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The Psychology of Success

What makes a leader great? Is there such a thing as a ’born leader‘? Can you learn to be a great leader from books or university courses?

Monique Verduyn




Jim Collins, US academic and author of the book Good to Great, put together a team of business students to identify the best-performing listed American companies between 1975 and 2000. He set out to discover why companies like Kimberly Clark and Phillip Morris were such great performers. One area he focused on was leadership.

He found that in general, top-performing CEOs were not rock stars but honest, down-to-earth types who had come up through the business over a long period of time. He also found that great leaders employ great people to work with them. They are big questioners. Using what is known as the Socratic method, they ask questions rather than presuming they know the answers. In so doing, they arrive at a better understanding of problems and this results in better answers or solutions.

However, while they encourage healthy and even aggressive debates to encourage broad thinking, they eventually arrive at a decision and expect their teams to fall in line. There also seems to be a common commitment to articulating and identifying a simple plan for building a great company.

Over time, extensive leadership literature has outlined the top qualities that business leaders must have to be great:

1. Motivational skills
A great leader should be able to command a room and inspire a team to perform at their best.

2. Ability to take risks
A great leader has an entrepreneurial spirit and is not afraid to take risks to advance the business and improve revenues.

3. Ability to take the initiative
Initiative is important in business as it continually pushes people to work harder, learn more, and perform better.

4. Competitive spirit
The desire to do better than the competition can prove vital to your success.

5. Knowledge
Thorough knowledge of the business world, as well as of technology, economics, politics, history, and other matters, is important for business leaders.

6. Solid communication skills
Business leaders must be able to communicate effectively in writing and orally to ensure the highest levels of efficiency.

7. Amiability
Great business leaders have great personalities. Their colleagues and subordinates like them, respect them and enjoy working with them.

8. Ambition
The most successful business leaders have ambition. They have lofty goals and do whatever it takes to achieve them.

9. Reliability
Great business leaders are steadfast. They can be counted on to get the job done and always make a positive contribution.

10. Personal and professional integrity
Successful business people conduct themselves in a respectable manner and always act ethically, fairly and responsibly.

Social intelligence impacts leadership

Research shows that leadership requires social intelligence, a set of interpersonal competencies built on specific neural circuits that inspire others to be effective.

Emotional intelligence occupies a prominent space in the leadership literature and in coaching practices. But in the past few years, according to US psychologists Daniel Goleman and Richard Boyatzis, research in the field of social neuroscience – the study of what happens in the brain while people interact – reveals new truths about what makes a good leader.

The discovery is that certain things leaders do – such as exhibiting empathy and becoming attuned to others’ moods – affect both their own brain chemistry and that of their followers. A more relationship-based construct for assessing leadership is social intelligence, which they define as a set of interpersonal competencies built on specific neural circuits that inspire others to be effective.

Related: How to Be Yourself for a Living

Encouraging positive feelings

Goleman and Boyatzis believe that great leaders are those whose behaviour powerfully leverages the system of brain interconnectedness. If they are correct, it follows that a potent way of becoming a better leader is to develop a genuine interest in and talent for fostering positive feelings in the people whose cooperation and support you need.

Shared experience

Perhaps the most stunning recent discovery in behavioural neuroscience is the identification of mirror neurons in the brain. When we consciously or unconsciously detect someone else’s emotions through their actions, our mirror neurons reproduce those emotions. Collectively, these neurons create an instant sense of shared experience.

Mirror neurons have particular importance in organisations because leaders’ emotions and actions prompt followers to mirror those feelings and deeds. If leaders hope to get the best out of their people, they should continue to be demanding but in ways that foster a positive mood in their teams.

Traditional incentive systems are simply not enough to get the best performance from followers. Goleman and Boyatzis give an example of what works: there’s a subset of mirror neurons whose job is to detect other people’s smiles and laughter, prompting smiles and laughter in return.

A boss who is self-controlled and humourless will rarely engage those neurons in his team members, but a boss who laughs and sets an easygoing tone puts those neurons to work, triggering spontaneous laughter and getting his team to bond in the process. A bonded group is one that performs well. Being in a good mood also helps people take in information effectively and respond nimbly and creatively. In other words, they say, laughter is serious business.

An experiment in potential and possibilities

Is greatness about talent or hard work? A remarkable experiment sets out to prove it’s about deliberate practice.

The Dan Plan, which began in April 2010, is a project in transformation. Through 10 000 hours of ‘deliberate practice’, Dan, a 30-year-old commercial photographer from Oregon in the US with no previous experience as a competitive athlete, plans on becoming a professional golfer. But the plan isn’t about golf: through this process, Dan hopes to prove that it’s never too late to start a new pursuit in life.

Related: Dream It-Believe It

The theory behind the plan

Talent has little to do with success. According to research conducted by Dr K Anders Ericsson, Professor of Psychology at Florida State University, “Elite performers engage in ‘deliberate practice’ – an effortful activity designed to improve target performance.” Dr Ericsson’s studies, made popular through Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers and Geoff Colvin’s Talent is Overrated, have found that in order to excel in a field, roughly 10 000 hours of “stretching yourself beyond what you can currently do” is required.

The story thus far

At last count, Dan had practiced 2 500 hours of golf. Logging in 30-plus hours a week he will hit the 10 000 hour milestone by October 2016. Through his journey Dan hopes to inspire others to start exploring the possibilities life affords them. It’s not easy, but Dan believes that if he inspires even one person to quit their day job and find happiness in their own plan, then the Dan Plan is a success.

To find out more, visit

Monique Verduyn is a freelance writer. She has more than 12 years’ experience in writing for the corporate, SME, IT and entertainment sectors, and has interviewed many of South Africa’s most prominent business leaders and thinkers. Find her on Google+.


Company Posts

Enhance Your Entrepreneurial Flair With An Online Postgraduate Diploma From The University Of Pretoria

The Department of Business Management at the University of Pretoria, a leader in business management education, will be offering an Online Postgraduate Diploma in Entrepreneurship for the 2018 academic year with some seminars to enrich your action learning experience.

Dr Alex Antonites




The Department of Business Management at the University of Pretoria, a leader in business management education, will be offering an Online Postgraduate Diploma in Entrepreneurship for the 2018 academic year with some seminars to enrich your action learning experience.

The programme content focuses on the start-up processes, creativity and opportunity recognition, business planning and marketing as well as financial management. Furthermore, the programme emphasises entrepreneurial growth and small business policy development with relevance to the enabling environment.

Who should enrol?

The programme is designed for pre-, nascent and start-up entrepreneurs who want to attain an advanced degree in entrepreneurship. It is also intended for individuals who work in an entrepreneurial environment and are involved with small business policy development. Although many students in the programme have academic credentials in entrepreneurship or business management, the programme is also appropriate if your education and/or experience may be in other disciplines (e.g. engineering or medicine).

Admission requirements

A relevant bachelor’s degree.

Related: This Enterprises UP Expert Explains Why Start-Ups Really Fail

Additional programme information

The duration of the course is one year. The language of tuition is English and the course will be presented in two blocks by means of the blended learning method (70% online and 30% contact sessions). Students need continuous access to the internet to complete the course.

Course Contents

Overview of modules for Block A

  • Ideation-to-market: Starting up
  • International Business Venturing
  • Venturing Strategy Building (Part 1)

Overview of modules for Block B

  • Entrepreneurial Marketing
  • Entrepreneurial Supply Chain Management
  • Entrepreneurial Finance
  • Venturing Strategy Building (Part 2)

Click here for more information.

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Company Posts

How English Language Skills Play An Essential Role In Building Trust With Your Customers

The English language is the global language of business, politics, international relations and entertainment for a number of countries worldwide.




The English language is the global language of business, politics, international relations and entertainment for a number of countries worldwide.  While English is not an official language in many of these countries, it is the language most often taught as a foreign or second language, which means that it is spoken by over two billion people.  It therefore breaks down barriers, drives global collaboration and thinking and opens doors to a multitude of opportunities around the world.

However, in spite of this leading role of English in the globalised world, management often considers language skills a ‘soft’ issue and does not recognise that  immediate or concerted efforts for change are required; or more specifically, that individuals need to be fluent in English in order to be competitive in an international business market. As  Jeff Standridge, Vice President of Global Workforce Management at Acxiom Corporation states, “We have to be able to work seamlessly across the enterprise. That requires us to overcome any language barriers that exist. Without the ability to communicate clearly, concisely and effectively, significant risks begin to enter the equation, including lower quality and lost productivity. By addressing these needs early on companies can see a significant financial impact with global initiatives”.

Companies face challenges in educating clients about services and specifics of a product when they lack English language skills. Misunderstandings or mistakes in conveying that type of information cost time, relationships and money.

Related: Effective Communication Means Business Success

The potential loss of trust and commensurate loss of business as a result of misunderstandings through language underscores the importance of a full knowledge of the language for external communications, marketing and branding as well as for handling government and media relations. Ultimately, developing trust with local and global clients and overseas partners requires highly developed English language skills. This sentiment is echoed by Herman Uscategui, Director of Global Strategic Initiatives and International Business Development, Starbucks Coffee Company:

“Advanced language skills provide the foundation to trusted relationships with customers, communities and partners”.

There are many companies and individual professionals who fail in their quest for business or professional success. This failure can primarily be attributed to one of the most basic foundations of forming business relations – the language spoken. Undoubtedly, the English language is the global language for business and having a good command of English will definitely give one who is eyeing globally competitive business or career a clear edge.  Any communication problem, whether personal or business, translates to losses, zero result in negotiations, incompetence for global business or will just simply leave you ill-equipped to carry out business.

In an increasingly aggressive and competitive environment where people work an extraordinary amount of hours and have a number of objectives to reach,  language vendors need to ensure that individuals are capable of learning successfully at their job. The best results occur when instruction is customised to employees’ roles. Subsequently, they will be able to listen to and communicate effectively with diverse people, using appropriate verbal and nonverbal behaviour, language and strategies thereby bridging geographic and linguistic barriers.

The Wits Language School English Communication for Professional Development programme customises English language solutions for public and private organisations that enable organisations and individuals to reach their language goals and to maintain their competitive edge in local and global business.

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Ongoing Learning

10 Books Tim Ferriss Thinks Every Entrepreneur Should Read

Check out these titles curated by the productivity expert and podcast host.

Emily Conklin



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Tim Ferriss, the productivity expert, author and inspirational speaker, is an avid reader, and has highlighted many books on his show and through his blog, seeking to share some of the same wisdom that inspires him.

From self-help to science fiction, there is something for everyone, and these 10 tomes have been selected from the many that make up Ferriss’s library. See what he recommends and why, and get ready to spend your Sunday mornings curled up with one – or several – of these books.

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