What creates exceptional leadership today? What if you could “peek inside” the relationships of thousands of leaders with their teams, colleagues, supervisors, and even customers – what would you see? Hint: It’s a about people-leadership.

By Joshua Freedman, Lorenzo Fariselli, Massimilano Ghini & Giacomo Nottoli

In our research to create the Brain Talent Profile, we analyzed thousands of anonymous open-text comments about high performing leaders. We coded these to identify specific talents, and distilled down to 18 essential talents for breakthrough performance.[1] In the process, we were moved by the incredible comments about these leaders – and found that there are certain themes that distinguish strong leaders from exceptional ones, particularly in the realm of people-leadership.

If you had a magic wand, what would you like your people, colleagues and supervisors to say about you?

Here’s a peek at comments on effective leaders:


The graphic above is made with Wordle.net, and more frequent words are larger. As you can see, the focus is on others – on people – on work, being positive, and good. The way people talk about leaders turns out to matter a great deal, and in subtle ways.  The highest performing leaders in our sample get comments like these from their direct reports:

  • The most hard working and conscientious person I have ever worked with – she is a brilliant leader and always considers the feelings of those around her.
  • He always makes himself available to everyone within the organization.
  • A fantastic people-person. Genuinely has our best interests at heart while also staying focused on the organization’s goals and business needs.
  • Empowers his team to take control of their operation, doesn’t shy away from making decisions or taking chances.
  • Definitely the most trustworthy person I know.
  • She is totally fab, really concerned with everyone on her team and how she can help.

What would you call a leader who embodies these characteristics? 

Research: Attributes of Exceptional Leaders

We extracted two variables from our SEI360 database [2]:  Performance and open text answers to the question, “what is s/he doing now (that is effective) that you’d like to see continue?”  Then we used “Lexalytics”, “textisbeautiful.net”, and manual coding to conduct semantic analyses of the high performers versus the highest performers. Overall, you can get a sense of the comments from the word cloud above. Textisbeautiful uses a slightly different mechanism to create associative clouds – where concepts are expressed in color-coded themes.

Here’s an associative cloud of what supervisors see high performing leaders doing:



In subtle contrast, here’s what supervisors said about the highest performers:


In both cases, the biggest word is “others,” suggesting a people-focus, but note the other words in blue.  For high performing leaders, “others” is associated with effective work, then feelings and needs. For the highest performers, “others” is associated primarily with caring about people and clients. This is the essence of “people-leadership” — the blend of empathy and performance.

Using the associative concept webs, and the weighted themes identified by Lexalytics, here are some characteristics that make top leaders stand out from the supervisors’ perspective, in approximate order of priority.

High Performers Highest Performers
Create feelings for others to work effectively. Care about others. Inspire clients, listen to people.
Develop team to manage business process. Develop leadership & passion to support people.
Love job, set goals that fuel energy. Effective role model with integrity, purpose + humor + authenticity
Sharing time with people, communicate the vision. Empathic, aware, lovely, approachable person
Focus, drive results. Maintain clear priorities.
Model good attitude. Maintain calm. Make people smile. Give positivity.

A few observations about these lists:

  • Leadership is about people.
  • Passion and purpose are infectious.
  • Top performers go deeper emotionally – not just caring, but personal caring.  Not just a good attitude, but giving the energy for people to smile.

People-Leadership = Setting Conditions for People to Deliver Results

From the perspective of colleagues, we see a similar split, but now the “people-first” skills of top performers are even more visible.

High Performers Highest Performers
Care about others, inspiring people in the business. Coach people, help others. Create lasting relationships.
Develop people at work, people skills, listening, being proactive. Share knowledge and emotion so people feel the vision.
Positive, helping attitude. Inspire, lead so people believe. Always positive.
Achieve results. Care about people and goal, empathy, sharing, helping.
Attend to needs, focus on team, keep learning. Encourage strong work with fun & calm.
Effective processes. Be effective and sensitive; Loyal to both people and business.
Stay in communication. Learn through projects, feedback.

Again, results matter and these highest-performing leaders are generating results with and through people – and emotions.  Emotions drive people, people drive performance.  In the High Performers group, we see a focus on paying attention to people.  In the Top Performers group, we see a focus on creating emotional conditions for people to thrive.

This subtle difference of using emotion effectively is even more prevalent in the next analysis.  In addition to the “clouds” above, TextisBeautiful also generates webs to show associative concepts with the same color coding. Here’s the web showing comments about the highest-scoring leaders from their direct-reports (subordinates): top-leader-subordinate-web The blue color is the dominant theme, with team as the most significant concept.  Interestingly, from the subordinates’ perspective, the highest scoring leaders are not just “nice.”  They show care (see the purple, pink, and brown themes), but these leaders seem to be focused on creating a context for performance.  There’s a lot about managing, dealing with issues, clients, and the organization – in a particularly emotionally intelligent manner. Here are the key themes from the perspective for direct-reports:

High Performers Highest Performers
Value and respect staff. Create a positive team where people feel unity & support & are effective.
Support people, encourage. Give time & personal care. Make time for people. Personal connection. Mentoring behavior.
Take care of management issues, with integrity; trustworthy. Happily lead the group, create process to deal with important issues.
Provide ideas, vision. Maintain relationships, create caring culture.
Create a positive team with goals, drive, passion. Create excellent emotional interactions, client focused.
Make solutions, keep focus. Encourage ideas, care as a leader lead so everyone cares.
Talk, ask questions, be aware. Listen to everything, appreciate individual needs.

One clear theme is that these leaders are focused on people, not tasks.  They are creating a context – and the top leaders are especially focused here.  For example, subordinates of the top leaders write:

  • Extremely effective style; insight working with people to address the issues and therefore allow people to grow and develop to their full potential.
  • Constantly communicating, giving feedback & encouragement.
  • Makes us feel as though we are a team and working together, rather than being dictated to. He is able to create a comfortable environment during meetings where we feel comfortable to say what is on our minds as well as having a bit of a laugh.

Good Management is Central to Good Leadership

It’s important to note that good management is implicit in this leadership.  Many of the comments are about being focused on the organization, clients, and processes.  For an effective team, it also takes “giving clear direction and leadership,” or, “Very efficient with communication and dealing with a situation straight away.” At the same time, the term “emotional intelligence” comes up often on these comments – for example, “using her emotional intelligence very wisely – she has an excellent understanding of her team and under which circumstances we thrive.”  In fact, 62% of the comments by subordinates about their highest performing leaders explicitly mention creating effective emotional conditions. Another of the most prevalent themes in comments on the top leaders is that, despite being busy, they make time:

  • Open and honest, open door.
  • Willingness to create time for me makes me feel important.

And, they motivate with genuine care:

  • Passion and energy.
  • Makes you want to do more because he cares.

Here’s a final comment that captures many of these elements: “He really cares, has great vision, and shares it.  He’s an excellent example of great leadership.  He trusts his team and is there to support.”


[1] Talents for the Future

As previously mentioned, this research was conducted in the development of the “Brain Talent Profile,” which is generated from the SEI assessment.  The Brain Talent Profile provides feedback on the user’s top “Brain Apps” – 18 talents for creating the future. To develop the “Brain Apps,” we began with a theoretical model and tested an initial set of talents.  Then, using semantic analysis we coded thousands of comments from the SEI360 database to define specific behaviors. We used the SEI360 scores define a connection between behaviors and emotional intelligence.  Then we combined this data with expert analysis on key behaviors from leaders, educators, and researchers in the Six Seconds EQ Network. The resulting “Brain Talents” are a powerful set of skills validated by real-world performance data.  In essence, these talents capture the qualities of stand-out leadership explored in this paper.  The 18 talents are:


To learn more about these “Brain Apps,” explore the Brain Talent Profile.


[2] Tools & Methods

The data for this analysis comes from the “Six Seconds Emotional Intelligence Assessment – Multi-Rater” – or SEI360.  The SEI360 is used globally to measure the impact of emotional intelligence on interpersonal performance, primarily in the workplace.  The feedback tool includes 24 statements about emotional intelligence, 8 statements about performance, and three open-text questions – through which “raters” provide feedback.  The system allows an unlimited number of raters who are grouped into categories to provide feedback from multiple perspectives. The SEI360 is part of the SEI toolkit, a well-validated suite of assessments to measure emotional intelligence for adults and children using a robust, practical model of emotional intelligence. 

Visit www.6seconds.org/tools/sei for more information about the SEI toolkit. This data comes from multiple sectors – business, education, government, community organizations, and individuals.  There is a balance of female and male respondents, and participants from a wide age range.  The dataset is slightly skewed toward well educated professionals ages 36-55 in North America, Europe, South East Asia, and the Middle East.  For the most recent information on the dataset, see the State of the Heart Report.

Joshua Freedman
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