February 16, 2018

Learning To Be a Remarkable Leader | Leading from the Library

Who doesn’t want to be a remarkable leader? Such leaders manage to combine powerful thinking and feeling skills. However, getting there is hard. Only about 20 percent of leaders are remarkable. What does it take?

One of the long-lasting debates in the field of leadership is whether leaders are born or made. According to Karol Wasylyshyn (pronounced WA-SA-LISH-IN), a leadership researcher who combines expertise in business and psychology, it’s neither one. She believes that when the forces of education, experience, and behavior come together in the right blend, under the right conditions, a remarkable leader may emerge. Of those three dimensions, Wasylyshyn believes that the most critical factor in determining a successful leader is behavior. Education and experience can produce someone who is smart and situational, but for most leaders, based on Wasylyshyn’s experience providing coaching to hundreds of corporate executives, it is the wrong type of behavior that keeps them from being remarkable. It helps to know the three different types of leaders and how to work toward being the remarkable type.

Remarkable, perilous, toxic

Librarians had the opportunity to learn about remarkable leaders when Wasylyshyn spoke at the joint Association of College & Research Libraries (ACRL)/Library Leadership & Management Association (LLAMA) Presidents’ Program at the recent American Library Association (ALA) annual conference. In her talk “Standing on Marbles: Leading in Uncertain Times,” Wasylyshyn shared her research and insights into the behavior that contributes to a remarkable leader or determines the qualities of other types of leaders.

Wasylyshyn has identified three types of leaders, one of which is remarkable. At the other end of the spectrum is the toxic leader. If I had to gauge the mood of the audience, it would point to a much greater familiarity with the toxic leader than the remarkable one—and that speaks to our need to aspire to better, if not remarkable, leadership. Falling between these two on the leadership spectrum is the perilous leader. What defines these different types of leaders? According to Wasylyshyn, based on her studies of over 300 corporate leaders, it comes down to three types of behaviors and to what degree each is present—or absent—within any leader.

All in the mind

It certainly helps to have the right education and experience, but truly remarkable leaders demonstrate superior ability in thinking and relating to people. Wasylyshyn shared the three dimensions on which she judges a leader’s behavioral profile. Total Brain Leadership (TBL) refers to the extent to which leaders use both sides of their brain. Left-brain individuals are typically analytical, data focused, and in-the-box thinkers. Right-brainers tap into their creative, visual, and ideation strengths. Remarkable leaders exhibit TBL, meaning that they are equally adept at both left and right brain skill sets. They also are well attuned to the emotional states of others, i.e., they have strong emotional intelligence (EI). More important, they have the capacity to use emotional awareness to achieve workplace objectives.

While we often associate narcissism with bad leaders, Wasylyshyn believes it can be a positive trait if it qualifies as productive narcissism (PN). It’s deadly to organizational health when a leader’s ego is out of control and leads to destructive action. But some degree of narcissism is beneficial when a leader channels it for confident and transparent behavior in service to the organization and not self. The formula? TBL + EI + PN = Remarkable Leader. Only 20 percent of those Wasylyshyn studied are remarkable. Sixty percent are perilous, meaning they have some qualities of both remarkable and toxic leaders, though some lean more in one direction than the other. Though it seems like the workplace is full of toxic leaders, the other 20 percent fall into this category.

So you want to be remarkable

Is each of us destined to fall into one of the categories and is that where fate abandons us? No; we can learn what’s needed to evolve from perilous to remarkable. Toxic leaders often remain that way because their destructive narcissism and inability to achieve empathy dooms them in the long run. As several audience members observed, and Wasylyshyn agreed, being toxic hardly predicts failure. Those who work for them may suffer under toxic leaders, but their single-minded determination to succeed may enable them to do so even if they crush some workers’ souls along the way. Wasylyshyn’s advice was to get the hell out if you can; don’t expect toxic leaders to change—even if confronted with undeniable evidence of their awful ways. Perilous leaders are better positioned to become remarkable. To do so requires significant self-awareness in order to recognize weaknesses in the three dimensions and the ability intentionally to improve. Wasylyshyn gave a few pieces of advice.


Know where you fall on the extrovert/introvert scale, and determine whether you are an “ambivert”: someone who moves between both ends of the spectrum. Behavioral elasticity can offer advantages but only if ambivert leaders avoid bouncing among different behaviors in a way that confuses colleagues and disrupts their ability to build trust in a leader. Then, focus less on the “what” of your job (what I am doing) and pay more attention to the “how” (do I behave). Wasylyshyn also suggests leaders ask themselves, am I achieving empathic resonance (the ability to care about others and sense what concerns them). (Personal note—I’d add knowing the “why” of your beliefs and values and communicating them to others.) Finally, avoid being “unrequited at work.” When we bring high expectations and feel that our efforts go unrewarded or unrecognized, it can impact how we treat people. This usually happens when we stop thinking about the “how” factor. It can help to think in terms of WIIFU (what’s in it for us) rather than WIIFM (me).

A Few examples

Practical examples always help, and Wasylyshyn offered a few. For inspiration and insight into remarkable leaders we were pointed to Mother Teresa. There’s no way of knowing if she exhibited strong TBL, but she certainly was off the charts in EI and probably in the healthy PN zone. We do know she surely put service to the organization and community before serving herself. I suspect it took substantial creative and analytical smarts to ignite and lead a worldwide charity. POTUS is another rich source for leaders from across the spectrum. For the Toxic example, Wasylyshyn selected Richard Nixon, who demonstrates the hazards of low EI and destructive narcissism. The Nixon example helped attendees quickly grasp the essence of the toxic leader, but there was no doubt many had their own examples from which to draw.

How to explain jobs

The example that most engaged the audience was Steve Jobs. Wasylyshyn offered Jobs as the perilous leader, providing some combination of the remarkable and toxic leader—and Jobs fits that description. Despite Apple’s success as a corporation, Jobs is legendary for his mistreatment of Apple employees. Along with powerful TBL and PN, Jobs also terrified people with his nonexistent EI. One story says that Apple employees would avoid riding the elevator with Jobs for fear that they’d be fired before reaching their floor. Some audience members argued that Jobs should be considered remarkable for imagining things and applying design principles that led to revolutionary products. Wasylyshyn agreed with those points but asked at what price did Jobs’s success come? How many lost their jobs, suffered anxiety, or toiled in stress owing to his perilous style? Leaders must strive to achieve organizational success, and Jobs certainly put the company ahead of his own needs, but they must do so without damaging others. Success at any cost is always a moral dilemma for leaders.

Striving for remarkability

For many librarians, somewhere along the career path, the doorway to a leadership position opens. Taking the risk of stepping through the doorway, while admirable, is insufficient to make us remarkable. That’s something we can and must learn. We each may have some inherent strength in one or more components of the formula, perhaps Hi-TBL but Lo-EI. Remarkable leaders are in the minority, but with determination, self-awareness, and reflection, library leaders could work to turn their weaknesses into strengths. This was Wasylyshyn’s first time speaking to an audience of librarians, and she encouraged us to be remarkable.

Do it for those we serve. Do it for those we lead. Do it for our colleagues in and beyond the library. They need us to be remarkable leaders. Wasylyshyn believes we are up to the task.

Steven Bell About Steven Bell

Steven Bell, Associate University Librarian, Temple University, Philadelphia, PA, is the current vice president/president-elect of ACRL. For more from Steven visit his blogs, Kept-Up Academic Librarian, ACRLog and Designing Better Libraries or visit his website.

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  1. There is great information here – thank you. I would imagine that most Remarkable leaders have the ability to look inward and acknowledge their flaws. In my experience, most Toxic and Perilous leaders do not know they are, indeed, hurting their employees. Or even worse, they may know but are unwilling to change. For those that do want to change, however, I highly recommend “Good Self, Bad Self: Transforming Your Worst Qualities into Your Biggest Assets” by Judy Smith.