Thoughts on Leadership

Bobby feels his performance is worthy of promotion after two years in his job. Today he had a conversation with his boss during his semi-annual review and brought up the topic. His boss’s response was that he has not shown the leadership expected of one ready to be promoted.

His first thought was; Leadership, I am buried in the organization, how in the world am I supposed to show leadership? So, he asked, “what should I be doing?”. The answer was not very encouraging. She told him to do the things that leaders do and be visible.

Understandably, he left her office frustrated. His thoughts: I need more specific guidance. I don’t know what she is talking about and by the way, whatever I do will not work since I am not in charge.

It is not uncommon for me to hear such stories from clients looking to progress in their careers. The question they want to be answered is: How can I lead when I am not in charge? To that I have them address two essential questions:

  1. How am I leading myself?
  2. How am I seen as a leader today?

Leaders must be comfortable with leading themselves before becoming comfortable leading others. In reality, every leader has to answer to someone. How did they get to their position? They probably demonstrated some leadership acumen prior to promotion.

Let’s transition from Bobby to you. I propose starting by writing your definition of leadership. After all, that is what you are after isn’t it? Here is mine:

“The art of positively influencing others to unite and achieve common goals”

Here is an assessment of my definition. First, leadership is an art, not a science, everyone does it differently, using their own techniques and methods. Second, it is about influencing others. Leadership is not about standing in front and giving directions; it is about being a positive influence. Lastly, it’s uniting others to accomplish a common objective. To me the most important elements of this definition are that leadership is about influence and accomplishment, not position and accomplishment. That means anyone at any level can be a leader.

What is your definition of leadership?


What are its key elements?


Congratulations. You just created a vision for your leadership. My assumption is your definition said more about motivating, inspiring, and shaping others than about your position or authority level.

Now, assess yourself to determine a realistic view of you, the leader. What are your skills, tendencies, likes/dislikes, and strengths? Measure yourself against your definition. On a scale of 1-10 grade yourself on leading yourself.

Next, how well do you meet your definition with others? How do we determine that? We ask what is it like to be on the receiving end of your leadership. We ensure you address how well you lead yourself. For me, I ask how well I influence, unite, and achieve results when leading others. Because they are the key elements of my definition. What do you need to ask?

That is the starting point. Step two, build a leadership development plan. It includes goal setting, specific skills to develop, reading to complete, and most importantly actions to take, assess, and be accountable to.

So, how do you lead when you are not in charge?

You develop your ability to influence others and use it to be a positive force to accomplish common goals as a team.

If you lead yourself well and develop your ability to influence others, you will be on the path to being a leader regardless of your level, line worker to CEO. People may listen to authority – leaders of position however, they follow leaders who are a positive influence – leaders of voice.

Be a leader of voice – a person who influences, motivates, and inspires others.

Let’s fast forward to Bobby’s conversation with his boss in six months, it may go something like this. Over the past six months we agreed what my leadership development should look like and here are the results. My definition of leadership is this: ____________. I received feedback from every team member and worked to specifically contribute to my team in this manner: __________. The results have been ___________ and you have given me additional responsibilities. I am ready to move to the next level and continue my growth.

What can you do to create a conversation like this in your future?

“Adversity does not build character it reveals it” James Lane Allen.

“Her calm leadership under incredible pressure it what made us successful today!” You have heard a statement similar to this before and maybe said it yourself. Reflect on a leader who you are familiar with: a boss, a coach, a political leader, a coworker, who successfully deals with crisis after crisis. How do they maintain their poise and steady leadership while embroiled in a situation rife with challenges, imperfect information, and severe consequences caused by their decisions?

My premise: They are not just great crisis leaders, they are great leaders because they live by and continually practice the values required to lead under duress.

Crisis leaders are decisive, selfless, focused on the mission, the good of the organization, and its people. They communicate clearly, are trusted, and have the courage to speak and stand by their convictions. They do this all the time, not only in response to a crisis. Living and practicing those values with every interaction regardless of its magnitude builds the “crisis leader” muscles.

Core values are the foundation of our being, drive our behavior, and are what is personally most important to us. In times of crisis our personal façade is torn away and our core values are bare for everyone to see. If you feel you are unable to lead in a crisis – maybe it is time to examine how you handle your daily small predicaments. Will the values “muscles” you are exercising serve you in the next major crisis you encounter?

You cannot show up on game day and expect to win without preparation!

Take 30 seconds to jot down your thoughts on what leaders do:

Now how do they do it.


I had the unique opportunity in the early 2000’s to be part of an all United States Service Academy team to draft and edit a new edition of The Armed Forces Officer. The broad purpose of the book was to get to the essence of what it means to lead as a military officer.  More narrowly how the different cultures of each service apply those broad strokes.

Guess what? Those broad strokes apply to leadership in any forum and the focus on different cultures applies directly to the corporate, educational, and the nonprofit world very well.

What do leaders do?

Leadership is a bond of trust. If trust does not exist between the leader and the led, leadership is not happening. Here are several possibilities of what is actually going on.

  • The leader is being obeyed. They are a leader of position, not of voice. A leader of voice is an individual followed because they are a voice of leadership. Respected for their expertise and approach.
  • The leader is in front of the organization but not building or leading from a place of trust. They are akin to a person jumping in front of a parade thinking they are leading it. The route was set well before they jumped in front.
  • The leader is followed out of shear curiosity. “What will she do next? This should be entertaining!”

Leaders build trust!

As you know trust does not develop overnight. It takes time and consistency. How do they do it? By executing four very clear steps.

  • Leaders set the example
  • Leaders set and enforce the standard
  • Leaders build and sustain morale
  • Leaders exhibit moral and physical courage

A few thoughts on each element.

Set the example

Leaders who are exemplars of the expectations of subordinates build credibility. Being an exemplar does not entail doing the job of subordinates. It entails demonstrating the expectations such as; being on time for meetings, professionalism, attention to detail, treating everyone with respect, admitting mistakes, being transparent, and living by the vision, mission, and values of the organization. Credible leaders set an airtight example for others to follow.

Set and enforce the standards

Setting the standard is easy, the enforcement proves difficult for many or at least uncomfortable. Why is this so difficult? The feedback from inexperienced leaders is the accountability discussion feels like you are being mean or I don’t want to be confrontational. There is nothing mean or confrontational about it. You communicated your expectations, set performance metrics, and standards of professional behavior. You are doing your job, they are not.

The reaction from experienced leaders is that not holding individuals to the standards, only lowers the standards. Worse yet is being inconsistent with accountability. Holding one group/individual to a standard and not another erodes your credibility. Your audio must match the video, if you state you will ensure individuals meet the standard then do it and be consistent.  Otherwise you will be sowing seeds for low performance, low respect, discontent, and a cynical culture.

Set and enforce the standard and you will likely have the performance and respect you expect. Of course, how you enforce the standard has an impact. Accountability can be calm and professional.

Build and Sustain Morale

If you are the leader you own everything under your umbrella; cost, schedule, and performance. Part of performance is morale. Think of the best boss you ever worked for. What did that leader do for you and those around you? Working in an engaging environment that gets the best out of everyone is infectious and attracts talent. This does not have to be ping pong tables and happy hours. What are you doing to first, understand the current state of morale in your organization is and second, to positively build it and sustain it?

Exhibit Moral and Physical Courage

The physical courage clearly comes from the military aspects of my source however, in some lines of work it fits. Law enforcement and first responders come to mind immediately. If you lead individuals who you send into harm’s way, you better be able to do what you ask of them. You know it if it applies.

Moral courage fits every leader. But what is it? Let’s call it the ability to stand up to moral wrongs and make the hard decisions. It often feels like sticking up for the little guy, an injustice, or speaking truth to power. Some examples: calling out unethical behavior particularly the behavior of seniors, going to bat for an individual who is being treated poorly, putting a career/promotion at risk by speaking the truth, or backing an unpopular position because you believe it is right.

Put in your mind’s eye two pictures. The first, the finest example of consist morale courage in the workplace you have witnessed. How do you feel about that individual?

The second picture, the most egregious example of a moral coward. The individual who always acquiesced to the bosses’ position, rarely took a stand on issues important to the organization, and would allow other individuals to task your organization without any intervention or involvement.

Put those pictures next to each other and assess how you feel about them. Nothing more needs to be said.

Leadership is a bond of trust – without trust there is no leadership

How do you build that trust?

  • You set the example
  • You set and enforce the standard
  • You build and sustain morale
  • You exhibit physical and morale courage

On a scale of one to ten assess how you are doing in each area. Set an improvement goal and take an action to make progress. You will be rewarded with the trust and confidence of those you work with.

Did you enjoy working through this leadership tool?  Check out another leadership blog post here.

In the business world you hear constant talk of differentiating yourself and your business. How to differentiate yourself is not hard. If you are a leader you outperform your peers. If your company has a culture of leadership you will out perform your competition.

What is hard is being a leader and creating a leadership culture. What does it take? It takes starting with a solid foundation:

  1. Establishing your vision
  2. A ruthless assessment of where you are today
  3. The soul searching process of validating your values
  4. Taking consistent disciplined actions to live by and run your organization aligned with your values

Easier said than done. Do you know of any individuals or organizations that articulate and consistently live by their values? If you do, I will venture that they are high performing trusted individuals and organizations and seen as leaders.

What actions are you taking to develop yourself as a leader and develop a leadership culture for your organization? If your actions are not based on the foundation of values what is the foundation? Set a solid foundation for your actions otherwise you are destined to be in the middle of pack – just ordinary.

Leadership differentiates you and your organization from the ordinary.

You have the experience, the technical expertise, and are accountable for your people and the results of the organization. Are you fulfilling the responsibilities of the leader?

Reflect on the following:

Do you feel your responsibility as a leader? To reach a leadership position you must have a number of prerequisite skills and experiences. But to truly be a leader you must feel the responsibility of your position. Military leaders readily talk about how they feel the responsibility of keeping their charges safe. Business owners clearly feel the internal pull their responsibilities have on them. Until you feel that strain – you are not a leader you are merely in a leadership position.

Take the perspective of a subordinate; ever observe a leader who did not feel the responsibility of leadership? Put that picture in your mind and recall what it looked like. Did they truly care about the critical issues? Did they resolve challenges no matter the personal cost, or were they able to walk away with the intent to resolve it later. The responsibility of leadership is a selflessness that puts others and the mission before self.

Leaders carry the burden of responsibility and can feel its gravity. Good leaders do not buckle under the load, but shoulder it without complaint. How does your leadership responsibility feel and look? Do others see the responsibility of leadership on your face? Should they?

Do you take action on your responsibilities? At times the burden of responsibility can be paralyzing. The information is not perfect and the results not always positive, however being responsible requires taking action. Sometimes your action may be incrementally small, while other times grave and drastic. Nonetheless, action is required, based on the reality of your situation and your position as a leader. Action establishes your credibility as a leader. Fail to act and you undermine your credibility. How do you act on your responsibilities?

Do you own your responsibilities?  You alone are responsible for your decisions, actions, and inactions as a leader. Ever experience a leader who would not take responsibility for their own decisions or lack thereof? How do your subordinates talk about you in this area? Respect is garnered by taking responsibility.

There are many facets of being a leader, with few being more important than accepting and acting on the responsibilities of leadership. How did you do with this short reflection? If you don’t feel the weight of your leadership responsibilities, if you don’t act on them, and own them, you are not a leader. You are merely standing in front of a group.


On this Martin Luther King Day it is good to reflect on those who had an impact on you.

Is there a mentor that has affected your development as a leader? If you are a true leader you likely have had at least one. It is also likely that your mentor provided guidance, advice, and an example for you through a close comfortable relationship.

Now reflect on the individual that has had the most profound impact on your growth as a leader.

  • Was that a close comfortable relationship?
  • Were their words always encouraging?
  • Did the individual present challenges, conflict, and push you to struggle?

If your definition of a mentor is one who fosters your growth as a leader, look around and you may find some atypical mentors pushing you to new heights. Whether the relationship is close and comfortable or formal and edgy, accept the lessons they provide and thank them.


Leadership Reflection: Where are you going?

Create a vision of your future self as a leader one year from today.

  • Describe your future self in terms of leadership capacity, skills, and knowledge.
  • Will your current path get you there?

Ryan Lotche is the latest high-profile victim of poor decision making or more simply “himself”. One night of bad decisions influenced by one, or a combination of the three elements – sex, alcohol, and/or “after midnight.” derailed his success story. Rather than celebrating his Olympic successes that he worked daily over the course of years to achieve, he is dealing with the fallout of one night lying on camera, embarrassing the United States, and losing endorsements.

Of course there are other missteps such as greed and power that bring down leaders. However, those elements have a more premeditated and long-term process of destruction. What I am referring to here are individuals who in one night precipitate their world crashing down around them. The disaster is preventable and caused solely from decisions that were made after midnight, and influenced by sex and/or alcohol.

I contend that an individual not only has the potential to have their judgment clouded by sex, alcohol, and after midnight, but as you combine the elements the risks increase exponentially. My evidence is purely anecdotal however; you may have anecdotes that also support my point. Think of several people you know that had a good thing going such as a career, family, relationship, or business venture derailed by a one-time event. What were the causal factors? Were sex, alcohol, and a decision “after midnight” part of the equation?

To be clear here are my definitions to fit the context:

  • Sex: merely the act of pursuing the opposite sex qualifies as sex in this context
  • Alcohol: being under the influence and over the legal limit to drive
  • After midnight: making decisions after 2400 hours local time

Lets look at an example: It is Friday afternoon and the group you lead decides to have an impromptu celebration. Your announcement that the company was awarded the contract that consumed the team for two weeks was greeted with cheers. The celebration starts at happy hour, the drinks flow and everyone is having a good time. Those that try to leave get pressured to stay for dinner. There is plenty of wine and toasting at dinner and as dinner ends the group starts coming up with ideas for what is next that night. It’s getting late, many have had too much to drink, and someone says: “Let’s go across the street to that bar with the band and dance floor.”

Have a picture in your mind? What happens next is up to your imagination or experience. Some possibilities:

  • Nothing negative occurs everything works out fine.
  • A drunken coworker gets in their car and drives home.
  • Someone says something to a coworker that is inappropriate.
  • Someone misses an event with a significant other?
  • Photos of the group and individuals are posted on Facebook and Instagram.
  • Someone streams portions of the event on Periscope.

So what’s the big deal you say, your team is just celebrating a professional success. You are right and a well deserved one. But as a leader what are your roles and responsibilities to yourself, your team, and the organization?

Leaders manage many risks to ensure success, to navigate challenges, and to meet high levels of performance. As professionals they constantly prepare for contingencies, they know their responsibilities, and are ready to fulfill their role 24/7. If that is true, how is it then that leaders from the lowest levels to CEO’s have fallen prey to poor judgment outside the confines of daily routines?

Do decision-making, risk management, and training for scenarios outside of the confines of daily routines have the correct priority in your leadership training and education? Leaders’ decisions 24/7 have an affect at a personal, a professional, and an organizational level. Just ask the Ryan Lochte and the US Olympic Committee.

If leadership is a bond of trust between the leader and the led, how do you build that trust?

The Armed Forces Officer (National Defense University Press and Potomac Books Inc. 2007) provides guidance to those who lead in the most challenging environments. Those recommendations are easily adapted to every leadership environment.

Leaders set and enforce the standards: Establishing the expectation of performance is easy. What you do when the expectation is not met can be more difficult. Most importantly, your action or lack of action determines the true level of performance the organization will attain. How do you enforce the standards you set as the leader?

Leaders set the example: This one sounds like a no-brainer; however think how often you point out how your superiors set a poor example. Are your subordinates doing the same? How well do you set the example? If you expect honest and transparent behavior, do your subordinates see you withholding information in making a presentation to the boss? Do you skirt the rules because “rank has its privileges”? Take a few minutes to honestly assess yourself. If your subordinates acted exactly as you do, what would be the outcome?

Leaders model moral courage: Have you experienced a leader unwilling to take a moral stand and do what was right so they did not rock the boat? How did that change your view of them? Moral courage means doing what is right, even when the consequences may not serve you well. Identify an individual in your organization who regularly demonstrates moral courage? What do you think of them? How do your subordinates grade you on moral courage?

Leaders build and sustain morale: You are leading a high performance organization, working hard, producing results, and delivering on time. But is your team truly a team or just a collection of individuals. Does the team work together and demonstrate that the team is more important then the individual? Do team members step outside their assigned roles to assist others? How do they talk to others about the organization? Quantifying morale can be challenging, however when asked, subordinates will readily make it known how they feel about the team.

Reflecting on these four actions will provide an assessment of your leadership. If you are looking for some actionable feedback, you may consider soliciting input from your subordinates by asking: “How well do I …? Please provide specific positive and negative examples.

Everyone already knows the answers – except you.


As a leader you are continually evaluated on your performance, particularly when you are under duress. What would your report card say about you?

  • How well do you perform when under stress for extended periods of time?
  • What is it like to be one of your subordinate’s when you are under pressure or navigating a challenge?