in: Career & Wealth, Leadership, Podcast

• Last updated: December 7, 2023

Podcast #944: The Leadership Qualities That Will Set You Apart From the Pack

For the last 15 years, William Vanderbloemen has run an executive search firm that helps non-profit organizations find leaders. Over the course of conducting tens of thousands of interviews with top-tier candidates, he’s tracked and recorded what qualities the best leaders — the people he calls “unicorns” — possess that set them apart from everyone else in the field.

William shares what he’s learned in his new book Be the Unicorn: 12 Data-Driven Habits That Separate the Best Leaders from the Rest. Today we talk about what some of those twelve distinguishing habits are, and how people can use them to move ahead at work, as well as improve their relationships outside of it. We discuss the nearly 100% difference it can make in your business to respond to people right away, the least common trait among unicorns that the general population mistakenly believes they have in spades, how mastering the art of anticipation will make you stand out, a way to use eye contact to build strong connection, and much more.

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Read the Transcript 

Brett McKay: Brett McKay here and welcome to another edition of The Art of Manliness podcast. For the last 15 years, William Vanderbloemen has run an executive search firm that helps nonprofit organizations find leaders. Over the course of conducting tens of thousands of interviews with top tier candidates, he’s tracked and recorded what qualities the best leaders, the people he calls unicorns possess that set them apart from everyone else in the field. William shares what he’s learned in his new book, Be the Unicorn: 12 Data-Driven Habits that Separate the Best Leaders from the Rest. Today we talk about what some of those 12 distinguishing habits are and how people can use them to move ahead at work, as well as improve the relationships outside of it. We discussed the nearly 100% difference it can make to your business to respond to people right away, the least common trait among unicorns that the general population mistakenly believes they have in spades, how mastering the art of anticipation will make you stand out, a way to use eye contact to build strong connection, and much more. After the show’s over, check at our show notes at

All right. William Vanderbloemen, and welcome to the show.

William Vanderbloemen: Thanks for having me.

Brett McKay: So you founded and run an executive search company, but you focus on helping churches find pastors. So I’ve heard, I think a lot of people probably have heard of executive search companies for corporations, but not for churches. How’d you end up doing what you do?

William Vanderbloemen: Well, that’s probably a multi podcast question. I am a recovering preacher, so I’ll try not to ramble on and on. But a lifetime ago, I was leading a very large church, and that church, First Presbyterian, Houston, which is an amazing church, wonderful people. It’s where Sam Houston went to church. So they took about three years to find me, and that’s like par for the course. Nobody saw that as abnormal. I was there about six years. It took them about three years to find my successor, which was par for the course. But my departure from there, I left there partially as a result of a divorce, which by the way, I would not recommend to listeners, but it wasn’t anything the tabloids would’ve picked up, it was just kind of a tragic thing. And I found myself as a single dad with four kids and like, wow, what do I do now?

I went and got a job in the oil and gas industry for a very large company. It’s Fortune 200 company, upstreaming the gas industry. The CEO had been there nine and a half years, which I didn’t know at the time. For a company that size, usually you look at three, three and a half years for a CEO. Nine and a half years, and he said, it’s time to find my successor. And I was going through like a management rotation, like do a year here, do a year there, learn the business. My first year, this particular year was in the HR department. So yeah, I could be ambitious and say I was on the team that helped with that succession. The reality is I was more like the third string water boy for that team. [laughter]

Fairly inconsequential role, but I got to watch what they did. And they did this thing I’ve never seen before. They hired what they called a search firm, and 90 days later they had their new CEO and it went great. So dropped back to First Presbyterian, Houston, been around for a long time, kind of a great job to land. They spent 12 years and six of those years they were looking for a pastor, and six, they had one. And that just made me go, that’s… And nobody saw that as abnormal. That’s kinda crazy. So I came home, now I’m leaving out a big gap in this narrative, but I’d just gotten married to Adrian. We’d just blended our family with six kids, just bought a house that we could barely afford. And I came home and said, you know what, babe? I think I’m supposed to quit my job and start something new for churches.

And she just looked at me and said, total deadpan. Oh, oh, that’s because churches love new ideas, right? Which no one has ever said in the history of ever. So she should have said, I love you. Go back to work. I love your vision and your dream, but we got six kids to feed. And instead she said, let’s give it a shot. And the kicker is, it was the fall of 2008, which Brett, I don’t know if your listeners are too young to remember, you might Google 2008 economy. [chuckle] Not the best time to quit your job and start something new. But we just kind of fell into right place, right time. And now 15 years later, we still help churches find their pastor, but we help nonprofits, we help schools, we help for-profits that are sort of values driven, where people are like, we want somebody who matches how we do things, our culture, our vibe, our why. And and it all started with that simple little question of could we build something better for churches that need a pastor? So that’s a very condensed version of a very long story.

Brett McKay: In your experience as yourself as a pastor and also dealing with not only putting pastors in churches, but also putting leaders in nonprofits, how is leadership different in the nonprofit sector compared to leadership in a business? And do you think there are lessons people can take from the volunteer nonprofit world into the corporate world?

William Vanderbloemen: 100%. First of all, I think leadership is leadership. So to inspire people to go where you see they ought to go, that’s leadership, whether you’re in a for-profit or non-profit or what have you. Years ago when I was a younger pastor, I was in Montgomery, Alabama. So the Maxwell Air Force Base is there, it’s all officers. The Air War College is there. And I got asked to come teach a class and I’m like, what can I teach about leadership? You guys are defending the country. And they said, yeah, but your volunteers don’t have to say yes sir. And we want you to talk about that. So I developed a course called Leading When No One Has to Say, Yes, Sir And that’s a whole different art of collaborating, of bringing people along, being far enough ahead of the crowd that you’ve got a vision for where to go, but close enough to the crowd that you’re not just taking a walk by yourself.

And I think that the skills that I learned over that career, like how do I talk people into volunteering their time? How do I train them to be on the team? How do I keep them on the team? That’s all amazingly germane to right now when you’ve got millennials starting to really take over the workforce, which is a beautiful thing to see happen. But they’re much more interested in collaborative spirit. Don’t tell me what to do, convince me this is the right thing to do. So there is a whole dimension to leadership in the business world right now that really is leading when people don’t have to say yes. And I think there’s just a treasure trove of parallels there.

Brett McKay: Yeah. I think I’ve gotten my best leadership lessons leading in volunteer organizations because people don’t have to say, yes, sir, to you. And also you can’t use like payment or a paycheck as a bludgeon.

William Vanderbloemen: That’s right.

Brett McKay: You can always be like, if you’re in a corporate world of like, well, if you don’t do what I say, you’re fired.

William Vanderbloemen: Yep.

Brett McKay: You can’t do that in a volunteer organization. So you have to really learn these people skills to motivate people who are just volunteering and they can step back anytime they want. There’s not gonna be any repercussions. And that’s really useful. That’s a really a baptism by fire.

William Vanderbloemen: Well, and the flip side of that is the people who are really good at leading volunteer organizations know how to hire their volunteers. ‘Cause it’s one thing to inspire people to follow you, but it’s another thing when you’ve got a volunteer who’s a real problem to the volunteer team and you gotta fire ’em and you’re not paying them. Like how do you fire a volunteer? [laughter] So the emphasis on soft skills that you learn in any kinda nonprofit or volunteer role is gonna help a whole lot in leadership, particularly in the here and now in the corporate world where people aren’t staying at companies 25 years and they can take it or leave it with a job and they’re jump jumping around. Career spans are shorter, stays at jobs are shorter. And I think leaders that learn how to motivate and inspire people to get on board and then to stay are gonna be kinda the new gold standard in leadership. So I’ve been studying like, what are those soft skills? What are the things that make that kind of leader just stand out in the crowd and you wanna follow ’em?

Brett McKay: And so that’s what you’ve done in your latest book. You’ve taken your 15 plus years of experience at your executive search company where you all have interviewed tens of thousands of people. And then in the process, you all have been tracking the traits of these different people you’ve been interviewing and you’ve been trying to be very systematic and scientific and data-driven as possible to figure out what qualities do those people you were just talking about. They have those soft skills that make them almost like irreplaceable as a leader ’cause you call them the unicorns, that’s the name of the book, Be the Unicorn. And so you have honed in on 12 data-driven habits that separate the best leaders from the rest. Just kind of big picture, what do unicorns have, like unicorn leaders? What do they have that non unicorns don’t?

William Vanderbloemen: Yeah, that’s a great question. I think most of them have… I don’t know, Brett, you ever sit down with somebody, it doesn’t happen very often, but within five minutes of meeting them, it might be at a dinner party or at a social function or work or maybe even a job interview. But within five minutes, you’re just sitting there going, this one, this one’s a winner, this one’s different. But like, that’s what unicorns do. You’re immediately ready to sign up for their fan club or whatever. The flip side though is really interesting ’cause I’ve wondered for 15 years, like I’m not the smartest guy in the room, but I’m not the most gullible. So why in five minutes does this person have my attention? What are they doing? Could you figure out what it is they’re doing and then be able to spot it faster?

And by the same token, I’ve had some very quiet, humble people that I’ve met, and in the first five minutes they didn’t impress me very much, they turned out to be amazing leaders. So the flip side is, what is it that these amazing leaders all do, and could we look for that and try and spot it? And in the pandemic, nearly every one of our clients was shut down indefinitely, which [chuckle] frees up your calendar a lot. And that’s when we realized we’ve now done 30,000 long format interviews with the best talent we’ve ever seen. We’ve done hundreds of thousands of interviews on some level, but 30,000 top, top, top people, what do they have in common? That was the question that we attacked from a research standpoint during the pandemic and the shutdown that led to us figuring out they do have things in common. It’s very different from what I expected. I expected the list of things that unicorns have in common to be like, they all have an IQ of 160 or better. Nope. They all have a full head of hair and amazing teeth. Nope. They all went to a really great school. No, no, no, no. Wasn’t anything like that. Wasn’t pedigree. It wasn’t even as simple as he was the quarterback and she was the head cheerleader. No.

Brett McKay: What about personality? Like big personality, small, like would that…

William Vanderbloemen: Neither one mattered.

Brett McKay: Yeah.

William Vanderbloemen: Any kind of personality type, any socioeconomic, any racial, ethnic, all those lines went away. What emerged as the patterns that these unicorns seem to repeat and share in common were 12 habits, not even traits. Traits are something you’re born with. These are habits these are things that they practice that were almost solely focused on. How do I treat the person across the desk from me? How am I treating that person? 12 habits that we found that were stunningly common among unicorns and amazingly uncommon among the rest of us. And it’s not like a a rocket science list, it took rocket science to get to the list, but you read the table of contents. I almost, it’s like, duh, who wouldn’t have thought. I almost titled the book, So I Guess Mom Might’ve Been Right. ‘Cause a lot of the 12 habits are things mothers try and tell their young boys to do when they’re approaching others or treating someone in a relationship or at work.

But it’s not just 12 simple ruminations, this is 12 habits that we’ve seen through a careful study of how these unicorns behave. And I thought we were doing this so that I would learn how to spot unicorns faster and I’d be better at search and our firm would be better and all that. What we discovered was actually these are 12 habits that can be taught, that can be learned and adapted, that anyone, if they take the effort to apply these 12 habits can become one of those people that stand out in the crowd. That within five minutes you’re ready to be on their fan club. Those kind of things. So we thought we were doing something for ourselves. We realized this is a roadmap that could help a whole lot of people. And that led us to say, okay, fine. We’ll do it as a book.

Brett McKay: So these 12 habits, do you have to develop all these habits? Do these unicorns have all these habits or do they have one or two and they just specialize in those one or two?

William Vanderbloemen: That’s such a good question. That’s so good, Brett. I think that what we found was the unicorns have usually about two or three that they’re better at than the rest. And then they have 12 that… Of the 12, maybe they’re one or two that they should probably work on some. But across the board, the unicorns were higher than average at each of these habits. So they’re better at all of them, but they’re really good at a few. And some of that may be personality-driven, and then there are a few they really need to work on, but they’re just stunningly consistent in being well above average in each of these 12 areas.

Brett McKay: Gotcha. Well, let’s talk about some of these habits. The first one is the habit of being fast. What do you mean by that?

William Vanderbloemen: Yeah, this is one where I may have… Okay, true confessions. That chapter title might be a little bit of click bait ’cause like, Brett, I’m not fast. I’m Dutch. We are built for wind resistance and solidness. [chuckle] So speed is not my thing. If I were probably being more precise, I probably would’ve said responsiveness, not just fast.

Brett McKay: Okay.

William Vanderbloemen: So the bottom line of our research showed humans are really terrible at getting back to people. We’re horrible at it. We put it off for tomorrow, we wait too long. Unicorns are almost obsessed with getting back to people and clearing their inbox and getting a response to someone that’s meaningful and not just a chat bot kind of thing. And it really sets them apart. Frankly, it sets businesses apart when they show crazy intentional responsiveness.

Brett McKay: So what do these unicorns do? What kind of practical brass tacks practices do they incorporate in their lives to maintain this responsiveness?

William Vanderbloemen: Yeah. Yeah, I remember, I’ll call him a unicorn. He was a board member of the very first church I was a senior pastor of in Montgomery and we were relocating. And so our new property, we were looking for a place to meet on Sundays while our building was getting built. And there was a YMCA kind of across the street from our property. It was a pretty good location. And I was riding around with Todd and he said, I know the chair of the board of that YMCA. I said, really? He said, yeah. And so we got back to the office, walked to my office. He said, here’s the number of that chair of the board of YMCA. I bet he’d let us use the facility, if you’ll call him. They don’t use it on Sundays. I’m like, okay, thanks. And we stood there for like, I don’t know, felt like forever, probably a few seconds.

And Todd said, why haven’t you called him yet? I said, Todd, what are you talking about? We’re standing here right now. He said, I just gave you the number. I told you to call him. Why wait till tomorrow? Why wait till this afternoon? That’s how unicorns behave. And I did call him and we got the facility, but I’ve never forgotten that. It’s kinda like, I don’t know if you’re ever at a intersection where you have to turn left out of a parking lot and you got to go all the way across the road. It seems like right when I pull up to pulling out into the road, there’s an opportunity to go and I wait and then end up waiting forever. And the reality is, your first chance to respond is usually your best one. So brass tacks is simply just get back to people. And what’s scary is how bad the rest of us are at this. So on the one hand, scary on the other hand, makes for an easy win. Do you have time for a story about this?

Brett McKay: Yeah, sure.

William Vanderbloemen: Yeah. So we use, we call it inbound marketing and probably everybody knows what this is. It’s where you go to a website, maybe it’s you’re looking at a car, a Jeep or the new Bronco. And they say, would you like more information? Fill out this form, give them the email address, and then it goes into the internet and you wait to hear back from whoever you just filled out the form with. So when we started our company, when people wrote in, I had six kids to feed, I had a house to pay for and we were trying something new with a group that doesn’t like new things. If somebody wrote me and said, would you get back to me about… I got back to them like immediately. And I remember people saying, wow, you actually got back to me. So fast forward. Many years later, the platform that we use for our inbound marketing ran a very large study of all companies they could find that use any kind of this sort of fill out a form and we’ll get back to you marketing.

And they asked the question, how much does it matter when you get back to somebody after they fill out a form? In other words, if you get back to ’em faster, do you have a better chance of talking to ’em on the phone and making a sale? They found that if you get back to people within 60 seconds of them filling out that form, you have over a 98% chance of talking to that individual. You wait 20 minutes, it drops to a 60% chance, still good, but nowhere near 98. You wait 24 hours, you have a less than 1% chance of ever talking to the person that filled out a form. Now, the punch line to the study was, they went on to find out what is the average response time for all these companies taking this survey. Average response time, 42 hours.

So the companies that are paying for amazing marketing software, paying sales teams, they get leads in their hand and they wait too long to get back to people, and the leads die. People who get back right away, have a 98% chance. That’s good news for everybody listening today, it’s just… If you will immediately and intentionally get back to people, you will find yourself rising up above the crowd. You’ll separate yourself from the field. And, of course, you gotta have some discernment about, are you gonna respond to every little thing that comes your way, well no, then you wouldn’t have a life. But can you figure out what are the things that are really gonna move the ball forward and how do I respond really quickly and intentionally to those opportunities when they come along?

Brett McKay: Yeah. I like the idea of calling a responsiveness not fast. ‘Cause I think one problem that leaders have is they might be juggling a lot of different balls and they just forget which balls they even have in the air, and so they’re not able to respond. And one thing I admire about my wife is she calls them open loops. So any task that’s undone, she’s constantly thinking about it. For me, it’s out of sight, out of mind. But because my wife is constantly thinking about all these open loops, she has this incentive to get things done as fast as possible. And I’ve learned to get better about that from her, so I appreciate that. She’s super a responsive.

William Vanderbloemen: Yeah, my wife is the queen of the… What’s the rule called? Only touch it once.

Brett McKay: Yeah.

William Vanderbloemen: That’s her. If it’s male, I’m gonna deal with it and then it’s gonna be gone. And if I can’t do it, I’m gonna put in a stack and then I’m gonna sit down and deal with everything in the stack, and it’s gonna be done in one fell swoop. For me, I’ve had to learn, like I have about five different email accounts of people that will email me, my wife, a few others, and the software that sends in any lead that comes to the company and they come across through my lock screen. So this is the only five that come through on my lock screen. So I see one of those five, it’s like those are the ones I have to get back to right away. And so I’ve had to build a system for discerning, like what is super important that I get back to right away, wife being first priority, and then new leads for our business, a little further down the list? But I think probably everybody here listening is smart enough to figure out how to filter what needs an immediate response, what doesn’t, and the things that need it. If you will give an immediate and intentional, not an auto-respond, but an immediate intentional response, you will act differently than nearly everybody around you.

Brett McKay: Yeah, I hate the auto-responder. I’d rather not get a response than an auto-responder.

William Vanderbloemen: Absolutely.

Brett McKay: Yeah. We’re gonna take a quick break for a word from our sponsors. And now back to the show. Okay, so related to speed or responsiveness, I like responsiveness. Related to responsiveness is the habit of agility. What do unicorns who are particularly agile, what do they do differently from the non-agile.

William Vanderbloemen: Everything. Everything differently. Agility atrophies. I think I kinda always knew that, but some years back, I’d gotten to the age where I like to run, it’s probably more like a jog than a run. But I got to the age where if I’m gonna keep doing this, I’ve gotta start doing some stretching. And the stretching, honestly, Brett, it was harder than the run itself. I’m just stiff. And I was done running one day, my youngest of our seven kids came in the room and she was probably, I don’t know, two or three years old. And I’m sitting there stretching and sweating like crazy and kinda struggling just to touch my toes. She looks at me, sits down next to me, she ties herself in this kinda human pretzel that only little one, two and three-year-olds can do. Looked up at me, untied herself, stood up, laughed out loud and left the room. I’m like, oh my gosh. [laughter] And then it dawned on me, William, every day you’re alive, you get less flexible, like that’s a biological fact. You’re most flexible the day you’re born, you’re least flexible the day you die. It’s a natural calcification that just happens unless you fight it like crazy.

And so the unicorns are constantly challenging themselves to stretch. That might be as simple as literally stretching after they run, it might be as complex as I need to learn a new skill set this year, I’m gonna learn a new language, I’m taking on how AI is gonna affect our job in the next five years. But the unicorns are the ones who are constantly looking for ways to stretch. And somewhere in them, they know that if they don’t do that, they’re gonna atrophy, they’re gonna calcify, they’re gonna become rigid, and that’s not cool. And if you think back to the pandemic, whatever job you had for people listening today, I bet that in your workplace, the people who really stood out during all that mess were the people who were able to pivot, who were able to move, who were able to make a change on the fly. And if they did that, it marked them as different and valuable. And I think this trait as we move into a new age of disruption, particularly with AI, this trait of being agile, of adapting to a new reality, man, that’s gonna be just gold. If you wanna elevate your career, start stretching, trying different things, and you’ll see yourself move up.

I was talking yesterday with a managing partner of a very large law firm here in Houston, one of the biggest ones, and I said, what’s your big challenge? He said, oh, AI. And I said, how? And he said, well, it can write closing arguments, you can… It’s amazing what can happen. I said, well, then why is that a challenge? He said, well, I’m in charge of starting the first year associates after they graduate law school, and I sat him down last week and looked at him and said, you were trained for a world that doesn’t exist anymore. So he said, and I’m watching to see who sees that as a challenge to rise to and who gets deflated. The challenge to rise to, those are the agile, those are the ones that wanna stretch, wanna find a new way. It’s absolute goal. It’s very common among the unicorns we spotted, very uncommon among the rest of us. Most of us just give up on stretching.

Brett McKay: You have these three questions you ask candidates to find out how agile they might be. I like this. And the people who are listening can use this as maybe some self-reflection. What new skill are you learning right now? What new hobby have you developed? And this is interesting, what part of history do you like to study the most? What’s with that third question? I can see the other two, why they show agility, what about that third one?

William Vanderbloemen: Well, Brett, I just don’t think it’s that hard to see the future. I think if you study the past, you’ll see the future. And if you ask people what they like as the most meaningful part of history and they say, oh man, I love watching Band Of Brothers. Okay, well, that’s super fun, and I’m guessing it’s pretty popular among your listeners, but that doesn’t tell me anything. You get somebody that says, oh my gosh, the Renaissance, there were so many new things happening. Or right when the printing press happened, or when we landed on the moon or some explorative like when Columbus took off. Lewis and Clark go over into the Rockies not having any idea what’s coming next. You hear people start to give those answers, you get a window into what motivates them and how they think. And then you can start to see whether agility is something they’re naturally practicing or maybe they’re artificially working on it and it shines through. And then others, maybe they got a fun movie they like to watch, but there’s no reason behind the affinity for that era in history.

Brett McKay: Another habit you talk about is the solver mentality. What does the solver habit look like?

William Vanderbloemen: Yeah. Yeah so I don’t know, I’m old enough that Winnie the Pooh was part of my childhood. And I don’t know why, but I always loved Tigger and Heidi or… I know you’re supposed to be sorry for Eeyore and all that. But there’s something about solvers that they come to a challenge saying, I think we can fix this, not, oh no, look what happened. You hear the difference? Like Tigger was like, okay, let’s figure it out. Eeyore was so sad. And you don’t need just all optimists in company, but people who solve are people who are like, okay, what do we do about that? Not, what is the problem? And human nature is just to name the problem and shift the blame, that’s just our human nature. Like you go back to the very beginning of the Hebrew Scriptures or the Bible, Adam and Eve in the garden. Probably most people have heard this story somewhere, and humans screw up for the first time, and God comes and says, what did you guys do? And Adam being the manly man that he was, said, well, that woman, the one you gave me, she made me do this. [laughter]

Brett McKay: Pass the buck.

William Vanderbloemen: Exactly. The solvers are ones who are like, okay, we’ve got a problem, how do we fix it? And I had an old mentor who used to say life is an equation, and most people live on the problem side of the equation pointing out what’s wrong. Very few live on the solution side of the equation. How do we fix it? When you see people who are constantly saying, how do we fix it? How do we make lemonade out of lemons? Then you found someone who’s uncommon and has one of these 12 habits that unicorns have. So it’s the old, don’t come to a meeting just naming problems, come with a suggested solution. And it is incredibly uncommon among people and incredibly common among those who stand out in the crowd and really become irreplaceable.

Brett McKay: Yeah. Solvers have high agency.

William Vanderbloemen: Yes.

Brett McKay: They look at the world, they say, I can get things done in the world. Even though it might be hard, I can do something about it.

William Vanderbloemen: That’s right.

Brett McKay: Yeah.

William Vanderbloemen: That’s right.

Brett McKay: And some of that’s probably personality, but I think it is a skill you can learn. The more you start trying to solve problems, the more you start trying to take action, you’re gonna develop a bias towards solving problems instead of just being like a [0:29:04.7] ____.

William Vanderbloemen: I think I agree with everything you said in the second half. 100%. The more you do it, the more you’ll start doing, it builds momentum. I don’t think it’s a personality trait, I think humans in general are on the problem side of the equation. What stops traffic more than anything, people stopping to look at a wreck. What clickbait works if you’re trying to gen up web traffic, negative disastrous headlines. We are so wired to look at the problem, that if you can rewire yourself to start looking for solutions, you’re immediately gonna separate yourself from the field.

Brett McKay: Another habit is the habit of self-awareness. So how does self-awareness help someone stand out in a group and be more effective in an organization?

William Vanderbloemen: Yeah. Yeah. It’s interesting. We found our unicorns and then we surveyed them about these 12 habits. One of the things we did was ask people to force rank, what’s your best of these 12, what’s your worst? That sort of thing. So when we did that with the unicorns, self-awareness was the least common habit among the unicorns. It was common, but least common as a number one trait. Had fewer people say, that’s my number one than anything else. Alright, so hold that thought. After we found the unicorns and surveyed them, we also surveyed a quarter million people, and got answers from them about what they think about these 12 habits. And one of the things we asked about each of the 12 was, would you rank yourself as average at this, above average, well above average, below average, well below, kind of a one to five thing.

So the general population, 93% of the people we surveyed said that they were above average in self-awareness. I’m not like a mathematician, but 93% of a group is not above average, 50% is. So it’s the least common trait among unicorns, and the biggest blind spot that people have about themselves. Oh, I’m more aware than I think. I think back, Brett, when I went to that job at First Presbyterian, Houston, I was so far in over my head. I had no idea. And really, the church probably should have used a search firm and found a better candidate, but the only thing I had going for me, I was 31, so I knew everything.

Now I’m 53, and I’m realizing how much I don’t know and how much I need to learn myself. Where am I good? Where am I not? What job am I gonna be good in? What job am I not gonna be good in? I have been a fairly talented guy in a job that didn’t match my wiring and was miserable. It was that HR stint in the oil and gas company. A great company, paid me well, is not how I was wired. Man, I was miserable. And that’s not their fault at all. But those who develop enough self-awareness… And what an amazing age we live in to develop self-awareness. You can go online and take a DiSC inventory or the Enneagram or any number of things. In fact, we built a software tool as a companion to these 12 habits to let you see how you measure up against the unicorns and everyone else who rate themselves. And that’s a hope that that’s like a first step for people. Okay, let me figure out what I need to work on. What are my top three habits, what are the bottom three?

Brett McKay: Now, I’ve noticed in the people I’ve experienced who are in leadership roles, the leaders, I’m drawn to the most. I’m like, this guy is great. Are the ones who are self-aware about their personality or their strengths or their weaknesses, and then they lean into that. Even if the person’s quiet, they have like a quiet type of demure, quiet leadership, that’s fine. If that’s your personality and that’s what you feel comfortable with and that your strength… It’s frustrating when there’s a leader who doesn’t really know themselves and they’re trying to act like how they think a leader should act, and then there’s a disconnect. And you can tell he’s having a hard time, and then because he’s having a hard time, makes everyone else have a hard time.

William Vanderbloemen: Yes, 100%. And I think it’s that insecurity of not knowing who you are that causes you to act with more bravado than you should and be a little louder than you should. The question, what would you tell a younger version of you? That’s a pretty fun interview question. I think what I would tell a younger version of me is, I don’t know if I like you very much. [laughter] ‘Cause how is that guy that you just described and it’s no fun to be around him. But hopefully, I’m starting to learn myself well enough to know the good parts, the parts that need work, and use that knowledge to do my job better and to help others. Super interesting. As a recovering preacher, I’m always saying, oh wow, that’s a new way of looking at that. And there’s this verse that Jesus taught when he was talking about criticizing others, and he said, look, before you worry about the splinter in your brother’s eye, get the log out of your own. And I used to think he was just saying, judge not, lest ye be judged. Don’t go waving a finger at people. And maybe that’s part of it. But what this study of self-awareness and the unicorn traits has made me ask is, I wonder if you wasn’t also teaching, until you figure out your own weaknesses, you’re really not gonna be able to help anybody.

Brett McKay: Yeah.

William Vanderbloemen: And it’s inspired me to do more self-work, more understanding of what makes me who I am so that I can be a better help to the people around me and my family and friend circles and at work.

Brett McKay: Another habit is the habit of anticipation. What do you mean by that?

William Vanderbloemen: Well, I didn’t see that coming. I’m kidding. Anticipation. This is a simple habit, but nobody practices it. I don’t know, Brett, do you play golf at all?

Brett McKay: No, I don’t play golf. I’ve played golf a few times, I don’t like it. So don’t play.

William Vanderbloemen: Okay. Well, I grew up playing a little bit. And the really great golfers, if you ask Tiger Woods where he’s gonna hit his tee shot, he’s gonna say, well, it depends on where the pin is. And he said, well, there’s a par five there, you gotta hit three shots before you ever get to the green and the pin. He said, yeah, yeah, yeah. But I wanna know where the pin is, and then I’m gonna plan backwards from there. It’s like the Stephen Covey, “Begin with the End in Mind”. Or if you’ve ever played a pool player in billiards, that’s really good, they’re not thinking about the shot they’re making, they’re thinking about the fourth shot after that. And very few people do that. Most of us look down, not up. Most of us think about what’s right in front of us, and then we look up and say, oh man, the day just went away. But those who are unicorns anticipate the things that are about to happen and take a step just a little quicker than everybody else. You don’t have to see the future, you just have seen a little bit ahead and take a proactive step toward that future, and that will set you apart in amazing ways.

My favorite anticipator story actually comes from someone that I used to work with here. She was just the most amazing exec assistant. And she wasn’t my exec assistant at first, I had one and she left, she had three babies in three years and decided I need to be a mom. And so she left and she was good. I’m like, oh, what am I gonna do? And we just hired this young woman who we hired because her friend worked with us and this would be great. She was a little different, very artistic. Her previous employer was a Gothic wig shop. But hey, we interviewed her, we give her the job and I’m like, look, could you sit in the desk of my EA until I figure out who I’m hiring? ‘Cause she was just gonna help in the office, however she could. Okay, fine. So this was the days of… This was pre-iPad. So I don’t know if you remember the little plug-ins that you plug into your laptop to get a 3G signal so you could send email. Yeah. So I have those. And ridiculous responsiveness, people are writing in and we’re getting back to them within 60 seconds. So I’m sitting on a plane and one of these forms comes in and I’m gonna get back to ’em in 60 seconds, but we’re about to take off, and it’s in Spanish.

And I don’t speak Spanish, but I knew enough to know I was Spanish. So I sent Bethany a quick message. I said, a lead just came in in Spanish. See if you understand what they need. I’ll call you when I land. So plane takes off, I’ve got no signal, there’s no Wi-Fi on the planes then. But I go back and re-read this form that had come in and realized that’s really not Spanish, that’s Portuguese. And so then my mind goes to, okay, this is an organization in Brazil. And if you know the Brazilian culture, they really appreciate people knowing the difference between Spanish and Portuguese. So we land and I called Bethany frantically. I’m like, don’t do anything. She said, oh no, no, no. Are you gonna tell me it’s not Spanish? I said, yeah. She said, yeah, it’s Portuguese. I said, how’d you know that? She said, well, I don’t, but I know Spanish and I knew it well enough to know that’s not Spanish. Now, remember, this is pre-iPad, pre-a lot of software. I said, okay, well, don’t do anything. She said, well, actually, I’ve figured out it’s Portuguese. I found this thing online, it’s a translator thing, it’s kinda new. So I translated what he wrote in into English. He wanted some guidance on how pastors should plan to find their successor.

I went through our archive of our website and I found a pretty good white paper you wrote on this very thing. So I ran it through the translator and it’s in Portuguese, and then I went ahead and branded it, and then I converted it to a PDF so nobody could mess with it. And I went ahead and sent it to him. And I hope I’m not in trouble for doing all that without asking. And I was like, okay, you remember how I said, can you sit here till I find my new EA, can you just be that? ‘Cause she thought like five steps ahead of me before I ever landed and had it done. When you find people like that, you go, how did they do that? Well, they just anticipated. They thought a couple of steps ahead of what everybody else thinks. And when you find those people, they are worth gold.

Brett McKay: Another habit is the habit of likeability. What do you mean by likeability?

William Vanderbloemen: That’s such a term that gets tossed around, it’s not popularity, it’s not who wins the most votes, it’s the… You ever hear in hiring the beer question? Who’d you wanna go have a beer with?

Brett McKay: Yeah.

William Vanderbloemen: That’s it. And way too often we hire people that can produce but aren’t likeable. I’ve got a friend that wrote an article, you can probably still find it on the New York Times, wrote it years ago, it was one of their best ones ever. And the title of the article was, What Do You Do With The Brilliant Jerk? And you don’t even have to read the article after you hear the title, ’cause everyone has had to work with that guy that can produce, but is a total rear end. The unicorns are people who find a way to create likeability. The interesting thing I found was likeability hinges on people’s ability to shift the focus of the conversation away from themselves and toward the other person. The most successful people I’ve ever dealt with, I can’t get them to talk about themselves. They wanna know what I’m doing, they’re showing genuine interest in me, they’re making a real eye contact. And all of a sudden I’m like, wow, they’re making me feel like I’m the only person in the room and I like ’em. I might even wanna go have a beer with them. That’s highly uncommon.

Brett McKay: What do the unicorns that have that habit, what do they do on a daily basis for practices to develop that?

William Vanderbloemen: One of the things I mentioned it already is find a way to shift the conversation with an individual toward them and away from you. How many times do you talk about me and I versus you and what’s your situation? It’s pretty amazing. Some of these are intertwined. Likeability and curiosity, oddly enough, go together. People who are likeable are always asking other questions about themselves, or asking questions like, what do you think about this? What would you suggest we do? When people feel like they’re heard and valued and recognized, they like you. Make real eye contact with people. No one does this now, nobody. My kids that are in college right now FaceTime their mother almost every day, and they say hi to me too, but they’re just the nicest, they FaceTime all the time. And yet when they FaceTime, I’m looking at their nostrils most of the time. They’re looking around the room, they’re not looking at me. Did you know 90% of all humans are right-eye dominant? So if you wanna increase your likeability, here’s a simple hack, now, you can’t look at people in a mean domineering way, but in an interested, curious, you’re important to me kinda look. Look ’em dead in their right eye, not both eyes, not in between, just dead in their right eye. I bet you’ve got a 90% chance to them walking away saying they were really listening to me, and that generates likeability.

Brett McKay: So what’s great about these habits, they not only apply to work or your work in a non-profit or volunteer group, this just helps you have good people skills that will make you attractive to anybody. Make you attractive in the dating world, to your spouse. You develop these qualities, you’re gonna be a person who other people wanna be near.

William Vanderbloemen: Well, and I’ll say, Brett, it’s interesting. A lot of these habits are ones that if you master them, you can still be a guy and be manly as all get out. And yet people are gonna say, man, but they’re really good with people, and they broke all these stereotypes that I had of what a manly man is, who doesn’t pay attention to anybody but himself and is arrogant and conceited. No, this was a dude and yet he treated me so much better than nearly everyone does. So it raises your stock in the company softball league, it raises your stock on the dating scene, it certainly raises your stock as a dad. If you will apply these 12 habits to how you’re interacting with your kids, particularly if you have teenage kids, it’s just… Like I said, I almost titled the book, So I Guess Mom Was Right.

Brett McKay: Well, this has been a great conversation. If people are interested in learning more about that strengths assessment, you mentioned they can go to But besides that, where else can people go to learn more about the book and your work?

William Vanderbloemen: Yeah, Brett, my last name is so messed up that really all people have to do is try and type Vanderbloemen into Google or Amazon, and it really doesn’t matter how you spell it, it will circle back to me.

Brett McKay: Okay, just look up Vanderbloemen.

William Vanderbloemen: Yeah. And by the way, if it’s helpful to your listeners, if you go to, there are about 4000 free resources there on how to build and run and keep a great team, particularly when they don’t have to say yes sir, or yes ma’am.

Brett McKay: I love it. Well, William Vanderbloemen, thanks for your time. It’s been a pleasure.

William Vanderbloemen: Hey, thanks for having me on. I really enjoyed this and you’re good at what you do, man.

Brett McKay: Well, thank you. I really appreciate that. My guest today was William Vanderbloemen, he’s the author of the book, Be The Unicorn. It’s available on and bookstores everywhere. You can find more information about his work at his website, Also, check at our show notes at, where you find links to resources where you can delve deeper into this topic.

Well, that wraps up another edition of the AOM Podcast. Make sure to check out our website at where you’ll find our podcast archives, as well as thousands of articles that we’ve written over the years about pretty much anything you think of. And if you haven’t done so already, I’d appreciate if you take one minute to give us a review on Apple Podcasts or Spotify, it helps out a lot. And if you’ve done that already, thank you. Please consider sharing the show with a friend or family member who you think would get something out of it. As always, thank you for the continued support. And until next time, this is Brett McKay reminding you to not only listen to the AOM podcast, but put what you’ve heard into action.

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