5 Critical Mental Skills Required To Be An Excellent Leader

#1. Vicarious reflection

  • Max Klein

Written on Sep 14, 2021

woman talking to co-workers Jacob Lund / Shutterstock

“I don’t read books, man, come on!” he snorted with dismissive pride.

He was a friend of mine and I’d made the mistake of bringing up in conversation the value I’d found in certain books and how a few of them had changed my entire life. I’d asked him if he had any books like that.

I felt bad for him as he’d never had that experience with reading. As the years went by, his aptitude for mastering his own little world told him there was no reason to seek that experience. He’d mastered his little world, after all, without the wisdom of others.


But as soon as he left his bubble, something happened.

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He was flat-footed. Awkward. Ignorant. Inappropriate. Ineffective.

Now, a book won’t solve all this, but his general attitude that he had nothing to learn from anyone, in any form, left him a king in his own world, but a pawn in the real one.

It got me thinking of what one of the greatest leaders I’ve ever met, General James “Mad Dog” Mattis, said:

“If you haven’t read hundreds of books, you are functionally illiterate, and you will be incompetent because your personal experiences alone aren’t broad enough to sustain you. Any commander who claims he is ‘too busy to read’ is going to fill body bags with his troops as he learns the hard way.”


Perhaps my friend, in his life and work, wouldn’t be filling body bags, but he would be learning the hard way every time he left his comfort zone.

And he was strangely proud of it.

I’ve studied and practiced leadership in corporate, military, and volunteer settings for 25 years.

I’ve found the below mental skills indispensable to well-rounded leadership:

1. Vicarious Reflection

There is a tripod of tools that are critical for a leader. The first is reflecting on your own experiences. The second is reflecting on other’s experiences through books, various media, or direct learning. The third is the ability to instinctively combine those two reflections to come to the wisest decision.


My friend above had only one leg of this tripod, his own experiences. As we saw from General Mattis above, just those aren’t enough to sustain you once you leave your own little world you’ve mastered.

You must be able to reflect on other’s experiences to make the wisest decisions. I call this vicarious reflection.

This is the basis behind all education, after all. Education is the alleviation of the need for humanity to reinvent the wheel to solve every problem. We humans don’t like to learn that quickly though. We like to make mistakes for ourselves, it seems. But the ones that do learn from others are the ones who rise the highest.

As a leader, vicarious reflection enables you to get mistakes behind you without ever committing them — or to make the best decision based on something someone else learned — this is wisdom.


Some leaders are naturals and do pretty well up to a point but the best leaders, the ones who become excellent, reflect on the experiences of others.

“Today a reader, tomorrow a leader.” — Margaret Fuller

2. Self-Reflection

Self-reflection is how you gain wisdom from your own experiences. Lack of self-reflection is how you repeat mistakes indefinitely.

Self-reflection means setting your ego aside and taking an honest look at how you fit into the current picture. What are your strengths? Where can you improve? It means answering these questions honestly then doing something about it.

This is hard to do. It’s nearly impossible for narcissistic or arrogant people which is why those traits are never found in the best leaders.


A leader who does not self-reflect stagnates in mediocrity.

“Without reflection, we go blindly on our way, creating more unintended consequences, and failing to achieve anything useful.” — Margaret J. Wheatley

3. Listening to “Gut” Instinct/Intuition

A good leader does a calculation with every decision. They take the “science” of available information and combine it with the “art” of instinct.

Many famous leaders have spoken of the value of ‘trusting your gut’ or relying on instinct.

Roy Rowan said:

“This feeling, this little whisper from deep inside your brain, may contain far more information — both facts and impressions — than you’re likely to obtain from hours of analysis.”


But don’t rely fully on intuition. Robert Heller said:

“Never ignore a great feeling, but never believe that it’s enough.”

You were given a brain and a heart for a reason and they do their best work together.

Listen to that little voice inside you nudging you here or there. Of course, filter that voice through your conscious reason, but always give him a seat at the table as the best leaders do.

4. Thinking Like a Follower and a Servant

Most good leaders started out as good followers. They had the empathy to know how their leaders were thinking and feeling, then they did their part to carry out that mission with the leader’s best intentions as a guide.


Once that follower becomes a leader they also know how followers are thinking so they can motivate, direct, and otherwise harness their potential because they understand them. They can see things from their point of view and value what they value.

This empathy is critical to good leadership.

Along with empathy, a servant’s heart beats in the best leaders.

They know once they are in charge, their job is to serve the needs of the team so the team can do their best work — not the other way around.

Servant leadership is catching on because it is what works best. It’s what has always worked, we just have a more ready name for it now.

“Servant leadership is all about making the goals clear and then rolling your sleeves up and doing whatever it takes to help people win. In that situation, they don’t work for you; you work for them.” — Ken Blanchard


5. Becoming More ‘You’ During Adversity

The naked truth of someone’s character is most clearly revealed in adversity.

It’s easy to be noble when things are going perfectly. It’s easy to do the right thing when there’s no temptation to do wrong.

Like fair-weather friends, some leaders are perfect until adversity calls.

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Some people lose the house-of-cards identity they built as a leader to that point. They lose courage. They lose judgment. They fall apart. This happens because they don’t have a solid base of who they are and what they believe.

On the other hand, strong leaders become stronger in adversity. Their judgment becomes sharper. Adversity is where they come alive.


The difference between these two leaders is having the experience of knowing who they will be in adversity. It’s better to find this out before you really need it.

Many people wonder what they’d do in a war, a fight, a tough business situation, or whatever extreme adversity may happen. A good way to know who you are is to do hard things voluntarily before you have to do them for real.

This can be any voluntary challenge that truly challenges you. Can’t run? Sign up for a marathon.

Never been in a physical altercation and that question is bothering you?


Take some self-defense classes or jiu-jitsu. Anything you can do to voluntarily put yourself up against physical adversity will tell you who you will be during mental adversity as moral and physical courage are interdependent.

And when you know how you react to adversity, you’ll be a much better leader, and you just may rise to greatness when times get tough.

“Train hard, fight easy.” — Alexander Suvorov


There’s more to leadership than just hard skills and soft skills. The most important skill involves how you use your brain.

To recap:

Use vicarious reflection to gain wisdom and not make unnecessary mistakes.

Practice self-reflection by honestly evaluating your performance and areas that need improvement so continuous improvement becomes the norm.


Always listen to your gut, but combine that voice with your conscious intellect for best results.

Think like a follower and a servant.

Know yourself by practicing meeting adversity before you need to.

These mental tools have helped good leaders become great.

I’m confident that if you apply them to your leadership efforts, you’ll become one of those leaders people simply love to follow. 

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Max Klein is a dad, husband, and Marine Corps veteran. He earned a MBA with a focus on strategy and management. Follow him on Twitter.