From Good to Great: Understanding the Leap in Leadership

May 16, 2024 | New Workplace Leadership | 5 min read

A question that often pops up in discussions about leadership is, “What’s the difference between a good leader and a great leader?” Having been involved in movement and sports from the time I was young up to the present, I believe that great leadership is akin to building a solid, well-performing sports team.

I’ve been coached by many “good” coaches. They know all the technical aspects of the game – how to play, when to apply certain strategies or techniques, how to make adjustments to maximize individual and team performance. And, they typically support a group of athletes who meet expectations and produce reliable outcomes year after year. Their players are healthy, the team record is consistent, and the coach both respects and adheres to the cycle of training and competition.

But a “great” coach? A great coach possesses an almost magical touch that transcends the basics of simply knowing how to play the game. They don’t just roster a group of athletes for competition; they cultivate an ecosystem. 

A great coach understands the unique language of each player, the subtle interplay of environment and athlete, and the intricate dance of balancing the needs of the individual with those of the team. As a result, the team is not just productive, but also exciting and innovative – often dazzling spectators with extraordinary plays and unprecedented results. 

Here, the difference between “good” and “great” lies in the depth of connection and understanding the coach has to the game, as well as the coach’s ability to not only achieve results but to inspire, innovate, and leave a lasting impression. Good leaders effectively manage teams and meet targets, but great leaders do more; they inspire, challenge norms, and set a course for lasting impact. Like great athletic coaches, they nurture growth in a way that changes the pitch forever. 

While I pride myself on my involvement as an amateur coach, I always have a lot to learn from great coaches. This got me to thinking. If coaching a sports team is a skill that can be taught, can we teach other types of leaders to be great? What are the behaviors and thought patterns that distinguish “good” leaders from “great” leaders at work? 

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The 8 Skills That Separate Good Leaders From Great Leaders

Good leaders and great leaders possess many of the same qualities, but great leaders often exhibit these qualities to a higher degree or in a more nuanced way. Here are some key skills that can help you distinguish between good and great:

Vision vs. Visionary Execution

Good leaders often have a clear vision for their organization or team, but great leaders not only have a vision but also possess the ability to execute it effectively. They can inspire others to share and work towards that vision with passion and dedication. Good leaders assign tasks and responsibilities, whereas great leaders define a clear vision, inspire creative solutions, and focus on the result rather than tasks.

Management vs. Leadership

Good leaders are often effective managers, able to organize tasks, delegate responsibilities, and ensure things get done efficiently. Great leaders, however, go beyond mere management. They inspire and empower their team members, fostering growth, creativity, and innovation. Good leaders focus on protecting the status quo and gradual improvements, while great leaders are game changers who innovate and create new pathways for success.


Both good and great leaders communicate effectively, but great leaders excel in their communication skills. They can convey their vision, expectations, and feedback clearly and in a way that resonates with others. Great leaders are also adept at listening, understanding, and empathizing with their team members.

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Good leaders can navigate challenges and make necessary adjustments, but great leaders are exceptionally adaptable. They can anticipate change, embrace it, and lead their team through uncertainty with confidence and resilience. Good leaders accept feedback but may not always act on it, whereas great leaders apply feedback, constantly seek self-improvement, and develop themselves to authentically develop others.

Empowerment vs. Micromanagement

Good leaders empower their team members by providing guidance and support while allowing them autonomy to make decisions and take ownership of their work. Great leaders take this a step further by trusting their team completely, avoiding micromanagement, and creating an environment where everyone feels valued and empowered. Good leaders impress with their capabilities, while great leaders inspire individuals to realize their own potential and make them feel better about themselves.


Good and great leaders hold themselves and others accountable for their actions and results. However, great leaders take responsibility for failures and successes, learning from them and using them as opportunities for growth and improvement. Good leaders command from the top and maintain traditional hierarchies, while great leaders serve from the bottom, putting the needs of their team before their own.

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Emotional Intelligence

Great leaders possess high emotional intelligence, allowing them to understand and manage their own emotions effectively while also empathizing with others. They can navigate complex interpersonal dynamics, resolve conflicts, and build strong, cohesive teams.

Long-term Impact

While good leaders may achieve short-term success, great leaders leave a lasting impact that extends beyond their tenure. They develop future leaders, cultivate a culture of continuous improvement, and leave behind a legacy of positive change and growth.

Ultimately, I believe that the transformative elements of leadership can be learned. It’s about starting early, embracing a growth mindset, and helping your leaders understand the subtle distinctions that can take their leadership from proficient to profound.

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