to reach beyond hierarchy for the right answers; a reasonable sense of humor, a little self-deprecation.

3. Economy

Perhaps the most telling indicator - for me - of latent great, not merely good, leadership is the economy of effort put out by the individual.

This is a variation of what DaviAllen calls ‘having a mind like water': when a stone is thrown into the water, the water does not know or care about the motive of the stone thrower - only the precisely needed amount of effort is expended in rippling, then returning to its previous, placid (again with that word), state.

Mind Like Water: A mental and emotional state in which your head is clear, able to create and respond freely, unencumbered with distractions and split focus.


There's a lot to do if you're a leader - and a precise feel for economy of effort is a cardinal skill in getting it all done.

Too little action or reaction to a situation and the issue doesn't get resolved; too much action or reaction, and, ...well, we've all experienced what it's like to work with someone who persistently overreacts to events. 

By the way, I'm not proposing that these three attributes are the definition of a leader - they fall far short of that - just that at least two out of three are usually present.

If you believe you only demonstrate one (or none) of these, then you might want to consider developing one or more of the others.

What about you? How many of these sub-conscious tells do you demonstrate as a leader?

Let me know in the comments below


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