Tag Archives: Continuous Learning

Leadership is Dead and our Performance Evaluation Processes Lie

“If your actions inspire others to dream more, learn more, do more and become more – you are a leader.” – John Quincy Adams

Please read the descriptions of “The Five Practices of Exemplary Leadership” below.

If you have people in positions of authority in your organization and they are not consistently demonstrating these behaviors, they should be getting poor performance reviews and you should be putting them on an improvement plan or moving them out.

Done laughing? Unfortunately it’s easier to just look the other way and perpetuate the myth.

You want innovation, engagement, accountability? I contend that the slow death of real leadership is the root cause of most of the problems we experience in our work environments today.

For a multitude of reasons, we have collectively lost sight of what real leadership looks like. Instead we have defaulted to a norm-based evaluation process, i.e., compared to everyone else, this leader is OK. This would not be an issue if your leaders were all true leaders. But what I see across organization after organization is that the whole lot have marginal management skills and absolutely no leadership ability. It’s essentially the same as the social promotion problem we see in public schools. If we were to adopt a criterion-referenced evaluation system and measured leadership against a standard like that described below, we’d have no one left to run the place. We have somehow slipped to the point where we all hold our noses, lie to ourselves, and no one dares explode the myth. The emperor has the finest clothes in the land!

Suppose we evaluated all people-managers against these five competencies?

The Five Practices of Exemplary Leadership

1. Model the Way – Clarify Values, Set the Example
Leaders establish principles concerning the way people (constituents, peers, colleagues, and customers alike) should be treated and the way goals should be pursued. They create standards of excellence and then set an example for others to follow. Because the prospect of complex change can overwhelm people and stifle action, they set interim goals so that people can achieve small wins as they work toward larger objectives. They unravel bureaucracy when it impedes action; they put up signposts when people are unsure of where to go or how to get there; and they create opportunities for victory.

2. Inspire a Shared Vision – Envision the Future, Enlist Others
Leaders passionately believe that they can make a difference. They envision the future, creating an ideal and unique image of what the organization can become. Through their magnetism and quiet persuasion, leaders enlist others in their dreams. They breathe life into their visions and get people to see exciting possibilities for the future.

3. Challenge the Process – Search for Opportunities, Experiment and Take Risks
Leaders search for opportunities to change the status quo. They look for innovative ways to improve the organization. In doing so, they experiment and take risks. And because leaders know that risk taking involves mistakes and failures, they accept the inevitable disappointments as learning opportunities.

4. Enable Others to Act – Foster Collaboration, Strengthen Others
Leaders foster collaboration and build spirited teams. They actively involve others. Leaders understand that mutual respect is what sustains extraordinary efforts; they strive to create an atmosphere of trust and human dignity. They strengthen others, making each person feel capable and powerful.

5. Encourage the Heart – Recognize Contributions, Celebrate the Values and Victories
Accomplishing extraordinary things in organizations is hard work. To keep hope and determination alive, leaders recognize contributions that individuals make. In every winning team, the members need to share in the rewards of their efforts, so leaders celebrate accomplishments. They make people feel like heroes.
These Five Practices of Exemplary Leadership above were codified by Kouzes & Posner in “The Leadership Challenge” first published in 1987 – what I consider to be the gold standard of leadership books (now in its 5th Edition). They are remarkably similar to the leadership traits that Simon Sinek describes in his latest book “Leaders Eat Last.” If you have not seen this TED video yet, please watch it.

Ask yourself this question when you do your next performance review of anyone in a leadership role; who would follow them if they left for another job? If the answer is “no one” then you better re-think how you define leadership and think twice about that “Meets/Exceeds Expectations” rating.

Show your senior leadership team the Simon Sinek video. Show them Five Practices of Exemplary Leadership. Ask them to reflect and self-assess. Start the discussion. Light the fuse. That is the true leadership challenge.


The Key to Accountability: “We should…” vs. “I will…”

“Everyone thinks of changing the world, but no one thinks of changing himself.”   – Leo Tolstoy

I have frequently been asked, “How can our organization increase accountability?” And I typically respond with something like, “Make an action plan and then publicize it.” It’s well-understood that making a public commitment is a very powerful motivator.

There’s strong empirical evidence to show that a choice made actively – one that’s spoken out loud or written down or otherwise made explicit – is considerably more likely to direct someone’s future conduct than the same choice left unspoken. [1]

This is very simple, and easy to do. But for some reason, organizations struggle with getting to that public commitment.

I think I’ve stumbled upon the missing link.

To make a long story short: I was recently part of a series of division-level planning meetings. There were many ideas raised, dutifully recorded on flip charts, and there were good discussions and acclaims of, “Yes, we should do that.”

Toward the final hour of the last meeting, the division leader ended the discussion and challenged his team – It’s time to stop the “we should…” and start the “I will…”

The impact of this simple statement was astonishing. I’ve been reflecting on it since then, trying to put my finger on what had happened. Here’s what I came up with:

We should - I will table

  1. Consensus is the enemy of accountability – it can prevent it. It “feels good” and teams have a sense of accomplishment after reaching a consensus. But a leader who lets a discussion end at “we should…” is enabling the inaction problem.
  2. “We should…” allows room for pie-in-the-sky ideas. There is a time and place for that. But “I will…” immediately causes you to focus on what is actually achievable within your control; within your time and resource constraints. We should solve world hunger – who disagrees with that? What will you do to solve world hunger?
  3. Similarly, “we should…” allows thinking in long time-frames, while “I will…” results in near-term focus.
  4. “We should…” allows undefined solutions – i.e., “we should automate that process.” “I will…” thinking makes you think of the actual process of developing a solution. I.e., I will sponsor a meeting to define the goal and begin documenting the current state.
  5. “We should; reduce scrap, improve customer satisfaction, decrease cycle-time.” All of these examples are good goals, but they are not actionable. Instead, try “I will; propose two ways to reduce scrap, Improve customer satisfaction, decrease cycle-time.” These are tangible actions that an individual can plan to execute.


Too frequently, teams mistakenly think that their goal is simply to agree on something they “should” do; a vision, a goal, or a direction. If you are coaching a business leader, remind them; As soon as you agree on “we should…” – follow it up with “I will…”

[1] Cialdini, Robert B. “Harnessing the Science of Persuasion.” Harvard Business Review, October 2001: 72-79.

Sparking Creativity – How to Get Good Ideas

I had the good fortune to catch Austin Kleon, pitching his latest book and talking about creativity, at Translator in Milwaukee over this summer.  During his talk he posed an interesting question that turns out to be really insightful: Are you a net giver or receiver of good ideas?  

It’s great to share your ideas with others, and there are many good reasons why you should continue to do that, but this is about input.  Are you getting enough new ideas?  We all know the importance of continuous learning – we preach it all the time!  But are we practicing it?

I took Austin’s question to heart.  I thought about my net idea ratio.  I decided to increase my idea input.  A list of suggestions follows.  Some of these came from Austin Kleon, some from me.  Some I was already doing, some I’ve started doing.  Some I plan on doing.

Where can you get ideas?  Give some of these a try:

  • Join the local chapters of professional organization like the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) or the American Society for Training and Development (ASTD) or others.  Most offer monthly chapter meetings where you can hear from others outside of your normal circles, and do some networking as well.   Membership in most of these groups’ national organizations will probably get you a subscription to a good magazine too.
  • Just go to the TED website right now and get on their mailing list.  There is so much good stuff on TED that you can spend weeks watching it all.  My suggestion: Find a bunch of stories you want to hear, download the audio or video to your computer, transfer it to your mobile device and listen to it during your commute.
  • Subscribe to a great general interest magazine like Atlantic, Harpers, or Vanity Fair.  They feature very well-written, thought-provoking articles in every issue.  There are lots of others.  Go to the magazine section in your local library or book store and browse a few.
  • Subscribe to professional magazines like Harvard Business Review, or Strategy + Business.  They usually have well-researched, business-related articles.  Magazines such as Wired and Fast Company, if nothing else, will keep you up to date on cutting edge technology.
  • This is counterintuitive, but you should pursue your hobbies and the arts.  Go fishing, build a model airplane – do things that make you happy – that recharge you – and take your mind off of the sources of anxiety in your life.
  • Do things that might inspire you. Go to a museum, or a concert.  Go on an architecture tour in a nearby city.  Go to a national park.
  • Take a walk!  The link between moderate exercise and mental and physical health is well-known.   Plan 20-30 minutes into you work schedule at lunch time to go outside and take a walk.  Try it.  You’ll feel better, and think better, in the afternoon every time.  Make this an “A” priority.  It’s as important, maybe more important, than any meeting you will attend.
  • Use your hands!  This is a great one from Austin Kleon.  Step away from the computer.  Get paper, pencils, color markers, scissors, glue sticks, post-its.  Write, draw, doodle.  Get tactile!

Every organization is trying to foster innovation.  We are all individually challenged to boost our creativity.  These are just a few ways that we can make that happen.   For more ideas, visit Austin Kleon’s website – Steal Like an Artist.