If you're looking for exceptional stocks, then I have good news for you. At the end of the day, there's only one thing that really matters.

Now, here's the bad news. That one thing is highly subjective and impossible to quantify.

If you're familiar with Jim Collins' work -- most commonly found in his books Good to Great and Built to Last -- then you know what I'm referring to.

After conducting years of research into what catapults a company's stock ahead of both the S&P 500 (SNPINDEX:^GSPC) and its closest competitors, Collins concluded -- reluctantly, I might add -- that leadership was the key.

More specifically, he found that the companies with the best return to shareholders over extended time periods almost all had humble leaders with "intense professional will."

None of them reveled in their own magnificence or cultivated personality cults.

None of them handicapped successors in order to secure their own position.

And, critically, all of them subjugated personal interests to those of the company. That is, they took their fiduciary duties seriously.

At this point, you'd be excused for concluding that this is extremely unhelpful information. Even assuming it's true, how could it be applied to produce better results for your portfolio?

But -- and this is critical -- this question misses the point.

If Collins' findings are true, and I have a tendency to believe that they are, then we can safely say that there is a direct link -- I repeat, a direct link -- between the quality of a company's management and its ability to outperform both its competitors and the broader market.

Given this scenario, most enterprising investors wouldn't want the analysis of what makes a management team great to be easy. If it were a walk in the park, everybody would have already figured it out and nullified the advantage.

This is one of the reasons that so few investors beat the market; it's downright hard to do.

But for those of you with the behavioral and disciplined fortitude to do so, make no mistake about it: An analysis of various companies' leadership teams is unquestionably the place to start, if not finish as well.

John Maxfield and The Motley Fool have no position in any of the stocks mentioned. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools don't all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.