Leadership Qualities (50+ New Leadership Hacks 2019)

Leadership qualities

Best Leadership qualities

In working with hundreds of leaders around the world, I have found that the greater the responsibilities of leadership, the greater the amount of trouble you must deal with.


Recently, a division manager responsible for 100 million dollars in revenue and 500 employees distilled the situation perfectly to a roomful of colleagues. This blog explains the best leadership qualities in an efficient manner.


He held his hands a few inches apart. “This,” he said, “is how much good news I get to share with the upper management of this company.” He then stretched his arms the full distance. “This,” he said, “is how much bad news I get to share with upper management.” The other leaders in the room nodded their heads in agreement.


This is why leaders often reach the point at which they wake up one morning and simply think, “I don’t want to do this any-more.” They have reached a leadership crisis point. There is a way forward, though. 


Many managers have called me in the midst of this crisis, often ready to hear the most important message of their leadership careers. Leadership isn’t just making a series of decisions (choices) on a daily basis. The very essence of being a leader and how you lead is itself a choice.


Achieving a long, enjoyable career in management is obviously a better alternative than viewing it as a trudge across a desolate landscape of leading people who do not want to be led. The difference between these two visions of leadership is a choice that one must actively make.


You must actively embrace the many good things that come with leadership. You are in the right place to have a positive influence on others. You will be able to accomplish bigger and better things than you could accomplish on your own.


You will be able to grow your own skills and abilities as you work with others, and you will gain not just from your own experience but through other people’s experiences as you work with them.


Choose not just the call to leadership; choose the call to exceptional leadership. This is a call to embrace the tremendous personal growth opportunity in learning about yourself, in growing your own career, and in contributing well to the world.


Before we can listen to the call we first must understand and accept the following facts about leadership:


  • The call to leadership is a choice.
  • Whatever you lead, leadership is about leading people.
  • Leadership comes with a taxonomy of trouble.
  • The trouble is your fault, even when it is not.
  • When we accept these facts, we are ready to learn how to lead the unleadable, including our own troublesome selves.


The Call to Leadership Is a Choice

To make the step from a good manager to exceptional leader, the first step is to understand that however you have found yourself in a leadership position, you have made a choice to be a leader, even if that was not your intent!


There are a number of common reasons why people find themselves in leadership positions. Each of these examples offers a short origin story that illustrates how people had to grapple with what it means personally to take on the mantle of leadership.




Mary was superb technically, and the CEO wanted to reward her with a promotion. In Mary’s company, as in many organizations, there was a ceiling to the career of the individual contributor. The only promotion available was to become a team leader. Mary happily took the promotion and the associated pay raise.


Mary had the sudden responsibility of doing work not with, but by leading, other people. She found herself doing things she had always thought of as overhead.


Meanwhile, she was responsible for people doing the work she used to do. This transition was a shock to the very way Mary thought. She had to relearn how she would get meaning from her work in this new role.


Nomination Accepted

This situation happens more often than the bestowal of formal titles of leadership. There are significant issues that cut across normal boundaries in which no official leader is clearly responsible.


A combination of forces happens whereby (a) someone has the skill to handle it, (b) that someone has little tolerance for the current situation, and (c) the group urges that someone take the lead. This person may be an individual with no title but suddenly is leading.


This was actually how I became a leader. I went to college to become great at software development. Within six months in my first job, I found myself doing very little development because I was organizing and leading multiple teams that cut across organizational boundaries.


I was nominated, and I accepted. Within a few months, I was given the title of manager. It did take me some time before I noticed the real implications of leading people.


Business Owner

Business Owner

Many leaders became leaders because they had a good idea and started a business around that idea. Simon is typical of many business owners. He had a great technical idea and started a business around the idea as a business of one—just himself. However, he soon found that his idea needed other people.


Although it took a few years, Simon found himself responsible for an organization of over 300 people and growing.

Many business owners did not realize when they began their business journeys that they would be leading so many people.


A Desire for a Title

This category represents just a small percentage of all the leaders I have worked with. However, some people really want the prestige of the title that is associated with leadership. They have often received business-specific college degrees and are hungry to be part of making significant business decisions.


They reach for and achieve their desire to have the title of manager. They find much of what they expected, such as the joy of looking at the returns on significant investments they made in the course of leading their organizations.


However, they are often surprised to find that there is a world of people problems that comes with leadership. They were not prepared.


The Expert Becomes Leader


This happens frequently in the field of high technology development. “The expert” has been focused on a very specialized field of the technology. Everyone begins to look to “the expert” for guidance on anything to do with that technology.


Soon, “the expert” finds himself leading a group of people who follow him easily, based on the vast knowledge he possesses. The expert is able to do his own work and guide others in theirs. The rest of the team is often essentially a pair of hands for the expert's deep understanding and vision of where the technology, and thus the team, need to go.


The trouble begins for the expert when a new technology replaces his area of expertise. This will eventually happen. Now “the expert” has been typecast as a leader but is a novice at this new technology. He is no longer the expert but still the leader and not prepared.


Dynastic Transition

Dynastic Transition

This is often true in family-run organizations. The daughter or son has worked in the organization for years and now the parents step out and suddenly the heir is in charge.


For example, a friend of mine worked in his parents’ company and knew that he always would. He went to college to learn about the business, then came back and was his father’s go-to person for any special tasks. He worked in many areas, even on the manufacturing line when the work was so intense that his hands would help meet deadlines.


  • His father ran the company for another twenty years and continued to make all the important leadership decisions throughout that time.
  • His father retired and immediately moved to Florida, handing my friend the complete responsibility of running the company.
  • He was suddenly in charge.


In talking to people about their leadership origin stories, there are common experiences regardless of how they became leaders. They come to a point where they realize that the work of leadership is different. They come to the point where they realize that the work of leadership is all about people.


Further, they realize that even if they didn’t mean to do so, they each made a choice to be a leader. If they faced the leadership crisis referred to in the first section and continued leading, they again made a choice.


Whatever You Lead It Is All About People

This blog is written for managers and leaders of all stripes. But what do they lead?


Leading a Group of Leaders Within a Company


This is a generic category that can include, for example, the COO (Chief Operating Officer) or a division leader of a cast of hundreds. Or it can include a manager of a group of thirty. The common characteristic is that they are leading other leaders.

These leaders report to at least one other person and often have a cast of stakeholders who have high expectations of results.


Leading Projects

The leader here may have a very large project team. There are teams as large as a thousand people dedicated to developing and delivering a single product to the marketplace. There are also teams as small as just two people.

Leading Projects

The project leader must deliver results, whether anyone reports to her directly or not. She may have a single sponsor who is paying for the project. It is, however, more likely that the project has many stakeholders who care about those results, and they often have conflicting priorities they are presenting to that project leader.


Leading a Company

This can range from leading a famous company such as Apple to helming a small restaurant with a staff of three. It can also include a company the size of one person where individuals must lead themselves but also a virtual team of everyone who helps support that company, such as lawyers and accountants.

Leading a Company

Even CEOs who are in charge of an entire company, small or large, have a number of stakeholders outside their direct lines of command. This can include the board of directors, a board of advisers, and investors in the company. It also always includes the customers of the business.


Leading a Cause

Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., and many others are examples of people who had no official position but are yet considered great leaders.

I have a number of friends who are activists. One person is specifically working to protect the fresh water in our local lakes. She has put many hours into speaking, writing, and organizing to achieve this mission.


She has suddenly found herself a leader of many people, none of whom are paid. Nor does anyone officially work for her. Yet all of these people look to her for leadership.


The common thread all the examples have is that leaders are leading other people to accomplish a shared set of objectives. The objectives vary immensely across the various roles of leadership and the context within which the leaders work, but what they all have is a set of responsibilities that come with leadership.


These responsibilities are not to just get things done, but to lead others to accomplish great tasks.

All leaders know that it is truly all about leading people, and that comes with a taxonomy of trouble.


Leadership Comes with a Host of Trouble

Leadership Trouble

A friend of mine once said, “Everything was fine until there was more than just me in the room.” That evoked my laughter because he was talking about me entering the room—a great joke!


However, I often remember his quote when I find myself in a room full of discord. Yet, we absolutely need others if we wish to achieve the bigger things we desire to accomplish. 


The following is a taxonomy of difficult challenges that leaders, even those with just a few years of leadership experience, are likely to encounter.


Troublesome Project Teams

Project Teams

If a project is truly striving for exceptional impact, there is a level of stress on the team and natural barriers in the way of success. This is normal. The problem occurs when the project’s troubles start negatively impacting the whole organization. Consider these three examples.


Teams that are always late and have quality issues. This occurs when the project team says they are “almost done” and then announces to management that they need another three months.


When that time is almost up, they say that they need yet another three months. This delays the revenue expected from this project repeatedly and does not allow the organization to plan.


Quality issues exacerbate these delays. Further, this impacts the ability of leadership to start other projects and thus delays the revenue achieved from these other projects. 


The “firefighting” projects. These teams are constantly battling fires. They release their products to their customers, but there are always significant problems that the team must deal with.


The problems are multiplicative, typically starting with phone calls from customers. Further, the team is spending so many time-fighting fires that the time to build new services or features is greatly diminished.


The divided team. There will be stress on any team striving for excellence, and that often leads to conflict. The key is that conflict must be constructed such that arguments produce better solutions and improved trust. With the wrong chemistry, the opposite occurs, resulting in damaged trust and team drama.


The worst variant of this situation is when that drama leaks from the project in trouble and divides other parts of the organization as well. The damage done has many ripple effects, as leaders have to deal with drama instead of progress.


Troublesome Individuals

Projects such as the ones just mentioned can get in trouble because of things like technology issues or incorrect requirements. However, those are often excuses. Projects are successfully completed by people—not by methodology or technology. If a project is in trouble it is most likely to be a people issue.


The following is a sample of people issues that leaders commonly must address.

people issues

The cynic. Sarcasm, cynicism, pessimism, whining, and general sniping are all common negative attitudes that, when delivered in the right-sized doses, can provide relief to difficult situations.


However, many leaders have faced situations where individuals bring too much of that attitude to the team and it breaks down the fabric of the team culture.


The slacker. Many times, managers face the problem of an individual not living up to teamwork standards. There can be many causes for this, but the main problem facing the leader is that there is a team member who is not contributing sufficient value.


This is sometimes a competence problem, sometimes a bad fit of skill to the task, and sometimes an attitude problem where someone just doesn’t seem to care. The appearance may be “slacking,” but the causes behind it are often hidden.


The Diva. Some people are experts at narcissism. It appears that they believe that everything that is going on is all about them. In fact, with the most extreme divas, if things happen that distract from the diva being the center, the diva will raise enough trouble to bring the spotlight firmly back to his or her own personal center-stage performance.


This is often a difficult leadership challenge, as most people develop their diva personalities because they are actually very good at what they do.


The pebble in the shoe. These people are the teammates who provide a persistent annoyance to other teammates. The types of annoyances vary. Sometimes a person has a ready excuse that is actually plausible, but it seems there is always an excuse. Another example is the person who is a little critical of other teammates, with comments ranging from their clothes to how the work is done.


It isn’t quite enough to challenge them on it; it is the persistence of it. These slights observed by an outsider for one day would seem to be just mildly annoying if noticed at all. Yet these little “bug bites” being repeated daily have a cumulative negative effect.


Troublesome Leaders

If you are a leader of leaders, you may have all the troubles previously listed. You are also likely at some point to face any of these additional situations.

Troublesome Leaders

Clash of the Titans. People in leadership positions are generally very ambitious, which means there will be conflicts over such things as the direction of the group, desire for the same resources, or who gets which set of offices. People in leadership positions are also likely to be collaborative, however, so these conflicts should be manageable. 


Nevertheless, at some point, you will be faced with a leadership group composed of people actively trying to make each other fail. They are engaged in destructive conflict, which if not addressed will adversely affect the whole company.


The Maverick. Many executives consistently try to push themselves and their organizations to higher levels. Thus, they often seek managers who will bring fresh ideas to the organizations to push past the status quo. This backfires when the new leader is a maverick who is ready to throw away all of the status quo.


The leader is suddenly faced with a culture clash between the maverick and the rest of the organization. In these situations, the leader has many people saying, “If the maverick is staying, I am leaving.”


Leaders facing their own leadership crises. The other challenge leaders of leaders must be aware of is that the leaders they lead are feeling the burdens of responsibility.


An individual team member who suddenly quits has an impact. When a manager suddenly departs, there is a much larger and longer-term impact. As leaders, we must watch for these moments and be ready to help those leaders across their own crises.


Troublesome Stakeholders

Troublesome Stakeholders

As a leader at any level, you have responsibilities to the people you are leading, as well as the people who are stakeholders.


This is even true for chief executives who report to a board of directors, and if not to the board of directors then to their customers. Here are three examples of that kind of trouble.


Too many bosses with conflicting priorities. As a leader, it is likely you have many stakeholders and that your direct manager, if you have one, is just one of them. When you have multiple stakeholders, it is rare for those stakeholders to agree on what your top priority is.


Leaders who do not know how to handle the problem of multiple stakeholders with conflicting priorities have trouble brewing every morning before they even start their own coffee brewing. 


The wrong level of involvement from your stakeholders. The trouble here can be when your stakeholders want to micro-manage not just you but also the people who work for you. Just as damaging can be the invisible stakeholders. You need their attention and they are nowhere to be found.


It is not just that the stakeholders are invisible to you; you are also invisible to them. When you have critical needs, they won’t hear you. Yet when you don’t deliver, the trouble is still yours.


Irrational pressure from above. I once talked to a project manager who was in charge of a large software development project of over 100 people. I asked her when the first major deliverable would be made. When she answered June 15, which was four months away, her voice was tense.


I asked her if it could possibly be delivered earlier. She looked stricken and said very loudly, “no!” I asked her if there was a chance it could be delivered later, and she again answered “no!”


It is not possible to plan significant projects with that much precision. Her reaction was because the management above her was putting great pressure on making that date.


Bright-light projects bring lots of pressure. Much of it does come from above. However, much of it is also self-imposed.


This pressure leads to bad decisions and late surprises. All of this has one significant common attribute. That attribute brings us to the last place trouble can come from you.


The Trouble Is Your Fault, Even When It Is Not

“It was my responsibility. Thus, as far as anybody was concerned, it was my fault.” Watts told me this one day on our morning run. 


When I worked with Watts Humphrey, recipient of the National Medal of Technology from President George W. Bush, he often told stories about his challenges in leadership, especially during our morning runs before we started our workdays.


During this run, Watts was telling the story about taking over responsibility for a very large project at IBM. He took over a project where he became the leader of leaders of a project involving over a thousand people.


On the first day, he found out how seriously behind schedule the project was. He told me that he thought hard about the problem and then, laughing, he said “I asked who was to blame, and I realized that really there was only one person to blame and that was me.


It didn’t matter to anyone that it was only my first day. On that first day, it became my responsibility. Thus, as far as anybody was concerned, it was my fault.”


Watts was partially kidding about the problem being his fault. His real point was that blame has nothing to do with troublesome situations. If you are the leader responsible for making sure the mission is accomplished if it is not accomplished, it is still your responsibility.


This may seem obvious, but the following common behaviors demonstrate that too many are slow to reach this acceptance of responsibility. Which of these have you seen or perhaps even can identify with?


It is not really a problem. When confronted with a scheduling problem, the quick reaction is “We are not really that far behind.” When seeing a serious quality issue, the quick response is “Well, it only happened in this one place, this one instance.”


It is not our problem. The excuses come quickly when the leader can point to others. “The third-party vendor was late with the deliverable” or “The customer provided us with unachievable conflicts in the requirements.”


We need time to put into place this new set of tools. It could be a new set of tools. It could be a new magic methodology such as rapid prototyping or “lean agile.” If we have these things everything will be better (we hope).

This is an especially hard problem and it takes time. To be the most annoying, this must be said in a whiny voice.


Anyone of these excuses can be absolutely valid. However, these are simply excuses and when said in those ways it is done to deflect responsibility. Further, it absolutely delays the most effective solutions to the problems at hand.


Note that these excuses are common even among good managers. Those managers do get the work done, eventually, except when they don’t. It is also these good managers who often face the leadership crisis we mentioned at the start of the blog.


They haven’t yet crossed the Rubicon to know that to become an exceptional leader it is about more than seeing to things getting done.


It is a choice to accept that leadership is all about leading people to achieve more than they believed was possible. It is about accepting that all high-impact projects come with troublesome project teams, people, leaders, and stakeholders.


You must accept that those troubles are your responsibility. One of the keys that made Watts an exceptional leader was his ready acceptance of this fact followed by his willingness to directly deal with the trouble.


He had to bring his various team leaders and management above into the solution, but the solution started with accepting responsibility for it. To successfully lead the unleadable, we must accept that leadership is a choice. Further, we can choose the kind of leaders we desire to be.



personal benefit

For the maximum personal benefit, take a few minutes to answer these questions out loud or to write your answers down.

  •  What was your pathway to leadership? Did you set out to lead people? 
  •  How often with how much impact have you encountered the taxonomy of trouble? 
  •  Are you facing any of that trouble now or see it coming soon?
  •  Troublesome project teams?
  •  Troublesome individuals?
  •  Troublesome leaders?
  •  Troublesome stakeholders?
  •  Which of the following phrases have you recently used? Which one did you use most often?
  •  It is not really a problem.
  •  It is not our problem.
  •  We need time to put into place this new set of tools.
  •  This is an especially hard problem and it takes time.
  •  It is my responsibility. I will ensure we remedy the situation and put in measures to prevent this in the future.


Accept the Call of Exceptional Leadership

Exceptional Leadership

I had my leadership crisis about twenty-five years ago. It occurred when I was a leader in a division of Xerox at the height of its powers.


The pressures on me were enormous, both from the managers and stakeholders above and around me and from my team of people, who expected my guidance, protection, and help with their own advancements.


In addition to working to help my team achieve a large list of goals and deadlines, I was also leading multiple cross-organizational task forces. The days were long. I accomplished much, but the list of things that I believed should have been accomplished on any one day felt like it always overwhelmed any of those victories.


On top of this, I found that I did not value the work I was doing. I did not find joy in it. I once ran an ultramarathon on trails in the spring. It was a long, cold slog through creeks that went up to my waist, crawling up mud hills and sliding down the other sides, hitting rocks on the way down.


In some ways, this was similar to work with two big differences. I enjoyed all the challenges of the ultramarathon and, unlike work, that actually did have a finish line.


I decided I could not continue in this way. I went into my office and closed the door. I canceled all my meetings. I ignored all phone calls. This was a problem that I would solve. Through the week, I contemplated many things. The following were the most important realizations.

business and leadership

Growing up on a farm, I learned much about business and leadership. I especially learned from my parents that work is a choice and making the choice was a key component of joy.


My father would laugh when he read about people retiring to farming after waiting for years to do so. He loved farming and found it strange that people would wait so long to do what they love.


I looked to the future and contemplated what my next fifty years would be like. There were many things I realized thinking that far into the future.


The limits of our time on this Earth was one clear realization on that not-so-distant horizon, but also an opening of my mind to a plethora of opportunities ahead if I used my imagination. If I chose courage.


Many of the things I was doing for my job were things that I did not believe were right for the company. I was asked to do them, but that didn’t mean these were the right things. I knew for sure that many of the things I was doing and how I was doing them was not right for me. 


I realized that the mental model I had of my job as an endless marathon of slogging through the mud was simply my projection onto the situation. I was choosing that mindset.


By the time that I left work on Friday, I had quit working for Xerox, but I didn’t tell anyone because I didn’t need to—I simply quit the mental model of the job I held in my head. I realized that from that point onward I was going to work for the same person I had been working for all along but didn’t realize it.


I was going to work for me. It did not mean I would waiver in my commitment to Xerox. Instead, I was taking ownership of providing the best value I could contribute to my company and its customers. The difference was my taking ownership of that contribution and how to best achieve it.


In the years since that transformative crises point, I have spoken to many other leaders who came to the same conclusion when they faced and overcame their leadership crises. Although the details vary with our paths, the pattern is clear.


After we realized with great clarity that our career belonged to each of us as individuals, we returned to work on a different mission.

  • We had chosen the path of exceptional leadership.
  • What Does It Mean to Choose
  • Exceptional Leadership?
  • The first thing it meant for me was that I chose it.


I had realized that the main difference between the muddy ultramarathon and my work life was simply that: choice.


I had chosen to run the muddy horrendous hills of the ultramarathon and although it was often difficult, and sometimes painful, I found the thing to be fun and rewarding. Meanwhile, I was treating my work life as an obligatory trudge across a desolate landscape.


I was finding work difficult because I was being a victim. I was not choosing to be there. My big realization was that my mindset was simply wrong. Every day that I went to work was a choice. No one was forcing me at gunpoint to go there. Further, I realized my work life could be full of fascinating, rewarding challenges.


It was up to me.


When I returned to work on Monday, as far as anyone else knew, I had returned to the same job with the same set of responsibilities. They were not completely wrong. I did have the same title. I still had those responsibilities.


However, my personal mental model had changed. I was now treating myself as a business of one person who was choosing to provide services to my employer in exchange for the company’s choice to pay me. In running this business of “me,” I had three significant mindset shifts.


Provide a great return on investment to my employer. For me to be successful, my employer must be successful. Thus, my focus was changed from “get stuff done” to “have a great positive impact on the business.” 


Improve me. Any business must be focused on the now and on the future. My new mindset changed to think of every investment in time I made as having to be beneficial to my employer but also to myself.


I wanted everything to be a clear learning opportunity that provided value to me and my employer. Before this goal, improvements of my skill set were secondary to getting the job done. I promoted this to be equal in value. 


Reduce my labor while dramatically increasing the value I provide.

Before this mindset shift, I just worked harder, whatever the challenge was. The more tasks that came my way, the harder I worked, and I was rewarded generously with more tasks. My focus on providing value with impact changed how I treated every single request that came my way.


I recently discussed these mindset shifts with a business owner. Even as a business owner he was not immune to being “run by the business” as opposed to him “running the business.”


Our leadership crisis stories had parallels. He too found himself on a repetitive treadmill of just working harder. We both had come to the conclusion that we needed to focus our time on the big benefits to ourselves and the businesses.


These mindset shifts result in significant changes in how leaders approach work. Here are five examples of how to manifest the changes in day-to-day work.


Make “What are the business goals and benefits?” a favorite question. Any time that a stakeholder approaches you, including a direct manager, or any of your employees has an idea for more work, always initiate a discussion that starts with that question.


Do not allow micromanagement of the how. Focus on the best way you know to achieve the goals. This may seem obvious, but many of my clients work with micromanagers who are challenged in their abilities to clearly state their goals; they instead want to dictate what tasks to do and how to do them.


The micromanagers think they want a pair of hands, but accepting that diminishes the results. I simply refused to work this way, often to the micromanagers’ shock, as no one else did this.


I would talk with them until I understood the goals and then I would say, “If I achieve the goals, do you really care how I get it done?” Freedom in how to achieve the goals improves. the efficiency and the results.


Seek opportunities to dramatically improve your business. This is a big shift for most people. Before the mindset shift, they were so overwhelmed that they would never consider looking for more work.


With the mindset shift, you will be thinking. about the overall business and where you can provide the most impact. You will be pitching new ideas and initiatives that further the business of you, and the business that you own or are employed by.


Make saying “no” become valuable to you and others. In spite of loads of literature and coaching on the importance of “no,” many people still find this challenging. If you focus on the business and where your effort can provide the most impact, the word no becomes almost effortless.


I admit that my manager was initially startled by my sudden change in this regard. However, he soon came to understand that whenever I said “no” it was in his best interest.


Cut your “nonsense tolerance” level significantly. Before my mindset shift, I was doing lots of work I just didn’t care about, and too much of it fit into the “this work is balderdash” category.


Before my mindset shift, roughly 50 percent of my activities fit into that category. After the shift, I worked relentlessly to keep it under 10 percent.


I really enjoyed the ultramarathons that I raced in. All of these changes added up to making work into as much fun as those races were for me. Work became challenging and rewarding. I now shaped the daily challenges to be rewarding for my employer and myself. Every day I went to work I knew it was my choice.


The most invigorating part of this change was based on a conscious choice of how to shape my work to fit within exceptional leadership and the associated measurements of success.


Success Measures of Leadership

Success Measures

For those who have accepted the call to leadership, the initial mission they take on is simple: Get more done by leading people to accomplish even more than they could accomplish alone. 


The best and simplest measure of successful leadership is resulting because of results matter. Here are the typical indicators of success for this.


 Make a profit. The executives of any significantly sized organization are keenly aware that the lifeblood of their organization is making profits.


Further, they must delegate much of the day-to-day operations to other members of the organization. They do this so they can focus on next year’s profit. They are aware that the actions they take will define whether payroll can be met not just this year, but next year and beyond.


Deliver on time. The standard in most project management literature is delivering projects on time with high-quality results. This is often hard to do, especially when working in the world of new technologies. In spite of how hard it may be, that difficulty is never an acceptable excuse.


Delivering on time with high quality is a measure of success. If you do not deliver to expectations, projects will not be deemed as successful. You will not be deemed as successful.


Delight customers and inspire loyalty. Whether you are a leader with the title of CEO or the title of project manager, it is well known that the result that really counts is providing great value to your customers.


 Without delivering the value you will not make a profit. In fact, it must be a value that delights and inspires the loyalty of the customer to the brand.


Successful leaders get things done. Their businesses are successful. They deliver. They make a profit. And these leaders do this in spite of all the troubles that plague them. Many managers are successful in this way, but the call to exceptional leadership can take them to a higher level of achievement.


Success Measures of Exceptional Leadership

Exceptional Leadership

The first difference with exceptional leaders is that they have a very personal, passionate mission that goes beyond those simple (and, yes, important) results. Thus, their measures of success also have a much higher bar. Consider these famous leaders and ask yourself if they would be satisfied with simply the results in the previous section.


Steve Jobs, who said, “We’re here to put a dent in the universe. Otherwise, why else even be here?”

Susan B. Anthony, who worked tirelessly for decades in support of women’s right to vote. She was often derided and even arrested. A woman’s right to vote was ratified four years after her death.


John F. Kennedy, who initiated the mission to the moon and said, “We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard.”


Exceptional leadership calls for exceptional measures that go beyond the simple measures of profit or on-time delivery. The following are criteria that exceptional leaders employ that are useful and inspiring.


Measure the Positive Difference for Your Customers


For a project to be successful, the customer must like it well enough to use it. In the history of software development, many products delivered became “shelfware,” where people bought it and never used it. For the simple measure of short-term profit, this is fine. For most, this bar of success is sufficient.


However, having customers use your product is a simple, important measure. It is even better to have your customers be delighted. This is good in a twofold way. First, your product is making an important difference to your customers. Second, they are much more likely to buy more products in the future.


Track the Attrition Rates of Top Talent


Since executives know that their results are truly based on the talents, loyalties, and focus of other people, one of the key measures they watch is attrition.


And although they care about the attrition of the overall organization, the exceptional leader is especially focused on retaining the top talent of the organization. If you are keeping your top talent, it is likely you are creating an environment where they thrive.


Measure Whether Constructive Conflict Occurs Much More Often than Destructive Conflict

Exceptional leaders understand that if you are pushing for excellence, pushing on boundaries of the status quo, the conflict will occur. Some organizations have a hard time distinguishing between constructive and destructive conflict.


Destructive conflict becomes more about the people than the idea. It breaks down trust even if a good idea emerges. The lost trust creates more conflict.


Constructive conflict builds on ideas and will actually build more trust between people. Constructive conflict creates energy, passion, and greater belief in the team.

  • What is the ratio of constructive versus destructive conflict in your organization?
  • Watch to Ensure That the Energy Equation Is Positive


One of the measures my best clients use when leading their critical projects is the “energy equation.” Are you ready for high math? During checkpoints for the project, the question is asked, “Is the energy you are getting out of doing this project greater than the energy you are putting in?”


I have personally worked on projects where it seemed the project was draining so much energy from me that it felt that it could eat my soul! Okay, that is an exaggeration, but you see the point. The high bar for projects should be that the personal energy equation of the team is very positive.


Watch the Trend Lines of Unacceptable Behaviors or Results

Unacceptable Behaviors

Exceptional leaders will have clearly defined what excellence is. They will also have been clear about the behaviors that are unacceptable.


How many times do you hear about trouble in these areas? How many times is it related to a specific person or team? Is this decreasing or increasing over time? Are the actions you are taking working to improve the situation or the opposite?


Measure Your Troublesome to Tremendous Conversion Rate

An important measure in the game of baseball is a player’s batting average. Baseball players that hit above .300 are considered heroes. Consider how many times you have had the opportunity to help someone fix negative interactions with a group. How many were fully successful and how many failed?


How many times have you had to deal with projects that were in trouble and transformed them into tremendous? As with baseball players facing pitchers who throw over 90 miles per hour, these situations are often difficult. However, success is possible. How wonderful it is for you and the team when your conversion rate is high!


Watch Your Protégés Excel

Truly, the best measure of exceptional leadership is seeing the people who have learned from that leader. If you have had the pleasure to coach, mentor, and guide a number of people who have gone on to be highly successful, you can certainly take great pleasure in knowing that you were part of their journeys. If they still seek your counsel it is a very good indicator that your leadership is exceptional.


Accepting the Call of Exceptional Leadership

I took my daughter to a driving course where the students got to drive cars on a closed course that mimicked the worst conditions drivers might face on the road. One challenge had the drivers go at high speeds into a slick surface to learn how to get a car out of a skid.


One of the students simply took his hands off the wheel when this happened and said “Oh My!” He did this three times before he figured out that if he could not actually control the car, he could at least influence it in the right direction!


Some people stand on the brink of the call to exceptional leadership and back away. They back away because of fear of the responsibility of accepting that call.


Somehow they find it easier to be able to continue to play the victim. Essentially, these leaders throw up their hands from their steering wheels and say they have no control over their problems with their customers, their managers, the technology, or those unleadable people they were allegedly leading. They refuse to keep their hands on the steering wheels.


They choose that desolate landscape of no control, which they said they were unhappy with. The familiar is more comfortable to them than the difficulty that the changes required.


Accepting the call to exceptional leadership does come with new challenges and new responsibilities. It isn’t always easy. Here are five things to do to help meet the challenges.


Be fearless.

Be fearless

That is easier said than done, and you must work at it. If your journey is similar to mine, when you start saying “no” to things you used to say “yes” to, the reactions can vary and even include anger. Nonetheless, saying “no” will often be the right choice. Be fearless and confident in your choice. 


Build your own community of exceptional leaders. Leaders who choose this path notice that there are not many people who have chosen this path, but they can immediately identify the leaders who have. Talk to them, work with them, and learn from them. 


Stop whining.

That is obvious and still worth saying. It is fine to take the occasional whine break, but make it short. In the middle of the ultramarathons I run, occasionally another runner and I take a moment to compare the pains of the activity we are engaged in.


We then laugh and get back to the work at hand. The best people to have a whine break with are other exceptional leaders. Make it quick, though; we don’t have much patience for it! 


Learn to love the challenge of transforming the troublesome to the tremendous. This is the opposite of the whining that perhaps you used to do! When you have a difficult employee who is challenging you, learn to relish this as an opportunity to grow others and yourself in the process.


Know that learning will have setbacks. Taking on brand new learning opens up pathways in your mind and is very exciting. There will be moments, though, where it is a more difficult path than the familiar one. Take your time and learn the new road. It is worth the effort.


Perhaps you are already doing these activities. If so, congratulations, as you are either already an exceptional leader or you are well on your way. If you are not doing them, consider the choice that you have. Only by leading your unleadable self can you then prepare to lead the unreadable.



Leadership is ultimately a choice. Exceptional leadership is also a choice. Engaging in this choice is a personal journey where it is best to think about what choices you make for yourself that is helpful to you and to others. I encourage you to take a few minutes to try to answer the following questions.


  •  What is your mission as a leader? Why have you chosen leadership? 
  •  How do you know if you are being successful as a leader? What are your indicators of success? 
  •  How will you be an exceptional leader to benefit others? 
  •  How do others view you as a leader? How do you know? 


The Mindset to Lead the Unleadable


People who practice mindful meditation maintain that it changes their mindset and that change in how they think leads to different, improved behaviors.


Scientists such as Sara Lazar, Ph.D., of the Massachusetts General Hospital Psychiatric Neuroimaging Research Program have reinforced those anecdotal claims by showing through brain studies that the physical brain actually changes as well.


Changing how we think physically changes us! Championship athletes frequently discuss how they work hard on their bodies and also on their mindsets.


Jack Nicklaus, who won a record eighteen professional major golf championships, speaks often about how he visualized his every shot before he stepped to the golf tee: “I ‘see’ where I want it to finish, nice and white and sitting high on the bright green grass.”


My favorite quote by Muhammad Ali is “I am the greatest. I said that even before I knew I was.” That is the quintessential representation of mindset in that it defined clearly in his mind how he would think about himself and represent himself to the world.


When we change our mindsets that change how we act in response to the events that occur around us. How we act changes the outcomes. To be able to best manage the Mavericks, cynics, divas, and other difficult people and situations, we have to first change our frames of reference in how we think about them.


This blog describes the key elements of the mindset for leading the unreadable.

elements mindset

Appreciate The Diversity Of Every Leaf

I really enjoy going for long walks or runs through the trails, woods, gorges, and general wildness that surrounds where I live.


What amazes me is how in spite of many plants’ similarities, close inspections reveal that each one is different. Even if you inspect the leaves on a single tree, you will find differences among the leaves.


When I travel around the world to other forests, deserts, canyons, and all the diversity I find our world has to offer, it just becomes more amazing. 


The same is true when I work with various organizations around the worldI find that, as in nature, the diversity of culture is a rich, textured tapestry of where we have all come from with our unique backgrounds.


When I work with teams in India I find different thought processes than when I do work in South Africa. When I do work with teams in San Diego, California, I find they work differently from teams in New York City. 


Besides the different experiences people have due to growing up male or female, research shows that male and female brains are hardwired in different ways such that males and females actually think differently.


Exceptional leaders more than understand this diversity, they love it! First, it is important to recognize that we all have similarities that have great value. Communication could not happen at all without that! The secret is to understand that the diversity that always exists produces some “noise” in our communications.


When someone speaks to another person, each sentence has a unique context that includes their own background, how they think about things, how they learned the language in which they speak and their assumptions about the current circumstance. When another person listens to that person they go through all of their own filters that are different from those of the person speaking.


The more differences among their filters, such as growing up in a different country or in different economic strata, the more likely that the differences between the meaning the speaker intended and the meaning the listener heard are significant.


This noise can cause confusion or, worse, lead to mistaken assumptions that lead to anger.

This is important! Exceptional leaders know that when encountering some behavior or action that appears unacceptable, their first thought should be to wonder what they don’t understand about the person and the communication process.


Good managers can miss big things because, with their cultural filters, these things are invisible. Consider what I witnessed in an organization that was predominately one ethnicity, and almost all male.


In a team setting, a woman points out the problems with an approach. She does so clearly and bluntly. She is ignored. Later, often two or three meetings later, a male points out the same problem, and someone says, “Oh, good catch.”


In sharp contrast to this are organizations that have immense diversity and also typically have diversity training. There are not only significantly more female team members, but also women in leadership positions.


When I see a woman perform the same actions in such a group she is immediately listened to. She is viewed by leadership as an innovative thinker who speaks her mind. In fact, she often is the team leader.


Note that the difference is not just better for women. It is also much better for the group and organization, as the diversity of thinking accelerates idea development and innovation for the customers served. Having multiple ways of thinking about things can lead to arguments, but with great leadership, this results in great innovation.


Start with the Belief That Everyone Has Good Intentions

Good Intentions

Most people actually have good intentions and are working toward what they believe is the greater good of the organization. Even if they are annoying, or doing things that you believe are counter to the good of the organization, it is unlikely that they are damaged, stupid, or evil.


When confronted with difficult situations, especially situations that seem directly related to troublesome behaviors or attitudes, this is an especially important mindset to have ingrained as your first response.


A friend of mine worked for a short time in an organization where the owner exploded with anger any time something went wrong.


By the end of the day, it was common for someone to have his employment with the company terminated either because the owner fired him, or the person on the receiving end of the anger quit.


The company lasted for only two short years in spite of having started with very good products and an enthusiastic customer base.


This is an extreme example, but it does demonstrate the impact of reacting improperly to bad news.

Many leaders are very driven to achieve great results. It is natural to have a strong reaction to bad news or the perception that someone is not driven in the same way that you are. In coaching these leaders to work toward a more constructive response, I urged them to find the mindset that drove them to this reaction.


The most common answer these leaders came up with was “when things went wrong, my initial gut reaction was that troublesome people were trying to cause me or the organization harm” and it was that belief that made them feel such negative emotions.


When they articulated this feeling it became apparent that this was actually never true in any of the situations they faced.


The exceptional leader believes that when someone is causing problems it is not the person’s intention to cause problems.


Almost certainly the troublesome person is trying to do his or her best to further the overall good of the initiative. The calm leader has the mindset that when trouble arises, it is not of evil intent, it is because something is missing.


The “angry” leaders I worked with did change their mindsets. This change in mindset does not mean we ignore bad behaviors or bad results. What it does mean is that when confronted with these situations we immediately have a more focused, constructive response.


Accept Reality But Do Not Let Reality Define You

Accept Reality

Steve Jobs set a high bar. According to Walter Isaacson’s biography of Jobs, the president of Corning told Jobs that it wasn’t possible to meet the deadlines he had in mind.


Jobs said, “Don’t be afraid. You can do this.” In this instance and many others, Steve Jobs was not going to let the “reality” before he defines him. He would push to change it. Corning delivered Gorilla Glass in time for the iPhone launch.


Exceptional leaders do push to set a high bar and to define what that high bar should be. This takes an important mindset, which is summed up in the threefold relentless pursuit of seeing reality, accepting reality, and, based on this, dealing with reality in a way that sets a high standard of achievement.


See Reality

See Reality

Observation, questioning, and reflection are incredibly important keys to leadership. If you are unable to determine the reality of the situation within and surrounding your very important initiative, the initiative is at great risk!


The better you are at determining the current reality and predicting future reality if things continue, the better your ability to not let the current reality define the outcome.


Explore the details within your domain. Ensure that you have data that is accurate, useful, and used. Develop the ability to focus on the most important elements.


For example, be able to rise above the daily noise of problems and excuses. Be able to see patterns and trends and understand when the indicators call for clear action.


I have worked with many projects that have had critical deadlines. For example, I have worked with projects at the company Intuit where if you missed a deadline, you missed the tax season.


It was critical to the team to have detailed data to let them know on a daily basis if they were on track, so they could make real-time adjustments.


The data would let them know very clearly, and all too often, that they were going to miss that deadline unless they took action.


Accept Reality

Accept Reality

This step is difficult for many. It is perhaps too easy to listen to those who say, “It will get better” or even to tell that to yourself.


We can easily choose to say “We are actually okay because . . . ” This list usually includes that the project had a special event that won’t be repeated or that the hard part was done first and the rest will be easy.


Ah, it would be so nice to believe that. However, it is so rarely true.


Exceptional leadership looks at these details but does not accept the notion that working harder will fix everything. Instead, exceptional leaders study the details for more complete understanding and are thus prepared for determining the next step.


Returning to the Intuit example, the projects I worked with often had indicators of being behind. Teams that ignore those problems end up missing their deadlines.


Instead of just accepting that the data was right or wrong, this team studied it and applied their engineering judgment. They accepted what they saw and prepared to act.


Do Not Let Reality Define the Outcome


This final step is a tough one too because dealing with reality usually includes publicly admitting problems and soliciting help.


For the example of a quality problem, exceptional leaders will push themselves and others to investigate every opportunity to improve the situation. Further, they will engage with others beyond the project as well.


They will not allow the current reality to be the definitive outcome. Exceptional leaders relish this step because they know that dealing with reality is the only way to achieve excellent results.


In the Intuit example, one of the projects I was dealing with found a significant issue where it would have been natural to ask management to drop a feature to be able to make the deadline. However, the team leader encouraged the team to not let the data define the outcome for them.


The team engaged in multiple brainstorming sessions and came up with solutions. They were also not afraid to apply extra sweat and to ask for help from other teams. They achieved their deadline with style.


See reality. Accept reality. Deal with reality.

None of these steps are simple or easy, but pursuing them is a far better path than the alternative.


Set the High Bar for Excellence


That People Desire

We’re used to the defective software, whether it causes our computers to hang or enables a hacker to exploit it. Nonetheless, we accept this state of affairs because “software has bugs. It is the nature of the business.”

  • There is only a little truth to that. Many teams do struggle with software quality, but some deliver large complex systems of software with very high-quality results and zero operational defects.
  • The leaders of these two types of teams have different mindsets.
  • The leaders of the high-quality results organization know that people crave the high bar of doing excellent work.


If this seems obvious to you then you may already have this mindset. However, in conducting many organizational assessments I have not found this mindset to be pervasive; instead, I have found the opposite.


 In conducting organization assessments I have the benefit of talking to all layers of large and small organizations, from CEOs to individual contributors.


When I ask about disappointments, the most common answer I hear is “We didn’t take the time to do the job with quality.”


That was the case with most organizations, but there were organizations that were exceptions. In those exceptional organizations, disappointment around quality was not in anyone’s answer. Not one person! Because I typically heard it so often, I knew there was something different in those organizations.


The following demonstrates the mindset of excellence by contrasting the common themes in these two very different types of leadership.


The Low Bar

Low Bar

The leadership in these organizations may actually be driving very hard toward results. However, the way in which they drive toward results is the antithesis of going for excellence. Here are some actual quotes from leaders in these organizations.

  • “Get this new software development project to testing as soon as possible. We have to start finding the defects.”
  • “We don’t have budget nor time for training.”
  • “I don’t care about your concern for quality. All I care about is the date. Make it happen.”
  • “Don’t talk to Tom, our most important developer, about those quality problems. He might get angry.”


There is a mindset that underlies these quotes. In this example, the leadership expects through their words and actions that the development team will deliver poor quality to testing and it is testing’s job to fix it.


These leaders believe that quality is expensive and will slow productivity. They also believe that people cannot achieve excellent results and actually may get upset and quit if held to that high bar.


The High Bar

High Bar

In these organizations, the leaders are driving toward a high bar of excellence. Here are actual quotes from leadership in these organizations that demonstrate a different way of thinking.


  •  “The best and fastest way to deliver a high-quality product to our customers is to put a high-quality product into testing. Give me your plan to achieve that.”
  •  “Your current schedule plan is meaningless without a plan for quality. I need to see quality metrics.”
  •  “I expect everyone in this organization to become masters of their crafts.”
  •  “Get Tom and his teammate's training in this new technology area. We are seeing indicators of quality issues we have to remedy now.”


This is indeed a different mindset. These leaders understand that excellence is a critical business enabler. For example, in developing high-technology software products, these leaders know that high quality belongs to developers and that high-quality actually results in faster time to market and higher customer delight.


There is something more. They also know that in spite of any whining that may occur initially, in the end people are proud of producing great products and great results. People crave the high bar of excellence. These leaders are fearless in setting that high bar.


Know that excellence is achievable. Be courageous and set the bar of excellence high. Provide the investment and belief in your people that they can learn how. The results will amaze your organization and your customers.


Understand the Power of Gelled Teams

Here is the secret role of exceptional leadership.

Your role is not to get things done, although you are absolutely accountable when things don’t get done. Your role is actually not to get things done through others either, although that is how most leaders start.


The real role of exceptional leadership is to create a culture where people do extraordinary things! One of the best ways to do this is to understand the power of gelled teams.


Jennifer was leading a team on a high-pressure project. The team had been together for a few years, so they had been through many projects like this before.


However, Jennifer was the new team leader, and she had done things differently. She set expectations high. She gave the team direction but her constant focus was on creating a team that owned their process, their plans, and their results.


One day, two of the team members came into her office and shut the door. They said “Dan is going to be a problem again. He was a problem in the last two projects, and his way of working and his quality caused both to have very bad results. We went to the manager we had then and he did nothing to fix the problem. We know you are different. Can you help?”


Jennifer looked at them and paused for a long moment and then said: “Whose problem is this?” She then waited patiently as their looks went from confusion to understanding. The team members said “You are saying that it is a team problem, our problem. You are saying we need to go talk to Dan. We need to work it out.”


Jennifer said, “You said it well. And yes, that is what I mean. Do you need any guidance in how to talk to Dan?”


The team members were worried about taking ownership of the problem, but because of the way Jennifer had been forming the team culture, they really did understand that it was up to them and the team to make the necessary improvements. They listened to Jennifer’s guidance and then talked to Dan.


It turned out that Dan was very tTomful for them coming to him. Dan was lost on some key parts of the technology and had been afraid to come to anyone for help. The whole team rallied together and helped Dan become a great contributor to the overall project.


In discussing this with Jennifer, I found it amazing that Jennifer knew about the problem with Dan and was waiting for the opportunity to get the rest of the team to tackle it.


She knew that it would further bond the team and strengthen their ownership of the mission. She was right. The team energy and commitment grew throughout the project.


Once you have created your first gelled team, you will work continually to find more ways to create gelled teams and improve how you do so. After creating gelled teams that you lead, as an executive, you will work to create a culture of leadership where that is the norm.


When there are people problems in the organization like those described in the taxonomy of difficult people, many leaders understand that it is their responsibility to ensure that the trouble is fixed. However, many miss the point that they do not have to do it themselves.


The exceptional leader is always looking for ways to create teams of people in which the team can figure out how to address the trouble without management involvement.


As you grow as a leader, the troubles you and your organization encounter will not diminish, but as your skills grow at creating the desired culture, the number of times you must personally get involved will greatly diminish.


Treat Trouble as Information-Rich Data


You are holding a meeting with your team. One individual is on an especially long cynical diatribe and is enabling many others to join the conversation.


What is your reaction?

You are the executive responsible for multiple projects where almost all of the teams are missing the deadlines.

Your reaction to these types of situations indicates whether you possess the key mindset of treating trouble as information-rich data. The following reactions are sorted from the worst type of reaction to the best reaction.


  • The manager joins the diatribe with his own snide remarks.
  •  The manager begins to argue with the team that everything is really better than they say it is. 
  •  The manager waits very patiently for everyone to finish and then moves on with the rest of the agenda. 
  •  The leader asks everyone to pause for a minute, remove the cynicism, and state more clearly what the problems are. 


The exceptional leader, in addition to asking for clear problem statements, later reflects on why cynicism was the response by the team to the situation. This leader asks what in the environment, including his own leadership, may have contributed to this. 


In the second situation, where most projects in an organization are late, leadership responses ranging from the worst type of reaction to the best include the following.

  • The executive considers that “situation normal.” It is not even thought of as a problem.
  • The executive holds critical reviews of all the projects and terminates the employment of the project leaders who were furthest behind.


  • The executive looks for pattern differences between the projects that finished on schedule and the projects that finished behind. There is a lessons learned document written and never read.


  • The exceptional leader has the lessons learned sessions held publicly and ensures that there is ample incentive for all project leaders to attend. The exceptional leader is looking for everyone to come up with his or her own ideas on how to change the situation.

exceptional leader

The exceptional leader, in addition to ensuring that the lessons learned document is a living document, reflects on how it became situation normal to deliver late. This the leader asks what in the environment, including her own leadership may have contributed to this.


If there is trouble occurring in any of the things you lead, it is important information—not just about the actual incident or the actual trouble, it also contains information on the process, the people involved, the culture you are creating through your leadership, and you.


The best reaction to the trouble is not to ignore it. Nor is it the victim response of whining. The ideal response is to treat the trouble as a rich source of information that can help the organization excel.


Own Your Leadership Power

Leadership Power

Have you played racquetball or perhaps squash? In those sports, the two people playing each other are not on opposite sides of a net, like in tennis, they are sharing the same space and hitting the ball toward the same surface.


The best players understand that the center of the court is a very valuable space to hold. Rookie players can be easily identified because they consistently are on the edge of the court, never contending for the center.


Even managers with great titles and all the associated responsibilities that come with them have been knowing to behave like rookie players. They do not take ownership of their own leadership power.


For example, when the manager ignores the cynic and just waits for him to finish, the manager has given the cynic the center of the court. When this is done repeatedly, the cynic becomes the unofficial owner of the meeting. As new topics come up, people will not watch the manager, they will watch the designated cynic. He can kill a topic with a sneer.


The final key to the exceptional leadership power of being able to transform the troublesome to the tremendous is to take ownership of your leadership power. The meaning of this is simply that you understand and own all the keys of the mindset of leading the unreadable.


It means that when you have setbacks in making those mind-sets your first response (and there will be setbacks), you don’t let the setback become a norm; you forgive yourself and get back on track.


It means that you don’t let the trouble you have to deal with define your response; you take ownership of your response. You take ownership of your leadership process and the results.


I used to be the rookie on the edge of the court when I played racquetball. When I was playing with one of the best players in the club, he stopped the game we were playing and taught me about the power of the center of the court.


When I actually beat him one year later, he was absolutely delighted. He understood the power of the center of the court so well that he absolutely owned it. He also understood it so well that he insisted on the proper sharing of it. You should do the same with your leadership power.



rate yourself

How would you rate yourself on each of the exceptional leadership mindset keys? Use a scale of 1 (I seldom think that way) to 10 (that is always my first response).

  • Appreciate the diversity of every leaf. 
  •  Start with the belief that everyone has good intentions.
  •  Accept reality but do not let reality define me.
  •  Set the high bar for excellence that people desire.
  •  Understand the power of gelled teams.
  •  Treat trouble as information-rich data.
  •  Own your leadership power.
  • How do you confirm if you are correct in your self-rating?


Fine-Tune Your Radar for Trouble

I was once leaving a hotel on my way home. I was partially down the hallway and was feeling very happy, which gave me pause. I am often happy, but I was so pleased with myself I asked myself, “Why?” That’s when I realized that my suitcase had closed very easily for the first time!


My situational awareness had kicked in.

I immediately went back into the hotel room. I opened the closet. My suit jackets and shirts were still nicely arranged there.

To deal with issues you first must be aware that they exist. And, as in all things, the earlier you are aware of issues emerging the more likely you will prevent damage and achieve the excellence desired. This blog is focused on the methods you can use to develop highly tuned radar to catch trouble early.


Before we begin, I have a quick question for you. How good is your radar for trouble? To help you answer this question, consider the following troublesome situations. How often do these types of trouble occur for the areas you are responsible for?

Quality issues

  • Quality issues in products found by customers
  • Significant issues with quality service to your customers
  • Projects that are late
  • Members of your teams having significant conflicts
  • Teams getting stuck and not making significant progress


The question is not just “How often do these situations occur?” but also “How often do you find out about them well after there was the first indication of trouble?”


Developing a Radar for Trouble

For those who have now objectively determined that their own radars are flawless, scan these areas and see if you find anything new to help make them even better. If you have found that your radar can be improved, consider the following three methods.


Talk to people. More importantly, listen to people.

Talk to people

The most obvious way to be able to spot trouble is to be there when the situation is beginning or at least right when it happens. And since you cannot always be there, the next most obvious way is to hear about troublesome situations soon after they happen.


One way to do this is by the classic “management by walking around” or, in this very connected world filled with distributed teams, leadership by calling around and checking in. You have two goals with this.


The first goal is to find out if there are any situations that need your help to ensure the achievement of the project goals. The second goal is even more important. That goal is to build trust in a way that people will come to you without fear of difficult situations.


The way you conduct yourself in listening and in responding will build the foundation of trust. Thus, the leader must provide help that is actually helpful, as opposed to “anti-help,” which many people feel they actually receive when they raise issues, such as being forced into endless fact-finding and status reporting instead of actually attacking the root causes.


The following are the keys to making your walkabouts successful.

Ask questions about the project and the person.


Vary the questions you ask. The most boring meetings are the ones that ask the same questions of each person week after week. The status in these meetings is often abbreviated to NNTR (nothing new to report). This same thing can happen on walkabouts.


Make sure you are in the right mindset before doing a walkabout. If you are stressed or distracted, your walk- about could do more harm than good. So set your troubles aside. Make room for their troubles. Listen. Listen.


Listen. The biggest mistake leaders make on walkabouts is listening to the first part of a problem and, before the speaker is finished, jumping in with advice or solutions.


Wait for people to finish—even if the solution is obvious to you! If you can’t wait because of time pressures on you, let the person know that. Instead of just cutting them off, ask them to provide you a concise summary on the spot.


Too often, people try to provide a long background story before getting to what the key problem is. Simply say, “Tell me the core problem or question. If I need more background, I will ask.”


When you do hear about trouble, first ask what the person is doing about it. Then ask for suggestions on how you can help. Of course, use your judgment here. There are situations that are obviously outside the person’s control and what he or she is doing about it is telling you.


However, much of the time the person is already working on the problem and was just getting ready to tell you when you cut the speaker off with your ideas.


Before offering ideas of what they could do differently, ask if they would like to hear your ideas. This is a good courtesy to give to people. It is also a very useful one. It gives the person who is going to listen a chance to prepare to receive. With that preparation, you are more likely to be heard.


Be careful that your suggestions are not criticisms. Just asking questions may lead the person to figure out the best way to handle it. Employees often figure it out after you have walked away and given them time to think.


Follow up. The most important thing you can do is follow up and let people know that you did. By doing these activities consistently and well you become a trusted leader who can be talked to. It makes your radar much better when people come to you at the earliest moments of trouble, well before you would have noticed!


Pay attention to differences.

Pay attention

Often, the first indicator that something is wrong is a feeling that something is different from previous experiences. The key is to pay attention to that feeling and investigate whether your feeling is meaningful or not. Is there something that needs your attention?


On the surface, this sounds easy, but in the turmoil of leading complex organizations, teams, and projects, it is often hard to sort out the significant from the noise in the differences you need to pay attention to.


For example, some differences are so large they will be noticed. If Joe has worn shorts every day of the five years you have known him, it will be very noticeable if you meet him at a coffee shop and he is wearing shined shoes and a suit.


Here are two simple examples of small differences I have seen good managers miss. Joe typically sat at the front end of the conference room table and was now sitting in a chair at the back of the room. Mary always stopped in her manager’s office to give quick updates of project status. In the last two weeks, she hadn’t stopped in at all.


Joe in a suit might be at a coffee shop before a funeral or he might be going on a job interview. Joe changing seats might be Joe simply wanting a change of perspective or it could be meaningful in that he is actually feeling disenfranchised and re-moving himself both physically and metaphorically from being part of the leadership.


Talking to Mary, perhaps you find out that she had stopped by but never at the same time that you were there. However, when I have seen this situation it is often because there is a significant issue brewing, either personally or at work. Notice the differences. Ask about them. The answers could be very interesting.


Many managers are in such a hurry rushing from event to event that they miss these small things that are actually important. In their hurry, they have lost speed. Speed isn’t about being in a rush.


Speed is about accomplishing things that bring great value. To achieve speed, move quickly in your mission and do so calmly such that you can notice the small differences that have a big impact.


Look beyond the first level of data.

 project management

Often, project management data says the project is on track. When I examine the detailed data, I frequently find key indicators that the projects would experience trouble later unless underlying issues are addressed quickly. As W. Edwards Deming and many others have said, the key is to “Trust but verify.”


People often have a story that goes with data, especially if that data doesn’t indicate good news about the project. And although the story gives a great context to the data, the data is still important.


If people say the project is fine in spite of what the data says, I find that the data is almost always correct. It is important to go deeper when the story and the data do not match.


When looking at data, the most important thing to do is to ask the following questions.

 Is the data providing a compelling answer to useful questions? For example, the first question being asked in this situation is “Will the project finish on time?” The answer of a yes or no is insufficient. The real question is “When will the project finish and how do you know?” The answer will provide the next level of detail.


Was the data collected accurately and consistently? What are possible sources of inaccuracy? Can the collection method be cheated? If so, know that the very act of collection is often a dis-incentive for accurate collection.


Using this example, looking at the next level of data you can quickly tell if the predicted end date is superficial or is based on detailed estimates by all people involved, and get detailed tracking on whether or not tasks were finished completely, well, and on time.


Based on the data, what actions can and should be taken based on trigger points?


For example, to make schedules that can be consistently met, the plan should enable early delivery if things go correctly. Doing this would call for detailed plans to have been built with contingency in them to deal with inevitable surprises.


The data tracking should have a built-in indicator that is as useful as a flashing light in the car saying you are about to run out of gas. The associated action (fill it up!) should also be that clear.


Even Radar Has Blind Spots

There are limits to developing your personal radar. If you are a leader of a team of people, even if you still do some work on the team, you are different from the rest of the team and you will be treated differently.


In spite of what a nice person you are, team members won’t share with you the same concerns or frustrations they will share with other teammates. The higher you go in the organization, the less access you will have to the full story and all of its details.


There are a number of readers thinking right at this moment, “This is not true about me.” I know this because I have heard this from every level of the lead up to the CEO. The argument I hear is along the lines of “I am not like the others.”


The clincher for the argument is something like “and just the other week, Sally in development told me the absolute truth about something I needed to hear.”


And it was true in that one instance that Sally did tell you the thing you needed to know. However, what you are missing are the other ten things she didn’t come to you with because you were too busy, or because she was afraid of the repercussions it would have on her teammates.


It also doesn’t include all the other people who have never told you things that you or your subordinates really should know.


There are many reasons why leaders are blocked from the whole story even when they have fully developed their radar. I have often found situations where the team members absolutely knew that the trouble was significant yet failed to raise it to anyone in leadership. I always ask why they didn’t. It is critical for managers to understand the most common barriers to truth-telling.


The Top Fifteen Barriers to Truth-Telling


 Fear of disappointing. People don’t like disappointing anyone. To tell the leader bad news would be against how they think and behave at home. They just won’t do it. 

  •  Self-doubt. People have told me that they haven’t said anything because “I might be wrong about this. It might not be that bad.” 
  •  Fear of personal or career repercussions. “If I raised this issue, the bad news would stick to me for a long time.”
  •  Fear of losing future business with clients. “If we delayed the release to fix the real issues, we could lose the customer.”
  •  Fear of conflict. “They might argue with me!”
  •  Denial. “It really isn’t that bad.”


Low self-esteem. “I don’t believe I am worthy to bring the issue forth. They are too important for me to talk to them No one else thinks it is a problem. “When no one else has even noticed the problem, it must not really be a problem.” about my views.”


 Low skill in communicating issues. “I just didn’t know how to raise the issue. I was stuck on getting the message Fear of the issue sticking to the issue-raiser. “If I raise the issue, I am afraid I will get stuck with fixing it—and failing.”  right.”

  •  Confusion. “I didn’t know who I should tell.” 
  •  Incorrect trust in management. “I thought it was obvious. Management was surely taking care of it.”
  •  Fear of nothing happening. “I have raised issues in the past and nothing happened. I gave up hope.”
  •  Not my problem. “They gave us a stupid irrational dead-line. It isn’t my problem that this project is doomed.”
  •  Protecting others. “My teammates could get fired over this. I am not taking that on.”


Three Methods to Drastically Reduce Your Blind Spots

Blind Spots

It is not possible to eliminate the blind spots in your radar completely. The best you can do is to continuously work to reduce your blind spots.


No matter how hard you work to do this, there will be some surprise that comes up from an area that was never expected. The good news is there are three significant ways to reduce blind spots.


Draw from the experiences of others.

You will have a much greater ability to make sense of complex situations when you have a large set of experiences you can draw from. Those who are truly seeking mastery of leadership will grow this experience base by leading many projects, by reading blogs, and by talking with other leaders about how they handled situations.


You can increase your collection of experiences exponentially by talking with lots of other leaders about the difficult situations they have encountered. The following are the four keys to making these discussions as valuable as possible for everyone involved.


Set the stage for confidential and intimate sharing. If you truly want to understand how others have dealt with situations, be ready to share one of your own. Also, make it clear that anything discussed is confidential. Be clear that your mission is to learn how to better deal with troublesome situations in positive ways.


Ask for details. Ask when they first noticed there was trouble. Did the leader act right away or delay?


Were there earlier clues that they saw? Were there potential clues they missed? How did they deal with the trouble once they decided they needed to act? How did it work?


Question, but avoid judging. You will hear things that may be against your own personal ways of handling situations. If you find yourself feeling judgmental, it will cloud your listening.


It is also likely to be noticed even if it manifests just subtly in your tone of voice or body language. If you notice that you’re feeling judgmental and can set it aside happily, do so.


If the judgmental feeling remains, this may be a good place to explore further with the person. I suggest being open to bringing up your feeling in a way that promotes shared learning.


You may say something like this: “I am finding myself troubled about the approach you are discussing. I am not sure exactly why, but it is getting in the way of my learning. Could you tell me more about why you chose that approach and any feelings you have about it?”


I have found that the discussions resulting from this opening of feelings are the most productive of all.

Think about what you learned later and apply your own judgment. Many people use the same methods over and over again and have them not work over and over again. Yet, they believe they are working. So when you speak to others about their experiences, balance their words by observing the actual results and evidence.


The experiences you collect will help you notice more situations earlier in the process.

Periodically have an external expert conduct an assessment.


You should periodically call for an external assessment. Properly conducted assessments will provide you with a thorough understanding of complex situations.


Assessments should have a key purpose beyond simply finding out what is going well and not going well. Assessments are much improved when they are focused on an important goal. Those goals could be any of the following types. Determine the soundness of the project plan.


Is the plan technically feasible? Has the team considered alternative approaches and picked the fastest approach to deliver the most value to the customer? Has the team made a commitment it will keep or beat?


Evaluate the customer engagement process for developing valuable proposals. Understand how the customers feel about the process, including long-time customers and prospects that said “no.” Work with the team to understand its view of the weaknesses and the strengths of the process.


Evaluate the organizational strategy and how well the implement


Find out how well people understand the strategy without looking at any document. Find out what actions are being done that support the strategy. Find out if actions are being taken that contradict the strategy. Good assessments will produce reports that have clear and useful guidance for leadership to act upon.


The best assessments will do more than that. The best assessments will result in teams and individuals taking a good hard look at themselves and result in significant improvements created by all those involved. Great assessments fuel the culture of continuous improvement.


Periodically have an external expert help you collect 360-degree feedback.

external expert

Method 2 is an assessment to hold up a reflective, magnifying mirror to the organization. You will learn much from that activity.


This method is holding a similar mirror up to yourself with the help of your organization and peers. This is powerful because it will help you learn what the key obstacles are in your quest for exceptional leadership.


This method is very powerful, but some organizations are effectively destroying that very power. These organizations are making 360-degree feedback an institutionalized yearly event on the organizational calendar for everyone. They make it a standard survey.


In those organizations, 360-degree feedback is becoming as welcome and useful as “performance reviews.” In other words, just another box to fill in at year-end.


Even if that is happening in your organization, you can still collect your own 360-degree feedback and restore its power for you. Here are the steps you need to take to get full power from this method.


Get an objective expert to help design and conduct the survey. This is optional, but the expert will help make each of the following steps more powerful.


The remaining steps are written with the assumption that an external expert is guiding the process. However, if you cannot get an external expert, you can substitute yourself in the equation.


Design the survey. Like the assessment method listed previously, it is very useful to have some specific ideas on the information you would like to collect.


Consider a number of categories that would be useful regarding your expertise and your leadership effectiveness. Design questions that you would love to know the answers to. Discuss these with the external expert.


Select a group of people who will provide you with the feedback you need. The key is to get a balance of peers, leaders above you, and people who follow you. It is also important to think about people you know are fans of your work and those who may be detractors.


It is important to have a mix of both. You may be surprised by supporters having issues you were unaware of and also by the respect that people with whom you have had issues with may have for you.


Have the external expert conduct the written survey. This can be open-ended questions or a rating system for each question. Either will provide insightful information.


The external expert collects and collates this information to be presented back to the leader. Anonymous surveys will provide the most honest information.

in-person survey

Have the external expert conduct the in-person survey. The external expert can conduct interviews either in one-on-one sessions or in small groups. When the written survey is done first, this enables an in-depth investigation into the areas that you would like more explanation of.


So, even if the written survey was anonymous, if there are mysterious results, the follow-up interviews will uncover the more detailed information needed for driving improvement.


Work with the expert to make action items to improve in key areas. This is the step that many leaders find most useful to work with the external expert on. There is so much information that it can be an overwhelming list. That alone is not a problem; the real problem is that some of the information can be painful to listen to.


Many people are aware of their weak points, but hearing about it from others can cloud a leader’s judgment in sorting through the results. The expert will help you sort out the most important areas that will be the keystones for your improvement plan. 


Plan for improvement, “Follow Through: A Bridge to Enduring Improvement,” provides detailed guidance on how to do this. The key is to have clearly in mind what things you want to be better at and to let people know that you. are working on it! The other key for this step is to plan a follow-up survey.


Conduct a follow-up survey a few months after the first survey.

follow-up survey

Knowing this survey is coming will help keep you focused. It will also help those who gave you the feedback focus on whether or not you are improving. Their feedback will be valuable.


The majority of people who have employed this method have exceeded their own expectations regarding how much improvement they achieved.


Spotting trouble is good. Spotting trouble early is better. Develop these methods and more of your own and maybe the un-leadable will never get a chance to become that way.



  • When leading, what are situations that put you on alert that something could go wrong either with your project or around your project? What previous experiences led you to develop that awareness?
  •  Where are your blind spots when leading?
  •  What actions have you taken to reduce blind spots?
  •  Have you ever taken any actions that have created blind spots?


Take Action: Transforming the Troublesome


Once you spot trouble, how will you deal with it? The trouble can be a conflict brewing, a conflict in progress, a quality issue, a scheduling issue, or any issue that puts the group and mission at risk.


There is a choice to be made by the leader. If action is not taken, it is possible that things just might get better. However, it is more likely that if action is not taken things will get worse, and often in unpredictable ways. It can get worse in big ways, such as larger conflicts or schedule delays.


Often, these situations get worse, instead, in small ways, such as a lethargy overtaking the team as team members become apathetic about the mission. If the leader does not care, why should the other people in the organization?


If improper action is taken, it can make things worse faster. For example, consider a leader who suddenly delivers a lengthy monologue at full volume to a troublesome person in a public situation.


This leader had waited for things to get better and had let her own anger build until it escaped. This incident led to significant attrition of the team over the next weeks and to those within and outside of that leader’s organization to actively avoid her.


It is best to take proper action. To take proper action, proper preparation is required.

This blog provides the general framework and mindset for working with people who, to put it mildly, are out of compliance with your expectations. The framework is an orderly set of action steps with compassion at its heart.


These steps will help you focus on the person at the center of the trouble and learn how to take action that leads to a positive difference. This framework is effective regardless of the type of situation that arises. You should, however, always use your experience and judgment to adjust to the exact situation with which you are dealing.


The Case of the Team Slacker

Team Slacker

When reading the steps for preparation, action, and follow through, consider the following situation that team leader Bill faced. Bill works for a company located in the northeastern United States that has grown to more than 100,000 employees and has a long history of innovation. Bill aspires to grow her role in the company.


The project Bill was leading was what was known in our organization as a “bright lights project,” as it had intense importance to all the executives, including the CEO. The company was counting on it, but there was trouble brewing. The project was getting significantly behind, and the team was blaming Carl.


Carl was showing up late but not very late. He was at all the meetings that he was needed at but didn’t seem engaged. These were trouble indicators enough but, in addition, his work was behind schedule and, even worse, it was sloppy. The pressure and Carl’s lack of energy were starting to affect the team. Some members were getting angry.


Others were starting to show up late too. The high team energy from project kickoff was fast dissipating. Bill should have spotted the trouble earlier and acted earlier, but in this situation, she didn’t. She realized she needed to act now.


Prepare for Proper Action

As a leader, you have seen situations where it was clear that if issues weren’t already apparent, they soon would be apparent to everyone and that they should be addressed quickly.


Your ability to handle such situations is greatly amplified if you can first clearly hear your own inner voice. Understand why the situation at hand is important to you and to the group and why it is important that it be resolved.


Mastering this ability to hear and understand your emotions and what is behind them will help you immensely in taking proper action. Four steps are needed to prepare for proper action.


STEP 1 Understand What Emotions You Are Feeling and Why


What emotions are you feeling and why? It is really important to listen to your inner wisdom. If you are frustrated or angry with someone, it is important to stop and ask yourself why.


Is the behavior simply annoying or will the behavior negatively impact the organization? Your answers are likely an important part of the discussion you need to have.


Having to deal with situations like the one in the case study is often very upsetting to a leader. There are many reasons why:

Leaders already have too much to do. Thus, it is upsetting when some unexpected trouble occurs, but more than unexpected, the trouble often feels like it is a pointless, irritating distraction.


Sometimes it seems that the greater the pressure the project and the leader are under, the greater the level of difficulty of the situations that arise. Often, it is just that the impact of ordinary trouble escalates if the project is already under pressure. 


Troublesome situations almost always stir up strong emotions. The fog the drama creates makes it more difficult to see the real problems. This is true for the people around the situation and for the leader.


Confronting people with performance issues is difficult. Talking to people about what they are doing wrong evokes the feeling of being in conflict. Leaders, too, are susceptible to the fight or flight syndrome.


Any of these root causes by themselves can cause upset. When other problems join in, as tends to happen, it can be magnified into a worst-case scenario, adding to the stress level. The typical reactions to these difficult situations are the classics of denial, bargaining, anger, and depression.


For example, Bill had a combination of emotions. She was angry that the project and her own future could be jeopardized if the project failed to deliver on its promises. Further, she felt betrayed by Carl. There was also a feeling of shame that she was letting the overall team down that was counting on her leadership.


Emotions cloak the real problems in a fog that the leader must work to clear away. It takes practice for people to listen to their inner music and learn what their emotions are telling them. Two methods that are useful for this are:


Talk to a trusted peer. The trusted peer must understand that your goal is to sort out the emotions from the real risks of the situation. A good peer can ask questions and make observations that help you find the core of the issue. 

  • Write down your emotions. Write down what you see as the root causes of those emotions. Write down likely risks and impacts.
  • You may have other methods that work well for you. The important thing is to get clear about what the issue is for you.
  • Bill thought about her emotions after talking to a trusted peer and wrote down the reasons she was angry:
  • Carl’s teammates felt betrayed and had additional unreasonable stress put on them.


In spite of her extreme efforts to make a rational plan and many difficult conversations with upper management, the project was now significantly behind.


The project was very important to the future of the company.


She personally felt embarrassed about the situation.

Carl was causing her to fail her team, her upper management, and the future of the company. Her feelings were amplified because she had experienced a similar situation on a previous team that she had failed to handle.


When Bill wrote down these reasons she was able to separate her emotions from the real problem: Carl was not performing well. The team project was behind and Carl was the center of that problem. She also realized that the situation was not as bad as it felt. This situation could be improved and perhaps completely recovered.


STEP 2 Move Past Negative Judgments and Assumptions

Negative Judgments

Most of the time we really do not know why individuals behave in problematic ways. While driving, my wife and I were just starting up a hill with a “no passing” line dividing the road. It was truly a do not pass situation.


A car going outrageously fast came up from behind and passed us. I was immediately furious at the danger that driver put my family in. I assumed that the driver was evil incarnate. My words reflected my anger.


We crested the hill to see the car screeching to a halt in the entry to a hospital’s emergency room with medics running toward the car. My assumptions changed and my anger was replaced with embarrassment and empathy.


Why do people act in ways that are disruptive to the team, the project, and the organization?


In many work situations, leaders have discovered surprising reasons for the behavior of their troublesome team members. Many times, they learn that the troublesome people did not realize the negative impact they were having on the group.


When talking with a peer or writing things down, work to ascertain what facts and assumptions you have about the situation. The key is to truly realize that many of what you think of as facts are actually assumptions.


You most likely do not know the reasons the situations are occurring. You may have a hypothesis, and you may even be right. Write your hypothesis down if you have one. However, it is rare in these situations that you really know why.


After Bill had written down the reasons for her anger, she was able to think more clearly. She considered her assumptions about Carl. On reflection, she realized that Carl’s past performance was not just good, but excellent.


So, she quickly removed “incompetence” and “lack of talent,” which were judgments she didn’t even realize she was holding in her mind. She did note that it could be a lack of skill in that specific technology in which he was working. However, if it was that, why wasn’t he asking for help?


It was at this point that all the judgmental feelings and anger she had toward Carl dissipated. Bill realized she simply had to understand what was going on for Carl.


STEP 3 Prepare You're Clear, Short (Two Minutes or Less), Judgment-Free Message


It is critical to making your message very concise. You want the key message to be heard. You want it to have an impact. You want it to lead to positive change.


Longer messages always consist of belabored points, emotions rising, and negative judgments creeping in. The person you are working with will then begin to wander in his thinking or interrupt you, and likely start disagreeing.


This is why the two-minute or less rule is critical. Although many people think this is too short, it is actually a bit too long. With practice, most leaders can reduce the clear message to about one minute or less.


If you read the following example feedback out loud you will see that it takes less than thirty seconds to deliver the message.

“Carl, I am concerned. We made a clear plan together and agreed to clear goals and a timeline. I know you are very capable of meeting these goals; however, for the last few weeks, you have not met any of your commitments.


This project is very important not just to me but also to your teammates and the organization. And your current shortfalls are having a negative impact on your teammates and the rest of the organization.


I am concerned about you. I am concerned about the group. Can you explain what is happening?”


STEP 4 Set Aside Time with the Individual to Focus on This One Topic


It is best that you and the person receiving the feedback meet privately. Do not add other topics to this meeting. It is critical that you focus on your key message.


Also set aside thirty minutes to one hour so that time is there if needed. Most of the feedback sessions I have given, however, have taken less than fifteen minutes with positive outcomes.


The time set aside is to give both yourself and those you are talking with the sense that there is plenty of time to work this out. Bill had her message prepared. She had removed negative judgments. She had time scheduled with Carl. She was ready.


Take Proper Action

The proper action is the center of your lever for change. With preparation on one end and follow through on the other end, the proper action is the fulcrum, the critical leverage point to success. This is where you talk with the troublesome person or even a troublesome group.


Follow these steps when taking proper action:

Meet in a private space. If necessary, this can be via video conference or telephone, as is often required in our networked world. However, do not use email or other written correspondence, as the most likely outcome is to make the circumstance worse.


Deliver your key message. Do not start with small talk. Take time so everyone is properly situated, but there is no reason to delay. Delay will make the other person nervous and, even worse, it can make you nervous.


You prepared by removing judgment and having clarity about the good the person is doing. Deliver your key concern with respect and empathy toward the other person. Do so concisely and without judgment. 


Wait patiently and quietly for a response. Often you may have to wait a few minutes, or longer, for a response. The key is to be patient and wait for the individual to talk. If you have to wait longer, the response is often an unexpected set of events you did not know about.


Be in the moment. The best way to prepare for the response is not to anticipate what it will be. Sometimes the response is a complete surprise: a litany of the hard things going on in the person’s life.


Sometimes the response is quick and easy. Once the response I received was “Alan, I have been falling short of my own standards and yours. I will fix it.” Given that you really do not know the response you will get, just be in the moment and listen. 


Listen to understand. Stay focused on what the speaker is saying and how he is saying it. If there are parts you don’t understand just keep listening until the person is done speaking.


Reflect. Tell the person what you heard to make sure you did understand. Reflect both on the facts and the emotions. This is not a place to argue.


For example, if the person is saying that you gave him bad guidance, the proper reflection is “You are saying that the guidance I gave you was not helpful. Can you elaborate on that?” 




It is fine to ask questions. It is fine to bring up things you are wondering about. The discussion part should not belong. It is just for you to make sure you understand the situation and the other person understands the impact his behavior is having.


Set expectations. The meeting must provide clarity on what your expectations are. This is the part of the meeting for the other person to listen and understand. Make your expectations clear. Test understanding such that you really do trust that he understands.


Ask for action steps. It is best if you set up a second meeting for the person to be able to take time to internalize what he heard. He will also have time to build a proper set of actions for moving forward.


That is the simplest, minimal action item that should be taken during this meeting. If it went easy and fast, feel free to record the key other actions the person will take to remedy the situation.


Conclude the meeting with a summary


There are a variety of responses that you would expect when delivering the difficult message that a person is falling short of expectations. You might expect to see anger or rationalizations or many forms of excuses.


If you are centered and in the moment, you should focus on listening and also keeping clear in your own mind your expectations of excellence. The concern you started the meeting with was based on those expectations. The meeting should also conclude with that clarity.


The fact is that, overwhelmingly, people do have good intentions and are working to achieve the best results they can. Treating people with love and respect for their inner strength is the greatest part of the feedback you can provide. When you do so, they will most often rise to the challenge and improve the situation.


Bill Takes Action

Bill sat down with Carl. She gave the key message in less than one minute and then asked a question.


The message was simply the fact that the project was behind and the key reason was that the work that Carl had committed to do was not getting done.


Bill also noted that Carl was not working in the way she had observed on previous projects. She told him the project needed his top performance, but she was more worried about him than she was about the project.


She asked the question, “It seems to me something has changed. What is going on?”


Her tone was calm and relaxed. Carl reported later to me that she was genuinely concerned about him. She waited in silence for about five minutes before Carl spoke. With tears, he explained that he and his wife had decided to divorce. He was trying to keep it completely separate from his work life, but he saw now that he had failed.


He was then quiet again. After another minute he said, “I have to apologize to the team for my behavior. Also, you know I love this work. I will get back to my prior performance, but I will need help. Can you help?”


Follow Through

Follow Through

After the meeting, Carl walked into a room where the team had just gathered. He apologized and explained his situation. After he and the team talked, the whole team rallied around Carl and offered not just help with work but also various other kinds of support for his unwelcome life transition. 


Bill also followed through by talking with Carl’s teammates and ensuring that a proper recovery plan was made.


The whole team rallied and delivered a very successful project. Carl’s team members looked back to when Carl asked for help as the point of project turnaround.


Most of the team members were unaware of Bill’s talk with Carl. Carl’s act was courageous. He tTomed Bill for her courage in being the catalyst for his change and the subsequent success.


Work Toward Mastery of Delivering Feedback That Makes a Positive Difference

A few months after I drafted this blog and shared it with a client, he decided to use the techniques in a situation he was having. He had an employee who was constantly coming across as angry to all the people who worked for her and around her.


My client took a few days to prepare. He had one short talk with the disruptive employee on a Friday and, like magic, the employee had a new positive attitude on the following Monday.


Now months later, my client and the employee are still doing great. The formerly angry employee recently tTomed her manager. After the talk, she was quite upset but realized first, that her manager was really concerned for her and her future, and, second, that her own attitude problem wasn’t about work, but about other things.


She resolved to change her attitude at work and at home. She did. And things at work and home improved.


The first time the team leader employed these actions it took a few days to prepare. With practice, he has decreased his preparation time to less than one day. Often he finds he moves through his emotions and past his judgments almost on the spot. Further, the speed of success of the people he provides feedback to is also improving. This is a journey of mastery.


As a leader, it is important to listen to your inner wisdom. If something is upsetting you, it is almost certainly upsetting others. It is a problem to your group. It is your obligation to the greater good of the organization to listen to your inner music and take the actions that lead to a positive difference.



  • Reflect back on times that you received feedback that you needed to improve.
  • What was an example of useful feedback you received that made a positive impact on you? 
  • What was an example of feedback you received that was a negative experience and essentially did no good for you, the group, or the leader? What were the essential differences between those two experiences? 
  •  Repeat these questions for the times you have given feedback both well and poorly. What was the essential difference in how you did it?


A Bridge to Enduring Improvement

Enduring Improvement

I have participated in various sports activities and follow through was a key to success in all of them.


For example, in tennis, as in any racquet sport, the most powerful serve or return occurs when the whole body is properly prepared, moves, and follows through. If follow through is not done correctly, it jars the whole body, and also ruins the shot!


Note that you can have terrible form while serving a tennis ball. You might get an ace. However, without truly proper form and follow through, you will find the ace is just an accident.


Sometimes taking the actions prescribed in the previous blog does work almost like magic. Things get better immediately and stay better. However, without follow through, you will find them to also be happy accidents.


Leaders must always be prepared to follow through. In many situations, the conversation is the start, and the leader’s next step is to help the person to build a bridge to successful improvement. To create a bridge for successful improvement you must start with the following three clear expectations.


The first expectation is to have the intention for successful improvement through collaboration. That intent of success should be one to energize and build trust not just with the individual, but also with the team of people around that individual.


The second expectation is that you as the leader are accountable for the success of the initiative you are undertaking. It is not right for a manager to abdicate responsibility to the Human Resources Department.


If it is appropriate in your situation to engage HR officially, please do so because the department will be helpful to work with as a partner, but not when you abandon your authority and responsibility. The best success is achieved when you work directly with the individuals involved.


The third critical expectation is that you start with the belief that success is probable. This blog assumes you have chosen the course of action to improve. If that is the choice, start with the belief that improvement is not just possible, but likely.


The Case of the Expert Everyone

software development

Bill was leading another significant software development project. Tom was a technical genius and responsible for the fundamental architecture and design of the software system. The project started strongly, but now that the team was well into software development, Bill was seeing problems emerging repeatedly.


The other software developers were complaining that Tom was going into the system and rewriting their code without ever talking to them. He was also repeatedly sitting with people as they were writing code (without being asked) and telling them what to type.


Besides the other developers getting more upset and less engaged, this behavior was causing Tom to get further and further behind on the work he needed to do.


When Bill talked to Tom about this he became agitated and told Bill that without him, these developers would destroy the system. Bill knew from experience that the developers on the project were excellent. How could Bill get Tom to be a force for good?


The Key Points of Bill’s Preparation

Bill took some time to prepare. She talked to many of Tom’s teammates. She discussed and reviewed the designs before and after Tom’s intervention. It was clear to her that Tom’s intervention had led to minimal improvements to most of the designs.


There were a couple of exceptions that were important, but they did not discount the trend. Further, she reviewed the project plans in detail. It was clear to Bill that Tom’s actions were negatively affecting team progress.


Bill knew that for Tom to improve, he needed much more than a “stop that.” He needed to have a compelling “do that” to help him actually remove the negative behavior and work toward a bigger goal. With this in mind, Bill prepared for the feedback session.


Feedback Session

Feedback Session

After opening pleasantries, Bill started. “Tom, you are an excellent architect. I have a question. Do you want to be an architect of a few buildings or a thriving city?”


Tom asked, “What do you mean?”

Bill explained. “Tom, currently you are spending much of your time with a few software developers, helping them with their designs and code, sometimes even rewriting.


There are two problems here. First, developers are getting very frustrated. The more significant problem is that this project is much bigger than those few buildings you are focused on.


Most importantly, there are more projects that are ready to start. I really need you there. So again, do you want to be an architect of a few buildings or an architect of a thriving city?”


Bill waited while Tom sat pensively for a long moment. “Yes, I see what you mean.” Another pause. “But, I don’t think those developers are ready. Will those pieces of code, those buildings, be good enough without my guidance?”


Bill listened and thoughtfully responded, “Tom, we can discuss that, but first I want a clear answer. Which would you prefer to be? Take your time to answer. Which would you prefer and why?


Convince me that you want that. What would it mean for you? For our projects? Which is more important to you? What would be most valuable for us? Once I know where your real motivation is, we will build a plan to help you achieve that goal.”


Tom answered immediately that he would prefer to be an architect of cities and went on to give many reasons why that would be exciting. He also saw opportunities to help improve the productivity of the organization because he saw how improved architecture could improve software reuse and lead more quickly to new product lines.


Bill stopped him after a few minutes with a big smile. “Okay, Tom, I am convinced. I want what you want. Let’s stop here and schedule a longer meeting.


I would like you to bring to that meeting a few things: first, a summary of your goals and second, a list of the risks that you are worried about if you stop doing your current work on ensuring that these developers do things right. Then we can build a plan together for how to achieve those goals and address the risks.”


Bill and Tom agreed to a meeting time. They needed to create a plan for successful follow through.


The Fabric of Successful


The properly conducted feedback session puts people on the road to success. Follow through is critical to ensure success. Here are three reasons why.


Habits are hard to break. Often, the taxonomies of troubles outlined earlier are habits. The perpetrators may not want to be exhibiting these habits, but because they are habits they often happen. This is especially true in times of stress.


Even if the problem is not a habit, there has been a disruption to a previous pattern in the individual and perhaps the group. The intention to improve is the necessary start, but that alone is often insufficient to solve the problem.


Success for the individual, the project, and the organization is important. The responsibility of the leader is to the group. Bringing the individual up to the level of expectations of being a positive contributor to the group is your obligation.


Thus, follow through is as important as taking the initial action. The following are some simple yet effective ways to follow up.


Make a Financial Plan


Intentions rarely work without a detailed plan. For example, I have sometimes discovered that people lack competencies needed to do their jobs more effectively. We would then make detailed plans to get them the proper training that would fit their learning styles and objectives.


These troublesome situations have often disrupted the ability to deliver on commitments made by the organization. Plans may have to be refreshed to take into account any corrective actions. It is possible that you may need to have further discussions with other organizational stakeholders or even customers.


Publicly Commit

Have the person make a public commitment to do things differently.

When people expect a behavior and see that it isn’t present, they will seek to evoke that behavior. I worked with an executive who often would get upset about various issues to the point of explosive outbursts of anger in public meetings. He was working in secret to not have explosions of anger.


People who attended his meetings were so used to these outbursts that they got anxious when they didn’t occur. Attendees would begin to bring up issues that in the past had caused outbursts. They would do this until he fulfilled their expectations with an angry response.


It was only after he made public his desire to eliminate those outbursts that he was able to make the improvement successful and permanent.


His staff was very surprised and humbled to learn that the executive was more upset about his behavior than they were. People shared their own stories with the executive. They agreed to help him. The executive inspired his whole organization with his public commitment to transform this behavior from troublesome to tremendous.


Coach Others on How to Help

A critical factor of success often involves talking with a few of the key people who are involved on a daily or at least weekly basis with the person working on a new behavior pattern.


I have coached them on how they can give feedback to the individual that helps lead to the positive difference. With these things in mind, Bill set out to make a plan for success with Tom.


Plan for Success

Plan for Success

A plan for follow through should always focus on a clear vision of where you, the individual, the team, and the organization want to end up. In Bill’s session with Tom, they took less than 90 minutes to create an action plan that made them both confident of success.


Have a Vision of Success

Tom came in with what Bill requested. He had detailed the vision of what his job should be in two or three sentences. Bill and Tom spent fifteen minutes shaping it more until they were both satisfied they could show it to others. The vision statement of success they wrote was:


We envision a system architecture that enables high-quality products for our customers and boosts productivity across our division by enabling more product lines with less effort.


 The system architect will provide the architectural foundation for our division’s software product line. This will be done through the following activities:


Providing the overall architectural concept.

  • Working with lead software designers for consensus on the best approaches that enable global gains without sacrificing specific product line needs. 
  •  The system architect will make decisions where consensus cannot be reached in a timely way.
  •  The system architect will provide mentorship of lead software engineers.


Tom was anxious to talk about his risk list, and Bill listened. Tom did not trust the competency of the development teams to build the software the same way Tom would do it. Bill relayed that discussion.


She simply said “I understand the risks you are talking about. I need to think about those. We will come up with actions to address your list. First, let’s cover the benefits and indicators of success.” Tom agreed.


Benefits of Success

Benefits of Success

Bill and Tom made a list of the benefits of success, which included the following.



  • Remove technical barriers between product lines.
  • Enable reuse of software across product lines.
  •  Enable more developers to understand how each product line works such that people can move between products more easily and be productive in each product line much faster.


Get products to the marketplace faster.

  •  Enable significantly more revenue for the organization because of the increased productivity of the software teams.
  •  Enable more revenue streams based on innovations possible from this.




  • The more people who understand the architecture and the premise behind it, the more autonomy developers will have.
  • The developers will feel more ownership of the products and get more gratification from their work.
  • It is likely to decrease attrition.
  • It is likely to attract more top talent.



  • “I will be an architect of thriving cities.”
  • “People will not cringe when they see me coming.”
  • “It will be very good for my career.”
  • “I will get great satisfaction from seeing others grow in their skill sets.” (And he added when he wrote this, “I really need to do less. I shouldn’t write the code for them!”)


Indicators of Success

Indicators of Success

Bill then said they needed to answer this question: “What are some things we would see to know if we were both successful?” Tom, being a software engineer, loved this. He started talking about how, for any successful software development project, there must be testable success criteria. He loved this idea.


Their success indicators were the following four ideas.

People smile more often than they cringe when they see Tom coming. (Note: This was Tom’s idea.)

When Tom inspects people’s code, most of the time it needs no changes from an architectural perspective. This would indicate that people understood the patterns and accepted them as best practice. Bill actually pushed for a number here and they agreed that 70 percent or more was a good starting number.


 Tom’s design meetings were well attended.

Tom and Bill also agreed to do an anonymous meeting survey every six to eight weeks to check on the usefulness and energy-producing levels from the meetings. They want to make sure this was working well.


Follow-Up Actions

Bill and Tom were both excited and tired. It was over seventy-five minutes into the meeting. They quickly wrote down the actions they were going to take.


Tom agreed to talk to the developers and tell them his new plan. Bill agreed to write down all their agreements from the meeting and send them to Tom. Bill later realized that she made two significant mistakes in the meeting.


She should have set up the meeting for longer, or just set up another meeting for later that day so they could finish. They were both so happy they missed two significant things.


First, they did not come back to the risks that Tom was worried about. He was so happy by the end of the meeting he forgot about his concerns, but only for the moment. He was still worried about the competency of his fellow developers and that would be a problem later.


The second problem was interrelated. They did not have a plan to get Tom the support he would need to change his long-time habit. Neither of these mistakes was the ultimate barrier to success, but it did slow down the success path.


Bill also told me that she realized this was the job she always thought Tom should be doing. However, she had never clearly articulated it in her own mind. She had just let the generic job description be the guide.


She had not taken ownership of making her expectations clear. She realized that she should have had this very discussion with Tom long ago. She also realized she had a list of other people she was now going to have this discussion with before there was trouble.


Do Periodic Check-ins

setting expectations

One manager I worked with did a very good job setting expectations with a troublesome employee. In that next week, the employee showed improvement. The manager found himself distracted by other things and did not check in with the employee or the situation until about sixteen weeks later.


The situation had decayed to a worse place then it was before. This should not be surprising, as there was absolutely no planning or follow through.


It is important to do periodic checks. These do not have to belong. The most important thing to do in these cases is to focus your check-ins on the new behaviors you are expecting to see.


It is important to ask direct questions. If you get an answer of “Things are going well,” you must ask for examples that provide evidence of behavior change or lack thereof. The details will provide you with the real information you need.


Bill was very good at doing check-ins. Within two weeks after the Tom planning session, she was checking in with developers who she knew previously had issues with Tom.


They were at first not open about the problem. They did not want to disappoint her. When she asked for details of interactions, however, it became clear that Tom had not changed his behavior.


When Bill asked more questions she found that Tom did not really set out his intentions very clear to other people. He had told them that he was going to be doing more high-level architecture but no more details than that.


Much later, Tom confessed that he was so embarrassed about the previous behavior he didn’t ask for the help he really needed. He told Bill this when he was coming her for the next action she took.


Bill talked to Tom and said that she was setting up a meeting with the key developers, Tom, and herself. She wanted to make sure that expectations were set in a way to help achieve the vision they agreed to.


The intention was to make sure that the developers Tom had been micromanaging would push back if he fell into previous habitual behaviors. Tom agreed, albeit a bit reluctantly.


Surround People with Support


Bill prepared well for the meeting. It did not take her long. She simply had her questions ready. She was going to follow a pattern similar to the planning session she had with Tom.


Bill wanted to make sure that the people in the room were not just listening to what she had to say. Active involvement was required!


Bill could have walked in with some nice visuals and projected them on the wall screen. Or she could have had handouts that represented the vision, the benefits, and the indicators.


It would have been efficient. However, it would not have been effective. Here are the key steps Bill took with the team.


First, she engaged the team to improve the vision they had drafted. Tom wrote down the elements of his vision on the whiteboard. Bill gave the people in the room three minutes to write down other ideas or questions they had.


When Bill went around the room she found a great discussion about the vision. There was excitement about what it could mean for all of them. They naturally started to talk about benefits.


So Bill stopped them and asked them to each take five minutes to write down the key benefits they saw for themselves and for the company. She also asked the team members to write down what they thought the key benefits for Tom were.


Bill encouraged people to write things down so they would have the time to really think about things. Also, writing engages a different part of the brain. The resulting conversation was amazing to Bill and even more so to Tom.


The group had a long discussion about the frustrations they were having and how removing them would enable them to grow and learn as developers. It would also remove fear for them of having their work reviewed by Tom.


These feelings could have been perceived negatively by Tom. However, everything was said respectfully with Tom and his goals in mind. And even more important, Bill started on the foundation of benefits for Tom. People wanted to see Tom happier, and they said that he didn’t seem happy doing work the way he was currently doing it.


They really enjoyed Tom when he was in his space of designing architecture and introducing it to others. This would free him to be where he was most happy. Tom realized they were right. He told me later that he didn’t realize how much people actually cared about him.


Tom told the group about his worries and how it is so important that the architecture is implemented correctly. He gave examples where it was not. They had a discussion about that and Tom realized that most of the time it was correct. And when it wasn’t correct, the team either asked for help or fixed it themselves.


Tom asked the group to help him know when he was getting too deep into the technical areas that they should own. With much laughter, the group came up with a “warning word” to let Tom know when he was doing the work in a way they didn’t want him to be. The safe word was a micromanager, and that word was actually Tom’s suggestion.


Provide Space for Learning New Behaviors

Learning New Behaviors

In writing condensed versions of these case studies, it is too easy to make them sound like things were easy. It is too easy to make them sound like there were instant changes.


As noted, this can happen, but change is hard. It is more likely there is an apparent instant change in aspiration. People want to do well. And sometimes they have a remarkably good start.


However, good starts are often followed by stumbles into the previous behavior. These stumbles can be caused by stressful situations when people often revert to whichever habits were their strongest behavior patterns.


Sometimes, people are so used to behavior patterns that the strange new behaviors will make people “poke” them and try to change them in ways that bring back the familiar behavior.


Occasionally, someone who had a great focus on the new pattern will go on vacation and somehow get reset and come back to work in the old pattern again.


Tom had a combination of a vacation and coming back to a code review, where he discovered that an engineer had not followed the architectural rules. Tom immediately started to rewrite the design and code for the engineer. He was actually typing the code on the engineer’s personal computer!


The engineer sat there quietly resenting it but let Tom do it. It was a familiar pattern, and Tom truly thought the engineer was tTomful for his intervention.


Later that day, Bill was following up with that engineer and Tom in a meeting on a new feature request. She learned about what had just happened that morning. She called for a ten-minute meeting with just her and the two of them.


The meeting was as short as Bill promised. Bill said she wasn’t worried about Tom’s mistake. She was worried that he was not going to get the support he needed to achieve his big goals.


She knew that people need the space to make mistakes— and also the space to recover. She was focused on ensuring that there were rapid learning and correction. In ten minutes they came up with three actions.


Bill and Tom decided to have a ten-minute check-in with each other at the start of each week for the next four weeks so that they both stayed on track with the new expectations.


Tom said simply, “I made a mistake and I actually noticed! About halfway through I sensed I was off track, but I pushed on. I should have stopped and checked in. I will make sure I do that when I feel things are off.”


The engineer apologized. He said “I really should have said the micromanager warning word. It just seemed rude.” Tom said, “It wouldn’t have been. I might have been startled and maybe even initially angry.


However, it would not have been about you. I would have been angry at my mistake.” The engineer said he would tell his teammates about his mistake of not letting Tom know and about their agreement to not let it happen again.


Over the next four weeks, there were some similar mistakes. But they happened significantly less often and were caught when they were occurring.


Tom also found himself involved in the start of other projects that truly made him responsible for architecture across connected product lines. He was very gratified that he could now handle the work.


In the past, the current project would have consumed him and prevented him from doing the higher-level work required.


Set the Bar High

excellence high

It is important to set the bar of excellence high. It is a leadership mistake to recognize just effort. It is more important to recognize when success is achieved.


The key to the success of Bill’s leadership is that she didn’t dwell on the past but kept a positive view on learning with a future focus. In her ten-minute meetings with Tom on Mondays, she would ask Tom which of the benefits they agreed to were being realized.


She didn’t focus on mistakes. She kept Tom focused on his high bar. This bar of success was mutually created and agreed upon by Bill and Tom. Tom found this extremely motivating, obviously more motivating than hearing every week “Well, you did it wrong, again!”


Also, Bill encouraged Tom to recognize his own success and progress. She reinforced his observations with her own observations and suggestions. She did appreciate his effort, but her main focus was on recognizing not the effort but the achievement.


When her check-ins with engineers revealed that Tom had a flawless week with them as well as being successful with the new engineering projects, she knew it was time for public recognition. She suggested to Tom that they arrange a tTom-you lunch with the key developers who helped Tom achieve his success.


It was a powerful recognition of the effort and the journey, but even more important, Tom and Bill had created a bridge to successful improvement.



To be successful in helping people transform behaviors from troublesome to terrific, you must follow through. If you are running a race, do not stop at the finish line, run past the finish line. If you are providing feedback to someone who needs improvement, do not stop at the end of the meeting where you set a new goal, follow through!


I have three reflection point questions for this blog.

Can you think of actions Bill could have taken to make this situation worse? Which of those actions have you seen, or done?


Do you have any situations you are responsible for currently that require follow up? Are you applying proper actions to that follow-up? How do you know?


There are times when a leader has to decide between engaging in improvement and engaging in moving people out of the organization. What are the criteria you use to make this judgment?


Decision Time: Remove or Improve?

Decision Time

Your leadership obligation is to the group as a whole. The majority of this blog is dedicated to transforming the troublesome to the tremendous. Many of the examples focus on individuals. But do not be misled. The primary purpose that guides your action should have the overall mission of the group in mind.


Consider the case of Tom, the expert everyone wanted to run away from. With Bill’s help he was able to recover his trust with his teammates and improve his overall performance as well as that of the team and make larger contributions to the whole organization.


If Tom demonstrated that he was not interested in changing, what would have been the right thing for Bill to do?


What if attrition of the group was high and the people leaving said it was because of Tom’s behavior? Your actions must change depending on the circumstances to best meet the needs of the mission and your group.


There are circumstances where it is clear that it will not be possible for an individual to improve to the performance level required in the time required.


For example, there are situations where only a scant few weeks remain before the launch of a product. If someone is being especially disruptive, it is unlikely there is time to properly remedy the situation when everyone is already under stress.


However, even in this situation, you may think that saving the individual is critical for future organization improvement. All the factors involved could make you feel like your head is going in circles regarding what to do.


Unless the troublesome behavior is outright illegal, these decisions are rarely clear and easy to make. Is it the right time to remove or the right time to improve?


Evaluation Criteria for Remove or Improve


All decisions this important must be made in the context of the situation the leader is facing. A number of factors come into consideration. The following are the most important.


Has the individual shown the willingness and ability to take critical input and use it for self-improvement? If you do not have past evidence, it does not mean this is not possible, but it is a troublesome indicator.


If the person has issues and always indicates that the problem is not with her but with others, then the leader will have a significant challenge.


How well liked is the individual by the rest of the organization? Especially consider if this is a fractured group in which some love the troublesome individual while others are ready to quit. These details help determine not just the decision to remove or improve, but also the actions to take in each case.


Is the individual able to raise the ability of others through collaboration? Individuals who can bring together a diverse set of abilities and personalities are important assets to organizations. Collaboration skills that are low or negative can negate positive technical skills.


Do the technical skills and experience of the individual fit the needs of the project today? Are those skills exemplary or ordinary? The big question is how much impact the removal of this individual will have on the project.


Keep in mind that in some cases the removal of an individual means a productivity boost for the group as a whole. This can occur when the person is causing disruptions because of a personality issue or because of poor quality work.


Do the skills and experience of the individual fit the needs of future projects? It is important for the exceptional leader to always keep an eye on the horizon. Is it going to be important to nurture these skills for a future project or is this project the last gasp for an older technology?


How likely will you be able to acquire the skills this individual has from outside the organization in a timely manner? This is a critical factor. In some markets, many skilled people are readily available. In other job markets, this could be a long, difficult search.


The other set of criteria to consider are the choices that you have available to you. Each of these must be considered before acting.

  •  You can do nothing and see if the situation corrects itself. This is rarely the best solution but should be carefully considered.
  •  You can try to help the person correct the situation within the job the person holds.

There can be small modifications to the current job. This is what Bill did with Tom. Note that it was a correction toward what she really needed and what Tom wanted.


  • The person can be moved to a new position or new responsibility in the same project.
  •  The person can be moved to a different part of the organization.
  •  The person can be removed from the project and the organization.
  •  You could hire an external expert to help coach the person to improve.


Using these criteria-based questions and options will help raise the leader above an emotional response to difficult situations, and enable him or her to begin to think clearly about both the situation and the best actions to take.


As noted before, the table will not make the decision. You have to make a decision. If you feel stuck on the horns of what the best option is, especially if it is the removal or improve decision, talk to someone who can help.


If you work in an organization where you work for other people, get your manager involved. Delegate upward! If you are the CEO, talk to a trusted peer. The trusted person may be able to provide insights that you are missing.


Let’s look at an example of improve and one of remove.


Save One to Energize the Whole

Exceptional leaders take people to new levels that they did not know were possible. If faced with a situation where someone is headed in a direction counter to the success of the group, it is also an opportunity to take the whole group to a new level of performance.


When Bill was thinking about the trouble with Tom she filled out my table in her private noteblog. It looked like this.

  • Ability to take feedback and improve.
  • Well loved?
  • Collaboration skills.
  • Skills and experience versus current needs.
  • Skills and experience versus future needs.

If removed, will it be difficult to acquire the skills we need in the time frame needed? (+2 is very hard, -2 easy)


For Bill doing this was illuminating. Tom’s skills were high, and his skills were needed now and in the future. This coupled with his relatively rare skills and experience would make it very hard to replace him. Removing him would be detrimental to the overall project. Bill also knew that doing nothing was not an option.


She also saw that there were two things she really didn’t know. She knew that the developers were very frustrated with Tom but no one had quit because of him. Was that a risk? She really didn’t know.


She also didn’t know Tom well enough to know if he could take the input to improve. This clouded her judgment on which action would be most effective. She thought she already knew, but she wanted to find out.


She talked to other leaders who had worked with Tom. She received mixed information about his ability to take input. There were enough people who were very positive that she decided to go into the meeting with the absolute belief that Tom would want to improve.


She had the meeting with Tom and found that he could take input and was willing to try to change. She also had walkabouts to talk with developers that didn’t reveal that anyone was upset enough to leave. She decided she had the time to improve the situation and that the group’s success really did need Tom’s skills.


The decision to go for improvement was obvious.

  • Sacrifice One to Save the Whole
  • Sometimes the best decision is to remove. Consider the case of Steve and the projects that were in deep trouble.


Steve was an executive responsible for multiple business lines. One division had such significant quality and service issues that he was afraid they would result in losing the division’s two main customers. That division’s business was a break-even venture at best.


Losing the number 1 and number 2 customers would not be a fatal stroke, but it would be close. Getting new customers with the current issues was a major concern but, even worse, if the company did get a new major customer, Steve believed that it would break the organization.


Steve hired me as an expert consultant to help specifically with that division. He felt he had troubles in the other divisions, but this business line was in jeopardy of going out of business without significant action being taken.


We started work on designing an intervention for that specific division. While working, I noticed that he was getting into details that really belonged well below his level of leadership. I asked him why he was getting into that level of detail in this case, unlike the problems in the other divisions where he was very quick to delegate.


Steve paused and looked at me thoughtfully. Noticing the long pause, I asked him the hard question. “Will the manager in the troubled division be able to lead them out of trouble?”


Steve’s answer was a meandering one that could be accurately summarized as “I do not know.” I followed up with another question. “Steve, will you ever trust that manager enough to let him run the division? Your attention to this level of detail indicates to me that you don’t trust him now.”


Steve saw the point I was driving toward and said, “I do not trust him now. Most of the troubles in that division should have been prevented by him. Many of the troubles he is having with employees lead back to his lack of tact with the customers and his own employees.


I really don’t think I could ever trust him to run this division. However, he has been with our company for a long time and really knows the business. If you are suggesting firing him, that would be wrong.”


I said, “Steve, let’s stop here and pick this up tomorrow. I want you to think about what your responsibility is. In my opinion, it is to the overall division employees and their customers.


 Furthermore, you are responsible for all the divisions. Your attention cannot be focused on just the one. You are giving me mixed messages on this executive. For us to be successful, you must be willing to trust this individual and give him the responsibility to improve this division’s results.”


Collaboration skills.

  • Skills and experience versus current needs.
  • Skills and experience versus future needs.
  • If removed, will it be difficult to acquire the skills we need in the time frame needed? (+2 is very hard, -2 easy)


Steve now looked confident, but a bit unhappy and said, “You are right. My responsibility is to each of the divisions and to each of the divisions’ customers and employees. Not to any single division and its leader. The right thing is that this leader finds different employment. I am prepared to terminate his employment.”


Steve explained the table to me. He related multiple occasions when he had asked the manager to change his methods and attitudes. Steve was especially vivid about how that manager had been unprofessional with customers who were still mad at him after an incident more than a year ago.


When Steve asked him to apologize, he refused, saying it was their problem. Based on this and other interactions, Steve was convinced the manager could not take feedback and improve.


When Steve considered the question if the manager in question was “well-loved,” he found it was a split decision. Steve said there was a small handful of people who did love this manager. Yet many in the group would be happy if he was removed. Steve put representative “X” marks in that row to show this split decision.


Steve explained that it would not be easy to find the right replacement. However, when he thought about the time frame, he realized that the long-term health of the division was more important than finding a fast replacement. He was ready to terminate the troublesome leader and put an acting manager into position during the search for the new manager.


The questions we must consider are the following: “Did Steve make the right decision? Could he have saved the one to energize the whole? Did he have to sacrifice the one to save the whole?”


Steve made the hard decision because of these critical factors:

  •  The group was on the verge of losing top customers. 
  • Those customers did not trust the division’s products.
  • There were at least a few who did not trust that manager.
  •  There were a number of employees in the group who Steve knew would “dance in the aisles” when the manager left.
  •  The troublesome leader had not provided any previous evidence that he was willing to improve.


Steve knew that he made the right decision especially because the situation was becoming more urgent. Losing a customer seemed very possible, which would likely be an event that could end the business line. Steve had to act quickly and needed a person he could trust in the role.


In fact, Steve was now upset he had not acted sooner. He had known about this trouble for a long time but admitted he had never had the discussions with the troublesome leader as outlined in this blog. The past did not matter; Steve had to act in the best interest of the group that existed as it did today.


The change was very disruptive to the group, as expected. However, Steve was able to use his decisive move to make it clear that he had a high level of expectation for the entire organization. There were many other actions taken that helped the organization be successful. 


The key was that Steve made the decision to remove with careful consideration and with the success of the group as a whole in mind. This mindset was the key that led this improvement effort to success.



Consider these questions.

  •  Review the criteria for “sacrificing the one.” Do you have other criteria?
  •  Are there times you can remember that you feel you acted too swiftly?
  •  Are there times you remember that you did not act swiftly enough?
  •  Are there are any situations that you should be following up on now?