As in every crisis, real leaders show up and pretenders get shown up.

This pandemic is no exception. We’ve seen incredible leadership from first responders, doctors and healthcare professionals, and many people previously taken for granted such as our delivery workers, food preparers and distributors, grocery clerks, and other duly recognized essential workers. And in the political area, leadership doesn’t just reside with one party. Ohio governor Mike DeWine, a Republican, and New York governor Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat, have shown leadership and made some tough decisions that, while not pleasing everyone, were made from deep-seated principles and values.

But we need more.

The reality is, we continue to need leaders at all levels of society to step up and be the light that illuminates the path forward. That includes you as a financial advisor.

You have a circle of influence called “clients.” And there’s another circle called “potential clients.” In those two circles alone your potential reach is far and wide.

You have the talent and skills to be one of the people who can cut through the noise and help make sense of what’s happening. You can be a source of wisdom, insight, practicality, and hope. You can rise to occasion while others fall back to their comfort zone.

The medical, social, political, and economic ramifications of the pandemic will be with us for years to come. None of us know how it will evolve but what I do know is we need real leaders like you to help the public navigate the uncertainty.

By standing up, speaking out, and telling the truth as best as you know it, you can help the hurting, deliver insight instead of spin, and lead the way forward to a better future for those in your circle of influence.

Before I share seven characteristics of real leaders, I want to define the type of leadership I think we need right now. It’s what author Jim Collins calls Level 5 leadership. He described a Level 5 leader this way:

Level 5 leaders display a powerful mixture of personal humility and indomitable will. They’re incredibly ambitious, but their ambition is first and foremost for the cause, for the organization and its purpose, not themselves. While Level 5 leaders can come in many personality packages, they are often self-effacing, quiet, reserved, and even shy. Source.

Not surprisingly, there are four other levels of leaders according to Collins: Level 1— the highly capable individual, Level 2 — a contributing team member, Level 3 — a competent manager, Level 4 — an effective leader, and then the Level 5 leader.

In a podcast last year with Kara Swisher, Collins said:

The essential difference between the five and the four is the answer to a simple question: What’s the truth of your ambition? I mean, what are you truly ambitious for? Are you leading in a spirit of service to something that is bigger and more important than you are? What is your company trying to accomplish in the world; its responsibility in the world? Are you ambitious for that thing that’s bigger than you and do you have a genuine humility to learn and to grow and adapt and realize your failings combined with this incredible sense of will?

I love that question, “What’s the truth of your ambition?” Think about it. I recently spoke to a financial advisor who said he has all the money he’ll ever need, but he wants to keep growing and double his business in the next five years. Why? Because he feels he has a gift to help people make breakthroughs in life… and he wants to foster these breakthroughs for more people. That’s an advisor who is ambitious for something that’s bigger than himself. That’s an advisor who has the humility to shine the light out, not in. That’s a Level 5 leader in the making.

Can you be a Level 5 leader? YES! Aspire to it. Develop that indomitable will toward something that’s bigger than you and do it with an unusual level of humility. We don’t need bigger egos in this world. We need bigger visions from people who want to serve, not be served.

With Level 5 as the aspiration, here are seven characteristics that will help you get there.

1. Be guided by principles and values. Most of us share similar principles. These are truths that transcend individuals and cultures. Then there are values. Values differ from person to person and are based on our beliefs, opinions, experiences, and cultures. And they can change over time. As a real leader, you need a core set of principles and values that you operate by and people need to know what they are. Flip-flopping on values when it’s convenient to do so is not leadership. Having a core set of principles and values is the lighthouse that guides you in the right direction during the storm.

2. Take responsibility instead of doling out blame. This is one of my pet peeves. If you’re in a leadership position, take responsibility for what goes wrong and pass out the credit to others when things go right. I know, doesn’t seem fair, right? But real leaders aren’t in it for the applause. They’re in it to benefit something much bigger than themselves and they know that will only be achieved by sharing the credit for good results and hoarding the responsibility for when things go wrong.

3. Assess the situation and seek expertise. Real leaders don’t prescribe before they diagnose. And in the diagnosis phase, they seek input from subject matter experts. Here’s the tricky part: the best leaders are able to synthesize the input from disparate and often contradictory experts, and connect the “right” dots—while adding their own—to paint a picture that makes the most sense, even when that “sense” may only look “right” in hindsight. Real leaders embrace having smarter people in the room.

4. Confront reality while maintaining ultimate optimism. Some people are just full of happy talk and ignore the facts on the ground. Yes, optimism that you’ll prevail in the end is necessary, but not at the expense of downplaying the current situation. It’s the Stockdale Paradox that I wrote about in a GTK last month. Let the realism of the current situation keep you focused on the tasks at hand while never losing sight of having a positive final outcome.

5. Deliver inspiration that raises people’s aspiration. A few years ago, I spent several days at a Tony Robbins Unleash the Power Within workshop. I walked on hot coals. I danced on chairs. I screamed and shouted. Yeah, I was inspired and it served its purpose. Steve about to get soaked.But that’s not the kind of inspiration I’m talking about here. I’m talking about the kind of inspiring leadership that brings out the highest aspirations of the people you lead. It’s about leading by example. It’s about painting a compelling picture of the future. It’s about seeing more in the people you lead than they see in themselves and getting them to step into that bigger vision.

6. Give people a role and purpose. You can’t do it all by yourself. Real leaders enlist their people to do work in support of the bigger vision. And the people do that work not because they “have” to, but because they “want” to. They want to be connected and be part of the solution. They want a role in achieving the outcome and a purpose for that outcome that they can believe in. Offer it to them.

7. Be a learner, not just learned. Real leaders have a thirst for learning. They know that in order to grow, they need to learn more than they forget. They’re always asking questions, probing, and following their curiosity. As author and “longshoreman philosopher” Eric Hoffer wrote, “In a world of change, the learners shall inherit the earth, while the learned shall find themselves perfectly suited for a world that no longer exists.” In a world that can change as fast as the coronavirus spreads, you have no choice but to keep learning.

Leadership isn’t reserved for a privileged few. There’s no leadership gene that we’re born with. Leaders arise from all walks of life and in all types of circumstances from Franklin Delano Roosevelt during the Great Depression, to Winston Churchill during WWII, to the unsung heroes of the Covid-19 pandemic, who will only be known to a few.

Your time is now. Step up and into the role. Fire up that leader within and be ambitious for the “something” that’s much bigger than you. If we each do our part, we can create a world that we’re all proud to call “home.”

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You might enjoy these specific episodes:

  • How Barron’s top advisors stay at the top with Sterling Shea.
  • Building a multi-billion dollar AUM business with a client list that includes celebrities, athletes, musicians, and top CEOs and entrepreneurs with Rebecca Rothstein.
  • How this Barron’s Hall of Famer leveraged workplace workshops to build a 10-figure AUM business with Scott Tiras.
  • The long, difficult road to becoming in the top 1% of women financial advisors with Laila Pence.
  • A Barron’s top 15 advisor on his unorthodox way to billions in AUM with Steve Cassaday.


– Values Clarification Toolkit Click here to download this FREE tool and start living your values.