For years I wondered why some ordinary people consistently had extraordinary opportunity and why many extraordinary people languished in a kind of invisible frustration.

I was recently doing a private review of clients and projects I’ve been involved with over the past three decades. I was trying to identify what people consistently thought and did who achieved the amazing versus many talented people and organizations that underachieved.

I used a personal filter measuring winning not only in the public sense of growing a healthy enterprise or distinguished successes in art and science, but I also looked at private success. Success with family, relationships and a capacity for joy and contentment. Once I got my list I examined the most recent research on personality and habits correlated with high and admirable achievement. It looks like my life experience and recent research agree on the most important drivers of admirable success. Let me boil it down to four things.

1. People I most admire are… Optimistic realists.

I’ve worked with my share of dreamers and so-called visionaries. They constantly leap from one big idea to the next while positive realists nearly always see the opportunity of sustaining their efforts through setbacks and boredom. Creative persistence is the key. It requires neither doing the same thing over and over nor jumping ship before the sails unfurl. Instead, it is a constant energetic process of evolution that enables you to become great over time.

2. People I most admire practice… Practical Empathy.

There are four ways of seeing others, and I have seen all these ways up close, causing either disappointment or success. At one extreme is the self-interested bully. They just demand what they want. Right next to them is the charming narcissist. These people act like they care but only to manipulate you. Lots of powerful people are bullies or charming narcissists, just none I admire.

At the other end are people who are emotionally empathetic. They literally feel what others feel. They make good friends, but it’s hard for them to build enterprises. They often mistake a person’s potential for their performance. They wait too long to make hard decisions. They are usually bound in a web of competing commitments and they hate to say no. I know this type very well because it’s most like me. The most effective place to be on the empathy scale is the mid-range. I call it practical empathy. Walt Disney had it. Howard Schultz has it. So do most other big scale leaders that we have good reason to admire.

Practical empathy enables you to understand the needs, desires, and problems of others without letting emotion cloud your judgment or prevent you from making tough choices. Practical empathy is very rare, I found. Most of us either don’t really care or care too much. Practical empathy is what enables a person to take a small opportunity and grow it into something big.

3. The people I most admire have… Hungry Humility.

By hungry humility I mean a desire to learn that overwhelms any need to be right. Rare?… you bet. Power and success annihilate humility in most of us.

4. Finally, the people I most admire are driven by one guiding principle… Moral Ambition.

This is the persistent desire to create honest-to-goodness value for other human beings. I find of course, no one is perfect, but there are some that are striving to be better at doing better. I know a great CEO-owner of a large scale imprinted t-shirt and sports uniform business who brims with moral ambition. It shows up in how he treats, pays, and educates his hourly workforce. It also shows in his commitment to sustainability and the environment.

I see persistent moral ambition at Nike to create a “Better World” by inventing sustainable materials and manufacturing and most especially by training thousands of young women athletes in emerging countries to build their confidence. I see moral ambition at Clif Bar that bakes genuinely healthy energy bars and believes employee’s lives’ are as important as their work. I could go on.

I know many successful leaders with moral ambition because I seek them out. Creating value for humanity is not an afterthought. It is their core business strategy. Yes, moral ambition is at the root of the greatest people I know. Not just leaders but of all the people I’ve come to admire.

When moral ambition is channeled and released through optimistic realism, practical empathy, and hungry humility it becomes a force. A powerful, unstoppable force. It all begins with asking yourself “what am I trying to accomplish… is this the best I can do?” So the question I ask of people that want to achieve something great is this…

“When you get up in the morning do you look in a mirror or through a window?”