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When Julia Tang Peters' father moved his family to the United States from Taiwan in 1949, after Mao Zedung declared victory, he gave everyone a new name. The children all took names beginning with "J" – Jean, Jane, John, Julia. But her father's new name started with "C," Christopher, after Christopher Columbus, because they were starting a life in the new world.

Perhaps fittingly, after that massive pivot point in her family's life, Ms. Tang Peters found herself uncovering the importance of pivot points in people's careers. The Chicago-based executive coach conducted extensive interviews with five people who had built highly successful companies in separate industries. Their career patterns suggest five important decisions that every successful leader must make.

"Pivot points can be triggered by a crisis, external events, personal restlessness or drive. Whether internal or external, a sense is created that 'I have to do things radically different,'" she said in an interview. "It was because of those decisions they could make great leaps in terms of their life and in achieving business goals."

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This finding differs from much of the current leadership literature, which focuses on traits – the characteristics leaders need. Instead, to be successful, Ms. Tang Peters says, you must make certain decisions at critical junctures:

1. Launching point

This is the commitment to master a specialized skill and do more than your job. It is in line with journalist Malcolm Gladwell's thesis that it takes 10,000 hours to achieve mastery of a certain skill. The pivot point happens when something galvanizes you to move out of your comfort zone.

2. Turning point

The leaders Ms. Tang Peters studied decided to embark on a bold, new direction – building a business after acting on an important opportunity or problem they encountered. The turning point tests your capabilities and capacity, requiring total dedication.

3. Tipping point

At this stage, the individuals had to accept significant risk to break through a fundamental barrier with their business. The success they had already achieved, and the team they had built, allowed them to fully express their business vision, leadership values and talents. It's an act of leadership, not just of management.

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4. Recommitment

Looking back on everything they had achieved, the leaders she studied, now in their 40s or 50s, each hit a moment when they had to renew their commitment or leave. In some cases, this was about taking the company further, but mostly it was about recommitting to their own sense of purpose.

5. Letting go

This is the point when the leader decides to plan for succession or considers moving on to take up another challenge. "The ultimate test of leadership is letting go at a time of strength, so others can carry on the work," Ms. Tang Peters writes in her book, Pivot Points.

Interviewing five leaders, no matter how thoroughly, is a very thin sample, so she surveyed 500 adults to see whether pivot points occurred in most people's careers. She found that 78 per cent had made at least one such decision, with launching and turning points the most common, not unexpectedly since those usually occur early in a career.

Most launching point decisions come when people are in their 20s or early 30s, she found. Turning point decisions peak between the ages of 35 to 44; tipping points occur from 35 to 54; recommitments tend to strike at 45 to 54; and letting go is strongest from 55 to 65.

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To probe further, Ms. Tang Peters decided to determine which behaviours drive successful leadership. She settled on two differentiating factors: accountability, because the people she interviewed all held themselves responsible for making something happen; and ingenuity – not just smarts, but the ability to come up with new solutions and grand visions.

In her schema, she labels those who lack both qualities "clock punchers" who don't help to move the organization ahead – and she warns that many clock punchers are at senior levels.

Those with high accountability but who are entrenched in the status quo are called "managers," while those with great ingenuity but low accountability are deemed "wanderers," not accomplishing much.

Ms. Tang Peters considers those with both strong accountability and ingenuity as being true leaders.

"I have worked with organizations where the big mistake was mistaking new CEOs who were wanderers, for leaders. Two or three years later, nothing happened," she said in an interview.

Together, the five pivot points can prepare you for important stages of your career – she considers them five chances to grow as a leader – and the distinguishing factors of accountability and ingenuity are reminders of two critical ingredients for success.

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"Don't flame out. Don't give up. Make the five pivotal decisions, one at a time, and you'll get there," she concludes.

Harvey Schachter is a Battersea, Ont.-based writer specializing in management issues. He writes Monday Morning Manager and management book reviews for the print edition of Report on Business and an online work-life column Balance. E-mail Harvey Schachter

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