Pointers on developing good leadership skills

As we consider the necessary attributes of a leader who is capable of inspiring, there are a trio of fundamental characteristics that are v...

As we consider the necessary attributes of a leader who is capable of inspiring, there are a trio of fundamental characteristics that are vital in order to make inspiration come to life. These attributes are the cornerstone of what it takes to inspire and motivate others.
  1. Role model
  2. Change champion
  3. Initiator
Before we dive into what these attributes mean and why they have such an impact, it is worth noting why we have separated them from the remaining characteristics. The reason? They are broad attributes or good leadership qualities, not specific behaviors that the leader practices. They create the foundation for all of the other attributes that are important in motivating and inspiring others. In short, these attributes have a pervasive quality that makes them stand apart because they play into so many different areas of good leadership characteristics and are not defined by a singular area of competence.

Because they are broad, they do not simply represent something that you go and do. And that is another reason that these three are set apart from the rest. They represent a pattern of actions that form other people’s impression of who you are. Additionally, as we analyzed the written comments contained in the 360-degree assessments on tens of thousands of leaders and began to group them into categories, a pattern began to emerge that pointed to these three attributes being the broad attributes that separate those who inspire and those who do not.

We’ve discovered that if you ask people what behavior on the part of a leader inspires them, it is not an easy question to answer. Yet if you press someone to answer this question, the answers will often fall into one of these three categories. So what are they? Are they roles? Are they functions? Are they patterns of behavior? Are they the glue that holds other behaviors together? Or are they the medium in which other behaviors grow? Whatever they are, we do know this for certain: they are highly correlated with inspiration, and we could not ignore them.

We’ll call them attributes, and in this chapter we’ll explore what they mean in practical terms, examine why they may be so highly correlated with inspiration, and provide some practical suggestions for how people can get better at them.

Sometimes a metaphor or model helps us to both understand and remember such a concept. As we noted earlier in the blog, there are many factors that contribute to a leader’s excelling, yet it seems clear that inspiration is what gives good leadership characteristics list its energy. That energy is stored and channeled, and it fuels inspiration. In this spirit, we submit the metaphor of a battery pack that is designed to power any device that requires an energy source possibly a camera or a flashlight. This battery pack holds several individual batteries. It aligns the batteries’ polarity, connects them, and enables them to deliver their power to the device. The three attributes listed earlier in this chapter are akin to the battery pack container, into which are inserted several batteries. The battery pack, in our metaphor, represents the leader’s willingness to be a role model and example for others, to push for constant change and improvement, and finally to continually take the initiative to make good things happen.

The use of emotions becomes the “on–off” switch on the battery pack. The attributes we have described are the container for specific good leadership skills and behaviors leaders can use. The leader now inserts one or more of six batteries (behaviors) into the overall battery pack. The more power the battery pack can produce, the more the leader is able to inspire and motivate.

The batteries are:
1. Setting stretch goals
2. Creating vision and direction
3. Communicating powerfully
4. Developing people
5. Being collaborative and a good team player
6. Fostering innovation

Which batteries get used at any one time doesn’t make much difference, although our research indicates that having more battery power creates greater energy for inspiration. There are many useful combinations in which several batteries combine their energy to make good things happen. While the six behaviors just noted are in descending order of statistical significance in their linkage to “inspiring and motivating to high performance,” the statistical variances of their impact are not huge. The choice of which to use depends on which appears to be most needed and the leader’s level of comfort in using it. What’s more, the amount to which these batteries can be used seems to have no limit (in fact, more use often supports more use), so they provide an energy source for good leadership skills that is renewable. First, on to the battery pack the container for this renewable source of good leadership skills energy.


How do people learn how to behave? How does a child learn the acceptable ways to eat a meal? To interact on the playground? To get dressed in the morning? Or how does a newly hired intern learn how to behave in a corporate meeting? Or how does a new manager learn about the culture of the organization she is joining?

The most powerful and useful explanation has been labeled “social learning theory” or “behavior modeling.” The point is simply that we learn the most by watching what others do and then imitating that behavior. While that may happen with greatest frequency in our growing-up years, it continues through life.

What Our Research Showed

The most effective leaders were excellent role models. Simply put, they exemplified what the organization stood for and how it wanted people to behave. Indeed, some have theorized that the people chosen for leadership roles are those who have good leadership skills and who best epitomize the characteristics that are most valued by the organization. They are sensitive to the fact that how they behave will be watched by others, and that this, in turn, will directly shape the behavior of their subordinates. These individuals were willing to discipline their own behavior so that they became excellent examples of what the organization stands for, believes in, and rewards.

Much has been said about why people leave organizations. The cliché has emerged that people don’t quit the company, they quit their boss. Our research confirms that the boss has an enormous impact on how people behave and whether they stay or leave the organization. In addition, the example the boss sets has a tremendous impact on the level of enthusiasm and motivation of the entire work group.

Ponder for a moment how far-reaching the leader’s example becomes. By simple deeds and words, enormously important messages are conveyed. For example, the boss’s
  • Pace sets the rhythm for the entire organization
  • Working hours become the accepted pattern of work
  • Use of company resources sets the acceptable standard
  • Interaction with team members and others establishes a cultural norm
  • Use of alcohol at company functions sets the accepted practice
  • Focus on specific issues or opportunities becomes the focus of the organization
  • Willingness to own up to mistakes sets the pattern for the entire organization’s willingness to be accountable
In short, there is no limit to the far-reaching impact of the leader’s example on the overall behavior of the organization.

To demonstrate the impact of being a positive role model, we examined ratings from 34,098 employees. The employees rated the effectiveness of their immediate manager at being a role model. We then analyzed the level of employee commitment for each of those employees. Figure 5-1 shows the results.

As the study demonstrates, employees who felt that their manager needed significant improvement in being a role model responded only 41 percent positively on the commitment index, while those who felt that their leader was a positive role model and had a significant strength in that area responded 88 percent positively to the commitment index. There is a substantial negative impact when leaders fail to walk their talk and a positive impact for those who act as role models.

good leadership skills

Do as I Say, Not as I Do

Consider the negative impact of a “do as I say, not as I do” kind of leader. What kind of effect does this leader have on the team that he is responsible for? In most cases, people eventually grow tired of the double standards these leaders live by and cease to be willing to give all they can for such leaders. Our research on this topic indicated that there is a stark difference between the results achieved by leaders who are great role models for the company and exemplify the behaviors that are of greatest value to the organization and those achieved by leaders who are not. When we study employee engagement, it is clear that those leaders who received high rankings in the areas of “Can always be counted on to follow through on commitments” and “Works hard to ‘walk the talk’ and avoids saying one thing and doing another” were able to drive significantly higher levels of engagement and commitment from those who they led.

These data sets illustrate just how powerful the impact of a great role model is on two important indexes. In terms of both employee retention and creating an environment that drives maximum productivity, role modeling is one of the essentials for leaders to inspire and motivate. There are several reasons why that is.

Role Models Cause Organizational Behaviors to Proliferate

Have you ever worked with certain people and thought to yourself, “I’d like to be like them”? Perhaps you felt this way not about every aspect of these people’s lives, but about traits that you admired or saw as beneficial or desirable. Most of us have had this experience, whether the people involved were our managers, other leaders, peers, or even those outside of work. When someone is an effective role model, it inspires people to behave in a way consistent with the way that person leads or behaves and has a powerful implication; role models of traits or behaviors cause those leadership traits to proliferate within organizations.

In our earlier research for The Extraordinary Leader, which identified the 16 competencies that differentiated the best and the worst leaders, one of the competencies that emerged as a critical strength from which all others flowed was character. While a thorough discussion of character is outside the scope of this book, displaying strong character is closely aligned with being a compelling role model who propels people to greater levels of achievement. Leaders inspire others by doing what they say they will do, demonstrating conviction in a course of action, and exemplifying the behaviors that they want emulated with a “do as I do” approach.

Another reason this becomes so vital is that people who are led by a good role model are willing to put forth incredible amounts of effort. One of the reasons for this extra effort or intensified commitment is often that people do not want to let the leader down. When leaders are able to instill this feeling in the people whom they are responsible for, there are typically much higher levels of productivity and commitment.

In his first job, one of the authors worked for a small not-for-profit organization. The executive director of the organization had created a terrific culture that was rigorously focused on performance. The people in the organization would routinely work evenings and weekends, not only out of commitment to the organization’s cause, but because they so respected the leader that they would do anything in their power not to let him down. The executive director was a classic role model of the type of leader the young staff members wanted to emulate, and as a result, he was able to drive high levels of performance.

One of the statements we ask people to rate in our 360-degree feedback instruments is, “My work environment is a place where people want to go the extra mile,” and the results are constant in each of the hundreds of data sets we review each year. The highest levels of commitment go hand in hand with leaders who perform at the highest levels of being an effective role model and setting a good example. This is an indisputable driver of employee engagement and organizational performance.

Developing good leadership skills

1. Lead through example. The first step in becoming an outstanding role model is deciding that you will see that your personal behavior conforms to everything you want other people to do. As we mentioned earlier, some leaders believe it is possible to have a double standard that says, “Do what I say, but pay no attention to what I do.” But that seldom works. People invariably pay most attention to what the leader does, and their behavior moves in that direction.

The essence of being a sound role model is simple. The leader basically communicates, “Do anything you see me doing.” This standard puts pressure on the leader. Every day in every way, the leader is serving as an example for others to follow. This represents a major commitment. But the reality is that others in the organization will follow the leader’s example, regardless of the decision that the leader makes. Inspiration and motivation come when the leader’s behavior is in complete alignment with what the organization espouses.

2. Maximize exposure. If a leader is a good role model, and if the leader’s behavior is consistent with the organization’s values, there is great benefit to increasing the exposure of the people in the organization to the leader.

What are some of the ways to increase that exposure? “All hands” meetings. These meetings provide the opportunity for everyone to interact with the leader. Such meetings have the potential to inspire and motivate large numbers of employees as they hear important messages firsthand from the leader.

MBWA. Management by walking around was a popular idea in the 1990s that isn’t talked about much in today’s world. But the idea of the leader’s getting out of the office and connecting with people at their workplace is still a powerful, useful idea. Many important messages are conveyed by the simple act of the leader’s taking the time to drop by and show interest in others.

Visits to remote locations. In today’s organizations, the workforce is seldom under one roof, or even on the same campus. Increasingly there are satellite offices, small research teams scattered around the globe, and highly dispersed manufacturing or service groups. People who work there often feel isolated from the parent organization. Visits from senior leaders have a strongly motivational impact, depending on the leader’s nature and behavior.

Recounting stories. How is a strong culture created and disseminated inside an organization? Alan Wilkins, while conducting research at Stanford University, determined that it was stories told by the leaders that created and shaped culture.

One of the hallmarks of HP’s culture was informality that they believed helped to increase leadership communication between levels of the organization. An oft repeated story has David Packard meeting a new employee who addresses him as “Mr. Packard.” Seemingly without hesitation, Packard said to the employee, “My father is often referred to as Mr. Packard, but I’d prefer that you call me ‘Dave.’” That story, with some variations, was used to drive home the point about the importance of informality at HP.

3. Selectively model behaviors that need to be emphasized in the organization. Many leaders lament the lack of accountability that exists in their organization. People fail to own up to the mistakes that they make and to readily acknowledge their personal role in some of the things that go wrong inside a department.

4. Seek feedback regarding inconsistencies between a leader’s behavior and the espoused values of the organization. The highest expression of a leader’s taking the position of role model seriously is the leader’s eagerness to ensure that there are no disconnects between the important signals the leader wants to send and how people are interpreting the leader’s daily behavior.

One great value from leaders obtaining 360-degree feedback from peers, direct reports, and their boss is that they become aware of those places where the disconnect comes as a surprise to them. A bank executive with whom we work is a prime example of an executive who doesn’t just accept feedback, but willingly seeks it out because he sees the huge payoffs it produces. He went so far as to have his wife complete the 360-degree process for him, because she attended many company functions with him and he thought her perspective would be valuable. While many executives seek to shrink the number and variety of people providing feedback to them, he went in exactly the opposite direction.


It has been well chronicled that one of the main contrasts between good leadership skills and management is the leader’s role in implementing change. If a leader is going to truly inspire others, then the ability to motivate a change of some kind is a key ingredient. Not much inspiration or motivation is needed to maintain the status quo or simply plod along. All progress demands change, yet we know that if people are uncertain about the impact of a change on them personally, there is a high likelihood that some of them will resist the change. And it goes without saying that if people perceive the change as having a detrimental effect on them, they will most certainly resist it. So the leader who is responsible for new directions and strategy, growth, adapting to competition, or any other shift must be able to propel and sustain change effectively.

Of course, change always has its resistance and skeptics, and there are often more than leaders think. The prevailing attitudes toward many changes in organizations today, be they explicit or implied, is captured in the popular 1990s Saturday Night Live sketch “Lothar of the Hill People,” where comedian Mike Myers comments on a change proposed by a fellow tribesman, “It is a good idea, but it is a new idea, and since it is new we fear it, and since we fear it we must reject it.” These common attitudes about change require leadership development programs to develop strength in leading change if she is to be successful in moving any operation forward.

There are many models for change, and next to good leadership skills, there are few topics that have been more written about in the last decade. Regardless of the model for change du jour, there are several competencies that a leader must display if she is to inspire and motivate others to produce a positive, intentional change. It is worth noting that not every change effort will necessarily require a leader to be a champion of change. A change in strategic direction or a central process improvement is a far different effort from a change that affects a simple administrative policy. Some changes simply need to be clarified and enforced. For our purposes of exploring how the best leaders drive change, we are specifically considering issues that are of significance.

When we examined and analyzed those leaders who were profoundly strong in the area of creating and driving change, we saw a unique ability to energize others whom they worked with and to rally support for a cause that was uncommon in their peer group. Those leaders’ ability to create compelling cases for change and to communicate to others how a change would positively affect them were some of the obvious differentiators of success. In our research, we were able to isolate the factors that were at the intersection for those leaders who were exceptionally inspiring and able to produce change. In doing this, we were able to easily see how affecting change had such a significant impact on the ability of a leader to inspire.

1. Persuasion is at the heart of the matter. One of the key behaviors needed for a leader to be an effective champion of change is the ability to persuade. This is not based on pushing, cajoling, or even begging (though some less effective leaders rely on these tactics to persuade). Rather, it is based on the leader’s ability to relate to others and understand what fears or doubts people have regarding a specific change. Leaders must be able to understand those fears and articulate an intended change in such a way that the majority of the people affected will be convinced of the need for change. There is a commonly held belief that in order to do this well, a leader must create a sense of urgency. While this may in fact be true in some cases, leaders have to be careful with this.

One of the authors worked with a senior executive who had read a book on change management and decided that for every change implemented in the company, the
first step was that urgency had to be created. In every change effort, the first part of the implementation was to create urgency about the change. The first three or four times it worked. After that, the urgency was viewed as theatrics, and by the time the company was working to create urgency around even the simplest of changes, it became trite and ineffective.

Most of the time leaders persuade by providing clarity on the topics of (1) why this change, (2) why now, and (3) why in this manner. This, coupled with your conviction and the other key behaviors leaders use to drive change, will be plenty persuasive.

2. It’s the results of the change that matter. Of the hundreds of organizations we work with each year, we never see any of them invest in a change effort, whether it is a new strategy, a process improvement, or the launch of an initiative, because it is fun or because they just feel that they should. There is most frequently a clear line of sight between the change that is being undertaken and a clear desired end result that the organization will achieve by making this shift. Having an outcomes orientation helps a change champion maintain a balanced focus on the results being achieved and on how the organization is making the change. As much as we try to avoid overreferencing sports on the topics of motivation and inspiration, there is an apropos saying among coaches, “Nothing brings a team together like winning.” Driving for and achieving results together is motivating and inspiring for all who are active participants, and this is particularly true when undertaking a major challenge, which many change efforts are. Inspirational leaders provide energy and passion about the achievement of goals and milestones, which instills pride and commitment in people. This builds on itself over time and becomes part of a culture of achievement that the leader can create, with an eye on the results of any change effort.

3. Recognize those who made it happen and they will do it again. As we discuss the results achieved through a change effort, it is worth noting that we are not simply talking about the final outcomes achieved. In some cases, that may take years. Leaders who are powerful champions of change are able to recognize the key milestones along the path of any change effort and take a moment to pause and recognize those who made the change happen. This is vital because a tremendous part of making a change effort work through other people and inspiring them to sustain performance is making sure that they know—and that the entire organization knows—the value of their contribution. This recognition, be it verbal, written, monetary, or some other type of acknowledgment, not only begins to cement the importance of new approaches and success, but reinforces the actions or outcomes that an organization seeks. And, of course, that is the first step in replicating success and driving a change effort to fruition.


If good leadership skills has a hallmark, it is in the role of the initiator. Right or wrong, well executed or not, with or without an effectively managed team, nothing says leader like being the initiator. The energy and driving force behind any movement requires a catalyst, and in the role of initiator, a leader has the responsibility to “get the ball rolling.” This important element of good leadership skills is at the core of what it means to be an extraordinary leader. The best leaders are those who become the cause (even subtly) of a direction or event. They do not wait for others to choose a path, or allow inaction to make a choice for them. Invariably, one of the responsibilities of a leader is to look beyond the horizon to see issues and opportunities emerging and anticipate the appropriate actions. Taking the initiative and doing something is what unlocks the power of that strategic perspective. These are the leaders who get out in front and make things happen. In our research on extraordinary leaders, when we examined the typical characteristics of leaders who were in the bottom 10 percent or who possessed what we termed a “fatal flaw,” the main issues surrounding them were related to the theme of not taking enough initiative.

As we have described earlier about the ways in which inspired colleagues behave, one of those characteristics was that they take the initiative because they do not think of themselves as hired hands, but rather as owners of the business. That behavior, of course, does not just happen—it is modeled and inspired by a leader who is mindful about being the initiator and creating an environment in which taking the initiative is part of the culture and rewarded. The leader as initiator assumes responsibility and is intentional about the decisions that are made and the directions that are chosen.

It Takes More Energy to Start

Sir Isaac Newton studied the movement of objects and formulated his conclusions into laws. The first one was: an object that is at rest will not move until a net force acts upon it.

We’re all familiar with the principle and reality of inertia. We’ve learned that if we have a cup that is full to the brim with any liquid, we’re likely to spill it when we start moving. The water wants to stay where it was. We’re also prone to spill it when we stop moving or if we change the direction in which we’re moving. The liquid wants to keep moving in the same direction and at the same pace that it had been moving. We’ve also learned that it takes a lot more energy to get something that has been standing still to start to move. While Newton discovered the formula to describe that, we’ve all had practical experience that teaches us that reality.

In many high-efficiency hybrid vehicles, there is a display that shows the miles per gallon based on the current speed of the vehicle. A quick observation of this display reveals that in going from a dead stop to 35 miles per hour, the miles per gallon gauge settles in at around 25 miles per gallon. Once the vehicle is traveling at 35 miles per hour, however, the miles per gallon gauge quickly adjusts to 50 miles per gallon. It becomes obvious that the amount of energy required to get an object moving is greater than the amount of energy required to keep that object moving. This same principle seems to apply to humans taking the initiative. It takes a lot of energy to get things started. Everyone knows that it is much easier to coast than to start. In order for people to take the initiative, they need to have enough energy in terms of both time and motivation to take on something new, and they need to be willing to expend that energy. Leaders who take the initiative believe that they are responsible for getting things started.

When individuals take the initiative, they may be punished for stepping outside of standard practices. Organizations often reward following rather than taking a different path. Many people who take the initiative and fail learn the lesson that it is often better to sit back, go with the flow, and let other people volunteer.

Why Taking the Initiative Is So Inspiring

After looking at data showing the correlation between employee commitment and good leadership skills and behaviors, it has become very clear that what creates satisfaction for people at work is accomplishing challenging assignments and doing significant work. People want to make a difference. They want to accomplish something significant.

A key capability in taking on challenging assignments is taking the initiative. Examining data about the events that are the most frustrating to employees, we see a group of comments that have a common theme. Sample comments focus on work being stalled, waiting for decisions to be made, bureaucratic processes that add no value, and starting projects that get canceled. Delays, cancellations, and needless bureaucracy will make any work environment unmotivating. The one good leadership skills that can be the key to solving these kinds of organizational problems is taking the initiative. Leaders who work in organizations that have these kinds of problems sometimes feel that the best thing they can do to help people is to teach them how to cope because the organization cannot be changed. They point to initiatives in the past that have failed. One leader described it this way, “This company is like a one million pound marshmallow. If you dropped an atom bomb in it, the bomb would be swallowed up and absorbed. Perhaps the marshmallow would shake a little, but nothing would fundamentally change.” Leaders who take the initiative are willing to try. They continue to make efforts to improve. They feel that they are accountable for making something happen, and this is inspiring to other people.

Of the three attributes in this chapter, taking the initiative is sometimes one of the hardest things to do. Typically there are a variety of things that get in the way or block people from taking the initiative. Let’s look at why.

Feeling Overwhelmed Gets in the Way of Initiative

If you feel totally and completely overwhelmed, then you are not very likely to volunteer for a new assignment or find some additional piece of work that has not been done. That feeling of barely keeping your head above water or juggling 20 balls makes you worry that taking on one additional item will cause you to drown or to drop all the balls. In today’s organizations, almost everyone feels overwhelmed. Almost everyone has more to do than can be done. This is one of the side effects of flattening and downsizing organizations. While everyone is busy, there are still a few leaders who continue to take the initiative. What, then, is the difference between those who continue to take the initiative and those who feel overwhelmed?

First, feeling overwhelmed is partly an emotion (the extent to which you feel oppressed) and partly reality (the number of things you need to accomplish). Those who feel oppressed believe that the solution to being overwhelmed is to reduce the number of responsibilities or items on the to-do list. Often the problem is more about the feelings that people experience than about the size of the list. The lists will never go away, but when people feel that they are victims with no control, this will negatively affect their behavior. In a study of new mothers, researchers found that the frustration of constant child care often resulted in their stopping their planning and organization. Whenever they made a plan, the immediate needs of a new baby would often force them to cancel or reschedule that plan. After repeated experiences, many new mothers simply gave up and quit planning. If a person can change her attitude from being oppressed to being empowered, then initiative can begin.

Second, having clear priorities is critical. On every person’s list there are a few critical priorities and a large number of other issues. Leaders need to feed the critical priorities and starve or delegate the others.

Third, no one is perfect, so accomplish what you can and move on. Many people believe that they will be judged by what they don’t accomplish rather than by what they do accomplish. If you are focused on the high-priority issues and accomplish them well, that is what people will remember.

Fourth, always look for a better way. Innovation can solve many problems and improve productivity, but it also takes some initiative to be more innovative.

Fifth, the problem can be a lack of confidence. Without confidence, people tend to do only what is expected and needed. They resist taking on any additional work or volunteering for assignments. They have a tendency to sit back and let other people offer suggestions and take on difficult assignments. Leaders who lack confidence have a strong fear of failure. There are many ways in which a leader can take the initiative, but those who lack confidence get into the habit of sitting back and letting others take the lead.

How to Take More Initiative

Three factors that become preeminent when we look at the profiles of leaders who are great initiators are decisiveness, accountability, and understanding risk apart from other must haves (although less important) in how to be a good leader.


This is not simply a go-for-it mentality—boiling decisiveness down to that glib statement doesn’t do the initiator justice. Having a bias toward taking quick action is unquestionably a characteristic of initiators, since the success of many efforts depends on their being accomplished in a short time frame. However, decisiveness in the context of inspiring others goes much deeper. Leaders who are decisive about the directions they are initiating have clearly applied thoughtful strategy to the path they are advocating.

As we said, this is not just about picking a direction and going; there must be careful thought applied to the decision based on the leader’s desired outcome and knowledge of the situation. In our research, we gathered various leaders from several industries and gave them a case study concerning a major initiative. They were asked to predict the outcomes of the initiative, including any negative consequences. It was instructive to see how accurate they were in forecasting these events. The group in the case study that was responsible for the initiative had not taken the time, nor did it have the discipline, to anticipate the consequences. Chances are, had the people involved taken the time and fostered that discipline, they might have foreseen many of the problems that arose, and the outcomes of the initiative would have been far better.

Planning, organization, and strategic thought combined with an orientation toward action are essential to the leader who needs to be decisive.

There is a very strong correlation between acting quickly and being seen as taking the initiative. Think about a leader who takes a great deal of time to make a simple decision and whose slow pace frustrates everyone. Even though a decision required some initiative, the leader’s slow pace gave everyone the impression that they were resisting the decision. When leaders can move quickly, others see that as taking more initiative. Many decisions are not simple and require study, analysis, and discussion. When a leader continually communicates the progress of the decision and is seen by others as moving forward quickly, then people will judge this as taking the initiative. The leader who studies, analyzes, and discusses but never communicates his progress is often viewed as stalling or delaying.

Decisiveness happens not only in the moment that the decision is made, but in the many moments leading up to a decision in which a leader is gathering data and determining what actions are most appropriate. Doing this well facilitates good decisions as well as faster decisions with a clear sense of resolute action.


Being brave enough to be accountable for your actions is a rare quality. A large organization suffered a significant loss. The company CEO made a public statement and apologized for the loss. The divisional senior manager sent out an e-mail acknowledging the loss and that it was in his organization, and apologizing for having a negative impact on the performance of the company. The manager of the function where the loss occurred made no public statement or apology. In discussions with her peers, the manager blamed the economy, poor collaboration within the organization, and an inept supervisor but never publicly acknowledged her accountability for her actions or the problems. The reactions of other people to the functional manager were extremely negative. She was trying so hard to avoid accountability and protect her image that it had just the opposite effect.

The opposite of accountability is finger-pointing. When people try to avoid being accountable, they typically look for someone or something else to blame for their mistakes. When this becomes prevalent in an organization, the culture becomes very dysfunctional, with everyone pointing fingers at everyone else when problems arise. When leaders set the example of being accountable, it encourages others to be more accountable.


For nearly anything to be accomplished, some level of risk must be accepted. Certainly, there is always a probability that events will not turn out exactly as we expect them to. Sometimes the risk is great and at other times it is insignificant, and part of understanding risk is being able to anticipate the consequences of choices. The term calculated risk effectively captures the essence of understanding the potential for gains or consequences and making decisions based on commensurate levels of risk.

Some leaders are more risk-averse than others for a variety of reasons, and without placing a value judgment on taking risks great or small, the best leaders in the world always have to manage some level of risk in their business.

Occasionally decisions like the proverbial “bet the company on a new product” or “all or nothing” scenarios present themselves, and this is the stuff that hero or failure stories are made of. Yet most of the time, leaders are in a constant state of evaluating the risks of investments, reorganizations, strategies, and the like in order to make effective decisions for the organization. That said, what do you think inspires people to action and gets them excited about giving their all to a cause—taking some risk or playing it safe? We would submit that, based on our studies of employee engagement and the people’s desire to achieve stretch goals, the answer, while not foolish levels of risk, is absolutely not playing it safe. For this reason, understanding and taking calculated and appropriate risks in order to achieve the results desired is a critical part of inspiring others.

A quotation attributed to Abraham Lincoln states, “Tis better to be silent and be thought a fool, than to speak and remove all doubt.” This quotation captures many of the fears that leaders have about taking the initiative and the inherent risk involved. Many people believe that doing nothing does not hurt you that much, but taking risks and failing can permanently damage your career. Taking the initiative usually involves some risk. Those who take the initiative stand out. It is true that some organizations have little tolerance for failure. Many people who are afraid of failure get into a mode of avoiding all potential risk rather than carefully choosing those risk opportunities where the rewards are high and the potential for failure is low. Those who are effective at taking risks often set up clear expectations with others before they take on difficult assignments. For example, they spend the time to let everyone know the potential risks, they help managers know the probability of success, and they look for ways to mitigate negative side effects. When everyone has the appropriate expectations, then failure does not look that bad and success looks incredible.



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Thought Leadership Zen: Pointers on developing good leadership skills
Pointers on developing good leadership skills
Thought Leadership Zen
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