Listening Leadership

By Joseph Gurreri, Member, Executive Leadership Alliance International

You’ve heard it said:  “Great leaders lead,” although if nobody is following, where is the leadership?  Authority trumps power in today’s social-media information age.  Effective contemporary leaders are attuned to the ‘vibe’ of both the team and customer.  Accessing that vibe is not as mystical as it seems: clues abound by approaching ‘listening’ less as an art and more as a skill, which requires practice.  Effective listening first requires awareness of the leader’s own communication preferences, which affects their ability to listen, empathize, and respond with the best results.   

Robert K. Greenleaf coined the phrase “Servant Leader” with qualities including: listening, empathy, and persuasion, leading to growth.  ( )  Acquiring these qualities tend to give a leader ‘authority’ rather than simply ‘power’.  The ‘listening’ skill is the locomotive to all these other skills.  “Active Listening” is a technique, which appeals to hard driving Type A leaders.  There are three primary elements that comprise active listening: comprehending, retaining, and responding.  Although a plethora of books abound on the topic, one under represented concept is how personality styles affect a leader’s ability to do these things well.  A leader’s personality style significantly affects their comprehending and responding ability.  Some must work harder than others, depending upon their audience.

Personality styles drive communication preferences.  One can assess styles with indicators such as the MBTI (Myers Briggs Personality Type Indicator ) or the lesser known Enneagram Theory ( ).  Each offer insight on the leader’s preferred intake of information, how meetings should ideally be led, and how reports and proposals are prepared.  Awareness is the first step toward communication effectiveness, but it doesn’t stop there: the leader must also assess their listeners, so they can appeal to that ‘following’ audience to get the results they’re seeking.  

Too often leaders insist their team adapt to the leader’s style without consideration of their team’s communication needs.  For example, a leader who had made his mark in sales or marketing is likely to shut down a team comprised of analysts, without sensitivity to some common style characteristics.  Understanding one’s own preferences is the first step toward meeting the audience at their ideal following point.  After listening is mastered, then empathy, persuasion, and growth follow… along with your teams.

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The Keen Leader

By Glen Fillion, Member, Executive Leadership Alliance International

There are two polar opposite management approaches that in the short term can achieve high performance from an organization.  One is the command-and-control approach that injects fear into the people in the organization to motivate them to higher levels of striving.   Harder striving can produce some immediate improvement in measurable results.  Whether or not this results in higher performance in the longer term is doubtful.  The second approach is a hands-off approach that places complete responsibility for performance in the hands of those actually doing the work of the organization.  Lying at the extremes of the management spectrum, neither approach will produce long lasting or continuously improving results.

At the center of this spectrum is the management approach that utilizes effective team building, empowerment and accountability.  This approach will take more time, but in the end will achieve better long term performance and consistent results.  Most managers and indeed most management training focuses on this approach.  But when might injecting a little bit of fear in the organization generate some benefits, and when might gentle prodding get better results?

The answer depends upon the state in which the organization finds itself when a new manager arrives.  This is the “situational flexibility” referred to by our previous blogger, Jim Wilcox.   It also depends upon whether the new manager is promoted from within the organization or brought in from the outside.  On one hand, if the organization is dysfunctional and failing in many ways, then command-and-control is essential to stanch the bleeding.  This should be implemented carefully, and hopefully, temporarily.  Team building and empowerment can begin after the organization has been rescued.  Almost no organization requires a continuous wartime military approach.

On the other hand, a smoothly functioning, “well-oiled machine” can often mask complacency and laziness in the organization.   This leaves the organization self satisfied and vulnerable to competitive changes in customers and markets.  A hands-off approach will not work for long.  A proactive approach that focuses on continuous improvement of performance indicators is essential.

In conclusion, I believe that people and teams perform best when somewhat stressed.  That stress can be applied in both negative and positive ways that can possibly either diminish or enhance organizational behavior and performance.  It is the keen leader who will have the insight on whether or when best to apply either approach.

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By John F. Berger, Member, Executive Leadership Alliance International

You may be Chairman or Chief of Something, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that you are a good leader.  History will be the final judge.  Leadership is a serious endeavor.  Good leadership makes good things happen in a sustainable way and generates an authentic following in an organization and in an industry.  Good leadership makes all the difference.

 My “top five” basics of good leadership are:

  1.  Integrity.  This is always number one and encompasses a lot; namely the firm adherence to honesty, moral and ethical behaviors, at all times and under all circumstances.  Since leaders define or highly influence the organization’s culture, leaders need core values that are clearly articulated and easily understood on the major issues of life.  Choices between expediency and integrity present themselves hourly, but there should be no debate about the proper choice! 
  2. Good Judgment. Like most graduates of The Harvard Business School, I used to believe that brains were everything.  My new mantra is: I’ll take a leader with superior judgment over a leader with superior intellect!  Why?  Good judgment involves discernment and common sense (which is not always so common), enabling better decisions to be made quicker.   
  3. Commitment to the Organization Over Self.  Good leaders are committed more to the organization’s success than their personal ambition (ego or financial).  Sense of fiduciary duty and responsibility keeps them humble and listening.  The good leaders always look to bring the “best talent” into the organization. 
  4. Guts.  Good leaders formulate and implement tough decisions before adverse circumstances make them do it.  This takes guts!  Back in the 1990’s, as Chairman of Caterpillar, Don Fites made an “almost bet-the-company-decision” to renegotiate Cat’s labor agreements.  The following years were rugged for Caterpillar and Mr. Fites, but in the end the tough decision positioned the company and the employees to win in the global marketplace over the last decade. 
  5. Balance.  In this 24/7/365 digital world, it’s easy to get totally wrapped up in your leadership position.  Home and family can become the first things to drop off the priority list and yet the greatest rewards a leader will ever get will come from what is accomplished there.  Beyond home and family, friends and recreation are also very important in maintaining the life balance required to be a good leader.

No one is a perfect leader.  If you’re in a position of leadership, I encourage you to think about the basics of good leadership and I sincerely hope history will accord you the honor of “good leader”!

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Flexible Leadership

By Jim Wilcox, Member, Executive Leadership Alliance International

Often, we in leadership are asked to describe our leadership style. We dutifully respond with what each of us believe to be the right mix of answers encompassing such concepts as results oriented, team approach, good listener, compassionate, etc. While these may be appropriate words to describe typical leadership behaviors, the real world demands a much more flexible approach.

Consider this: Your home is burning and the fire trucks arrive. The Chief calls the firefighters together and says: “who wants to do hoses today and who wants to do ladders?” If your fire hasn’t already melted you, I’m sure hearing the Chief would finish you off.

Conversely, with a large team of researchers looking for a cure for cancer, the leader will likely be most effective by NOT barking out orders nor operating in total command and control.

What is the difference—aren’t these both appropriate leadership roles? The answer is the situation and circumstances being faced at the moment. It is likely that for both the firefighters and researchers a broad range of leadership styles will be beneficial over a course of time. I submit that all leaders (regardless of industry or business or functional role) face a wide variety of situations, which appropriately call for swings in style from command/control to highly facilitative. A group of people that are growing together as a powerful and skilled team demand less command and control and more participative leadership.

A true leadership skill is knowing when and how to use a variety of styles. Situational leadership and flexing your style to meet the needs requires a keen assessment of the situation, as well as understanding the capabilities of those you are leading. If you get it wrong, the house can burn down or your team might walk out on you.

Training available at:

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Leadership: The Tone at the Top

By Gary C. Parks, Member, Executive Leadership Alliance International

Leadership is about the “Tone at the Top.” For me it always has been. Throughout my career I have known good leaders and bad leaders. Good leaders survive and grow, while bad leaders eventually go by the wayside. The head of the organization or department sets the tenor for progress or fear of change and failure. A good leader does not necessarily need to be liked, but certainly needs to be respected.

In a bit of oversimplification, contemporaries have thrived when they have had the opportunity to fail. A framework of openness and trust makes it easy and transparent to move companies forward and engenders responsibility. When strategically looking at opportunities and threats, competitive advantages are juxtaposed against binding constraints to try to get a handle on the “roadmap” forward. Communication of strategy and goals and an open environment for accepting refinement and change to these goals and strategy grows from and by providing a safe haven for dissent. Leaders have to be willing to move away from incremental changes to going toward what Adam Hartung in Create Marketplace Disruption calls the “White Space.” Tweaking what is currently done is always trumped by a visionary. Look at Apple. A strong, confident leader sets this with the “Tone at the Top.” A confident leader knows what he/she needs as a complimentary skill set and uses those individuals’ reservoir of talent.

The tone and reputation of a company pervades the organization and reaches into the marketplace. Employees respect and support leaders who treat those employees with fairness. This provides the foundation for not allowing a spark of vision to deteriorate into a pipedream. This may sound a bit “corny”, but it is applicable to all sizes of companies. Companies with effective leadership thrive and grow when they innovate. No matter how large, companies with ineffective leaders disappear. Just look at the change in composition of the S&P 500 over the last 20 years.

Links for articles/thoughts on leadership break-your-business-in-2011/

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Leadership Development – An Essential in All Economies

By Dave Radomski, Member, Executive Leadership Alliance International

Even though many companies have “tightened their belts” in this difficult economy, the development of leadership holds the key to the future. Crisis may be an overused word, but it’s a fair description of the state of leadership in today’s corporations. At all levels, companies are short on the quantity and quality of leaders they need.

From my observations of dozens of companies around the world, from technology startups to global powerhouses such as General Electric and Colgate-Palmolive, I have seen those which excel in leadership development do so because they consider it an everyday endeavor and lay responsibility for it squarely at their managers’ doors. Managers in these organizations use their own leadership prowess to help the high-potential leaders who report to them unleash their talents in their current job, raise their sights to envision the next position, and clear the path to get there. Because they see people in action, they know better than anyone else what an individual excels at or what he or she should work on next.

Managing with leadership development as a priority rest on these critical activities:

• Identifying just one or two areas where improvement will yield the largest returns
• Delivering deliberate precise feedback that targets those areas

In fact, it won’t only be the high potentials who will benefit from this approach, managing with this level of consistency and focus will boost the performance of everyone in the unit.

Assessing the High Potential’s Performance

Social Acumen

• Does he or she communicate in a way that reduces conflict and creates a free flow of ideas and information?
• How skillful is he or she at identifying and leveraging others’ talents?
• Is he or she putting the right people in the right jobs?

Business Acumen

• How well does he or she balance long-term and short-term objectives?
• Does he or she spot and seize opportunities?
• Does he or she detect when old ways of making money have become obsolete and figure out a new money-making model?
• How thoroughly does he or she evaluate risks?

When managers focus on leadership development, everyone benefits. The organization gets a broad and deep pool of emerging leaders. The high potentials receive targeted, on-the-spot coaching. And the managers themselves become talent magnets, attracting the smartest, hardest working employees to their unit and getting the most value from them while they’re there.

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By Daniel Scales, Member, Executive Leadership Alliance International

According to Henry A. Kissinger, notable American diplomat and statesman,

“The task of the leader is to get his people from where they are to where they have not been”.

A leader may be a teacher, coach, boss, politician, parent or friends. Although we have preconceived ideas of what true leadership means, a great leader is a team player.

I always considered my father a strong leader. He had a quiet strength with moral beliefs and strong family values. He continually had answers to family dilemmas and made problems simple. My father was considered an honest and consistent leader at work. His employees trusted him. He believed in empowering his team to make decisions, doing what was morally right and became successful.

With almost thirty years of business experience, I have witnessed and experienced all types of leadership, but only one of my bosses truly stands out as a true and winning leader. Perhaps I was just young and impressionable, but I will never forget my first boss for her inspiration and guidance. She continually motivated her team to reach new heights. She possessed a clear vision and strategy for growing the business and making it a reality.

I learned from her that leaders don’t always have all of the answers. They know how to ask the right questions, to listen, and to challenge people. She demonstrated a passion for the business and for her team and encouraged risk taking and decisive action. She encouraged me to strive for excellence: for myself, my colleagues and our business.

Although I have never worked for Jack Welch, the former CEO of General Electric, I have read several of his books and have had the opportunity to hear him speak. His management style and leadership skills propelled GE to be one of the most successful corporations in America.

Welch preached that you must do whatever it takes to create a diligent and talented team; employees not only need to deliver results, but must also support the company culture and values. I treasure his motto of not getting stuck in the past and agree with his philosophy of making speedy decisions and letting your team run with it. According to Welch, the best time to make changes to an organization is when your business is not in crises or under duress. Welch considered change an opportunity.

Now, more than ever, business requires building and maintaining a group of ambitious employees to win. Visionary leaders have to pick the right team, listen for ideas from everyone and lead by example. Who you pick for your team and how you lead them will hold the key to future success.

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Wanted: Leaders with Soft Skills?

By Chris Campbell – Executive Leadership Alliance International

I was intrigued by a recent article indicating that large tech firms are seeking executives that not only have traditional business and technical skills, but leaders  that are more emotionally mature and can communicate, persuade,  listen, and get along with others.  It seems that “command and control” types can seek employment elsewhere because in today’s economy, employees are stretched, stressed, and ready to jump ship as soon as the economy improves.  This requires a softer style and a paradigm shift in leadership styles.  My guess is that this may be a short lived trend, but there is no doubt that successful leaders are relationship and trust builders and this economy certainly requires one to be more subtle and sensitive to the needs of others.  It is the corporate version of the old medical adage about needing good “bedside manners”, i.e. the need to treat people with respect and dignity rather than simply barking orders. 

I believe that good leaders should have a variety of competencies that are adaptable to the needs of the organization.  Soft skills are great when an organization is going through an evolutionary stage, but clearly a vastly different style is needed when an organization needs revolutionary change. 

Regardless of one’s style, no one will remain in a leadership position if they can’t deliver results.  Today’s workforce is more collaborative than ever before and, as leaders, we could all benefit by improving our soft skills.

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A Leader for All Seasons

By Philip W. Bertram, Member, Executive Leadership Alliance International

Paul Olsen, English Professor and Men’s Track and Cross Country Coach at Augustana College in Rock Island, IL is my hero.  For 43 years, he has and continues to inspire his students and team members to ever greater achievement.  His zest for life and enthusiasm for teaching and motivating others remains contagious and a model for any leader to follow.

In May 2010, the Augustana College Track Team won the 2010 CCIW conference track meet by overcoming a 67 point deficit after the first event on the meet’s second day.  Final Score: Augustana 262, runner-up and chief rival, North Central 260.

When addressing his team the following Monday, Coach Olsen outlined the importance each team member played in the victory.  He lauded them for their individual perseverance and collective support of one another.  He complemented them for not losing faith, even though they trailed in meet scoring by a significant amount and were faced with difficult weather conditions, superior competition on paper, and some self-inflicted miscues.  He praised their determination in the face of adversity and their will to do whatever it took to reach one of their most important team goals.

As an English Professor often does, he drew inspiration from an author – Swedish novelist, Karl Lagerfeld.  He highlighted the following quote for them.

“The wealth of life is boundless.  The wealth of life is as great as we can grasp.  Can we ask for more?  When, nevertheless, we do ask for more, then all the incomprehensible exists as well.  All is within our grasp.  As soon as we are able to reach our hand for something…as soon as we get the feeling something is, immediately it is.  Can we ask for more?”

In sharing this quote with his team, Paul Olsen told them they accomplished something vastly more important for their continued growth and success.  They believed in achieving a goal and never gave up!  They exhibited belief in a common goal, tenacity to keep at it regardless of the odds against them, and a support for each other that creates bonds and inspiration for a lifetime of continued growth and success.

After reading this, you may ask – so why is Paul Olsen your hero?  Why do you consider him a leader for all seasons?

I have a simple answer – he is my coach, mentor, and leader, too.  Thirty-nine years ago, Paul Olsen was my English Professor for freshman composition.  He challenged me to write more effectively and helped me gain the confidence necessary to share my thoughts succinctly whenever I did write.  He also invited and challenged me to become part of something larger than myself – he asked me to become a student track coach/manager for him.

The experiences I had as part of that track team for four years were incredible.  Just as the 2010 team was taught perseverance, teamwork, support for others and to address every challenge head on, I and my teammates were, too.  During my four years at Augie, we received the same guidance and nurturing that still occurs today. 

Whenever I see or hear Ols’, he inspires me.  This latest example adds even more to my admiration of his leadership and motivational skills.  He represents everything that I strive to be as a leader:

  • a visionary, someone who sees what his team can accomplish;
  • a teacher, someone who equips his team for a challenge, eliminates barriers to effective performance, and empowers them to take action, but also lets them learn from their mistakes;
  • a motivator and cheerleader, who encourages team members to persevere and strive to accomplish more than they thought they could, especially when things become difficult; and
  • a humble man, who lauds the team’s accomplishments and encourages them to see how the current accomplishment prepares them for the next challenge.

I hope you can find similar examples of excellent leaders in your life.  Maybe, like Paul Olsen, they can inspire you to grow as a leader every day.

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Stay in Your Own Story

By Bill Witkewicz, Member, Executive Leadership Alliance

In a recent Chicago Tribune column “The Talk”, Steve Johnson discussed several fast food companies’   product range or menu extensions.  Among the examples mentioned were Noodles & Company’s new sandwich offerings, falafel at Subway, along with “chocolate lava crunch cake” and Buffalo wings at Domino’s Pizza.   Clearly the writer was not particularly fond of the increasing diversification by these fast food purveyors.  He noted his preference for the simple and unchanging menu selections at Jimmy John’s, Five Guys, and Chipotle.  To express his criticism of the expanding offerings at many food outlets, he referenced a statement made by an audience member on the Jerry Springer Show.  When one guest was a bit overly opinionated concerning another guest on the show, this audience member admonished the guest with the instruction, “you need to stay in your own story”. 

While I admit to being similarly puzzled and skeptical about some of these fast food menu expansions, it’s not my intent to debate their merits, nor the merits of the Jerry Springer Show.  However the column and that statement did strike a chord with me.  It reminded me of what I think is the most important contribution leaders make.  Using the analogy presented, leaders must create “the story” for their business.   In other words they must define the business, set the strategic direction for it, and perhaps most importantly, express the vision that informs and energizes the entire organization.  Successful leaders do this well, and there is clarity of purpose for all employees in companies that know their “story”.    

Once the “story” is set, the relevance of this statement is clear; “stay in it”.  Expressed another way “stick to the knitting”, a phrase initially used in a business context by Tom Peters I think.  I have often found this to be the more difficult challenge in leading organizations, as it’s not easy to keep ones team consistently aligned with the key strategic direction.  I have sometimes found that to clarify and define what we do, its helps to put constraints or limits around the strategy by explaining what we don’t or won’t do.  Keeping to the food analogy, we make and sell noodles, not sandwiches and soup.  Leaders at all levels in an organization have to say no once in a while, that’s not our business or our strategy.  It could be that it does not fit with what’s been defined as the products and service offered, or it does not meet the needs of the markets that have been selected, or does not build on the core competencies and capabilities of the organization.      

Staying in the story seems particularly relevant now as several well-known companies have either announced or recently carried out significant restructuring or splits.  Among those that come immediately to mind are Motorola, Fortune Brands, Sara Lee and ITT.  Could it be that their respective stories just become too complex to convey?   Successful leaders are able to convey and set tight control of the main strategic direction, while creating an environment with looser control over the implementation, stimulating a spirit of entrepreneurship and individual initiative.  When successful, it shouldn’t be necessary to remind people “to stay in your story”.                      

Upcoming Events of Interest

Description of Event Dates Location
Association for Corporate Growth – Annual Meeting – “InterGrowth 2011”

3/21-23/ 2011 Manchester Grand Hyatt,

San Diego, CA

FEI 2011 Leadership Summit –

“Blueprint for Change”

4/3-5/2011 Arizona Biltmore Resort & Spa,

Phoenix, AZ

Strategic Financial Leadership Program (SFLP) presented by Tuck Executive Education at Dartmouth

Strategic Financial Leadership Program (SFLP)

5/8-13/2011 Dartmouth

Hanover, NH



Interesting Articles

Description of Article Link to Article
Wall Street Journal – Lessons in Leadership Section
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