The Difference Between a Good Leader and a Great Leader

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As a leadership researcher and consultant, I commonly have employees evaluate the effectiveness of their leaders. Then, on the back end of these, I occasionally have interviews or coaching calls with these leaders.

Through this experience, I have been able to identify the difference between good and great leaders. But, before I share that difference with you, let me first share a shocking surprise that I didn’t anticipate.

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The Shocking Surprise

Generally, the leader assessments involve the subordinate indicating the degree to which they agree with various statements on a five-point strongly disagree to strongly agree scale. (Example question: This leader is able to stay centered and balanced amidst chaos and stress).

When I compare the impact of the “good” versus “great” leaders (i.e., leadership outcomes), the impact is really wide. “Great” leaders are driving far superior outcomes.

But, when I compare the evaluation scores, their scores are not very different from each other. For example, a “good” leader might have an average score of 4.18 (on average across the statements, they are above “agree”), whereas a “great” leader has an average score of 4.68 (on average across the statements, they are moderately below “strongly agree”). I guess I was expecting the difference to be bigger.

When I review these scores with “good” leaders and I show them a score of 4.18, they commonly think to themselves, “I am doing good here. See, my people ‘agree’ that I am effective.” They don’t have a lot of motivation to change. They also don’t see how significantly they get outperformed by their “great” leader counterparts.

The Difference Between “Good” and “Great” Leaders

As I have dove deeper into the difference between “good” and “great” leaders, I have found that both types of leaders operate at a really high level the vast majority of the time.

The difference lies in how frequently the “good” versus “great” leaders get emotionally triggered and emotionally react to their situations versus thoughtfully responding to them.

I don’t have actual numbers on this, but to demonstrate the point, I might guess that “great” leaders get emotionally triggered 0.10% of the time. But, “good” leaders get emotionally triggered 1.00% of the time. That 1.00% is a very small percentage, but it is 10 times more frequently than “great” leaders.

To put a label on this difference, it is that “great” leaders have a wider window of tolerance than “good” leaders.

Stated differently, the difference between “good” and “great” leaders is not a difference in their knowledge, skills, and competencies, it is a difference in the quality of their neurological and stress-response system.

Window of Tolerance

Our window of tolerance is a term used to describe a zone or state of arousal where a person’s brain is functioning well and is effectively processing stimuli. When people are within this zone or state, they are able to readily receive, process, and integrate information and respond to the demands of everyday life without feeling overwhelmed or withdrawn. Also, it is only in this state that we can be present and mindful. It is the optimal zone for us to operate within.

Ideally, we would like to have a broad window of tolerance where we can take on a decent amount of stress without losing control of our cognitive and emotional resources.

When we have a narrow window of tolerance, it is easier for us to become emotionally overwhelmed. In this state, we are unable to effectively process and respond to our world, either because we have become too aroused (feel anxious) or because we have become frozen with emotional numbness.

When we have a wide window of tolerance, we are:

  • Not scared of failure and are willing to take risks and innovate
  • Open to new ideas and admit when they are wrong
  • Okay with having short-term problems in the pursuit of long-term goals
  • More focused on elevating others as opposed to protecting their time and/or image
  • More balanced, centered, and present, even when stress, pressure, uncertainty, and/or complexity is high

Moral of the Story

The difference between “good” and “great” leaders is not a difference in their knowledge, skills, and competencies.

The difference between “good” and “great” leaders is actually a difference in the quality of their neurological and stress-response system. Compared to “good” leaders, “great” leaders have:

  • A stronger neurological and stress-response system, which in turn,
  • Allows them to have a wider window of tolerance, which in turn,
  • Allows them to more effectively navigate challenging situations in a healthy way as opposed to an unhealthy, self-protective, and resistant way.

How to Widen Our Window of Tolerance

If we can understand that the difference between “good” and “great” leaders is foundationally rooted in the leaders’ window of tolerance, this means that if we want to elevate our effectiveness as a leader, we need to focus on widening our window of tolerance.

Widening our window of tolerance requires that we focus on a different form of development than what we might be used to.

Most personal development efforts are horizontal development efforts, which are designed to improve our knowledge, skills, and competencies. But, this has a minimal effect on our window of tolerance.

Vertical development is a much rarer form of development, but it can be transformational in widening our window of tolerance.

Vertical development efforts are focused on elevating leaders’ ability to make meaning of their world in more cognitively and emotionally sophisticated ways. It, at a foundational level, involves improving our body’s stress-response systems

In my consulting, I have found that the best way to vertically develop is to focus on our “meaning makers,” or our mindsets. First, we need to awaken our mindsets. Doing so will likely reveal areas where our window of tolerance is narrow. Next, we need to exercise our positive mindset neural connections. Mindset exercises are what expand our window of tolerance.

Headshot of Ryan Gottfredson
Ryan Gottfredson

Ryan Gottfredson, Ph.D., is a cutting-edge leadership development author, researcher, and consultant. He helps organizations vertically develop their leaders primarily through a focus on mindsets. Ryan is the Wall Street Journal and USA Today best-selling author of Success Mindsets: The Key to Unlocking Greater Success in Your Life, Work, & Leadership. He is also a leadership professor at the College of Business and Economics at California State University-Fullerton.

He has worked with top leadership teams at CVS Health (top 130 leaders), Deutsche Telekom (500+ of their top 2,000 leaders), and dozens of other organizations. As a respected authority and researcher on topics related to leadership, management, and organizational behavior, Ryan has published over 19 articles across a variety of journals including: Leadership Quarterly, Journal of Management, Journal of Organizational Behavior, Business Horizons, Journal of Leadership and Organizational Studies, and Journal of Leadership Studies. His research has been cited over 2,500 times since 2015.

Connect with Ryan on LinkedInFacebookTwitter, and at

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