The Difference Leadership Makes

I was watching one of those pseudo-documentaries about the American Navy SEALs on the History Channel the other night(1), and an interesting little tidbit came up during the part where the teams are trying to get their boats past the surf and out into the ocean. If you’ve never seen this exercise (or “evolution” in Navy-speak), it’s actually an entertaining spectacle.

Instructors divide the class into boat teams, each with a student leader. Then there’s all the usual running around with the inflatable dingy carried above their heads, yelling and screaming, push-ups in the sand, and so on. When the surf conditions are just right (the ideal seems to be a combined high-tide and a storm surge, with multiple metre-high waves), the instructors send the boat teams out in the surf. The first team past the surf gets to sit out the next evolution. Everyone else, on the principle that “second place is first loser”, gets to do more running around with the dingy above their heads, push-ups in the sand, etc.

You just can’t get past the surf without everyone working together. You can see a clip of the exercise here: Navy SEAL BUD/S Training – Surf Passage(2)

Image result for surf passage

In the episode I was watching, the instructors noticed that one team was consistently last (and therefore earned their special, unwanted attention), and one team was consistently first (and got the break). So the instructors decided to run an experiment. They took the crew leader(3) from the worst boat and switched him with the leader from the best boat.

The two crews switched results in the race, dramatically and immediately. The last place boat became the first place boat and vice-versa.

Without clear purpose, direction, and motivation provided by somebody, anybody, the team fails and the team suffers for it. Without changing the other members of the team, changing the leadership changes the team’s performance,

When There are Too Many Leaders

I was mentoring at a student civic innovation competition last year. The students were from several different institutions and disciplines (architecture & design, finance, business, marketing, social innovation, etc.) The challenge was to take an under-utilized civic space and research, analyse, and propose a low-cost, community-centred update of the space in a weekend.  Then pitch it to a panel of judges.

It’s an interesting human-centred design exercise, and an interesting team-work exercise. Also they don’t get a lot of sleep.

One team ended up going in circles. They were unable to decide on a design, agree on a way forward, or complete the work. In the end it came down to having one too many leaders. Two of the students in particular saw themselves and driving the process forward. What they didn’t realize was that by pushing so hard for “their solution” they were shutting down the creative process, collaboration, cooperation, and frustrating everyone else on the team with their bun fight.

Listening was non-existent and ego ruled. Despite attempts by myself and another mentor, they never really overcame this friction and failed to win in any category at the pitch competition.

What Kind of Leadership Do You Need?

So what? We need to think carefully about the culture, structure, and ground rules of our teams – how they’re put together, how decisions get made, its purpose, and how it’s going to succeed.

In a military context teams need high levels of trust. The ability to resolve conflicts and make decisions quickly, to coordinate effort, and to motivate members (such as promotion up the chain-of-command.) Hierarchy has its advantages, but…

Not everyone is a soldier. Collaboration, creativity, problem solving, and execution are the order of the day. This means everyone pays attention to the other team members(5), everyone contributes, and nobody hi-jacks the process. Leaders need to be comfortable with messy, even uncomfortable conversations while making sure everyone contributes and stays focused on the task. It’s hard and requires a high emotional intelligence, but then good leadership always has.



(1) Don’t get me started on how the History Channel doesn’t have any history on it, although my sweetie and I really enjoy watching Forged in Fire together. As long as you know what you’re in for (not history, but rather entertainment) then it’s all good.

(2) I find the music overly dramatic and unnecessary, but some people like that sort of thing. The camera shots from the drone are pretty cool though.

(3) This is a common feature of military training – assigning leadership duties to the students. It lightens the load for the instructors, trains the students in leadership and accountability, and is invaluable in motivating everyone to do their best to make sure everyone cooperates when it’s their turn. It’s a great development tool in any context.

(4) Nothing wrong with consensus, if that’s what you need. Just be ready to take a very long time to make decisions, and have a very clear process for collaboration, discussion, and conflict resolution.

(5) This is where women have an advantage over men. So if you’re trying to solve a really difficult, complex problem, one way to stack the deck is to have more than one woman on your team.


Mistakes New Leaders Make

Back in November I asked my on-line tribe a question: “In business, community, or volunteer roles, what are the biggest mistakes you see new leaders, organisers, or volunteers make? Or in other words, what should new leaders stop doing?”

I organized them a bit, but didn’t change them. What would you add to their advice?

Stay Humble

I would suggest new leaders sit with the existing people and processes long enough to understand them before implementing change. This way, they can make more informed decisions. — AC

Thinking that they know more than an older person because they are the new generation. They need to sit in a position and absorb from others before they pass judgement. — MDP

Myself, when I as a new leader years ago, I thought it was all about “me” and I that had to have all the good ideas… very bad move! —  GF

Be Competent

Be organized and focussed while communicating effectively. — TC

Learn to run a goddamn meeting! — EM

Set Clear Goals and Share Them

Made many but I’ll go with when I chaired Josh’s scouts, I didn’t set out clear goals and direction thereby not supporting our fantastic leaders who were investing so much time and effort into our boys. — TC

Not thinking strategically, being too focused on tactics and near-term. Managing instead of leading. Not creating space for authentic communications and relationships. — AK

Be Real

Thinking they have to “act like a leader” instead of being authentic. They become a caricature of leadership. The main task is to not rely on your positional authority. — TS

Ask For Help

Assuming other people’s needs to do the job they have to without consulting with them. A lot of volunteers get in over their heads and miss the details professionals know to cover. Case in point, twice in the last year we have participate as performers at fund raising events that assumed band’s needs were simple and they were ill equipped for the event….Consult with accredited professionals if you aren’t one yourself. Don’t assume there’s nothing to know just because you don’t know. — SM

Learn to Delegate

One mistake I see both new and experienced leaders make often is to get way too deeply into the weeds and try to know every single detail. They need to stop trying to manage the work and start leading the people. As [AC] mentioned above, take the time to learn and observe, respect the history, but don’t be afraid to make the tough decisions. Stop winging it and have a 90 day plan. Most of all, stop talking and listen. — DS

Pay Attention to the Team

The rubber band phenomena. Moving people/agencies/businesses along is all about the tension – too slow and nothing moves because there’s not enough push to move the stagnant along; too fast and the band snaps, tearing the group apart. Finding that balance of tension – fast enough to move forward but slow enough not to cause things to rip apart – is a delicate one. New leaders need to stop trying to make change happen instantly, take the time to learn about that tension, and then move forward. (I’ve done both too slow and too fast far too many times.) — DR

Have Standards

Not focusing on performance and well-being . . . [of] their teams and direct reports. — AM

Make Decisions

My response is a hybrid of others’ responses. I think a new leader might make decisions based on their own experiences pre-leadership. Which is fine, but one has to consider the needs of the many. —  KP

Book Review: the Coaching Habit

The Coaching Habit: Say Less, Ask More Change the Way You Lead ForeverThe Coaching Habit: Say Less, Ask More Change the Way You Lead Forever by Michael Bungay Stanier
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Love the model, started using it with clients before I even finished reading it. Replaces Coaching for Performance as my first-book-to-recommend-about-coaching on the bookshelf. Easy to read with a lot of back-up supporting material in video and references format. Especially appreciate the book list at the end.

[…and as an aside: I’ll never read 100 books a year, like some business experts do. I can’t waste my time even skimming that many books a year, so I always appreciate when others do and make recommendations. Thanks Michael!]

View all my reviews

Ask For, Get, and Use Feedback

Good tips here about how to get feedback from employees – interestingly they’re all action we need to take, not changes they need to make. Not only will it make you a better leader, but you will also:

  • be able to give feedback to them that is more likely to be heard and acted on (having set the example)
  • have another opportunity to share your values, expectations, and vision (and they get to make the “right” decisions without having to check with you constantly)
  • you get to check that your team is hearing what you think you’re saying (and make the appropriate adjustments)
  • you hear about real issues sooner
  • your being open to feedback (which feels vulnerable) raises the level of trust

Getting Feedback from Your Employees

…and if you’re still not convinced you need to get feedback:

The Benefit of Speaking Up

…and if you think staying quiet has no cost:

The Cost of Not Saying Anything

What It Takes to Be a Great Leader

Three things, apparently. Thoughts?


Mistakes to Avoid: 5. Play Not to Lose

There is a difference between playing to win, and playing not to lose.

If you’re playing not to lose, you work hard to avoid making mistakes. You will also be less likely to admit mistakes (even to yourself), won’t ask for help or apologize for mistakes (because it makes you look weak), or try new things (it’s a risk).

If you’re playing to win, you’re more like to try new things (in small experiments), drop what doesn’t work (change tactics but stay focused on the goal), learn from your mistakes (even if it’s “Let’s never do that again.”), evolve and move on.

It’s about having the courage to set the example, not the cowardice of being perfect. It’s about modelling the behaviour you want from your team. Think about how you want them to behave, and think about how you creating the environment and example to make that happen.


*Imagine my delight when Trent asked me join a podcast on leadership. The question Trent was asking was “what mistakes should leaders avoid?” I jotted down five headlines inspired by my new-found fame. This is the third.

The First Follower

“The first follower is an underappreciated form of leadership . . . that transforms a lone nut into a leader”

Mistakes to Avoid: 4. Ignore Your Commitments

Ever work on a team or in a partnership where the trust has been lost? Or there was never any trust to begin with? Yea, that. Not fun for anybody involved.

There are many ways to build trust – showing vulnerability, asking for help, including people, admitting mistakes – but the fastest way to lose it is to not keep your word. Not just about the big things, about all things.

Be very clear about what you can and cannot commit to, and once you’ve made a commitment, make every effort to live up to it. If you can’t, you make sure you are explicitly absolved from that commitment (not ignore it and hope it goes away), have an alternative to offer, or otherwise authentically show you’ve made your best effort.

Likewise, expect the same standard from the people you work with. Leaders who “go easy” on their people are respected less. Leaders who have high standards and push their team to do their best are respected more. You just have to have the courage to hold yourself to that same standard.

It’s called “setting the example”, aka “leadership”.


*Imagine my delight when Trent asked me join a podcast on leadership. The question Trent was asking was “what mistakes should leaders avoid?” I jotted down five headlines inspired by my new-found fame. This is the third.

Mistakes to Avoid: 2. Pick the Right People

As opposed to picking the wrong ones. Duh.

BUT, if you’ve thought about, found, and can inspire others with your vision (BHAG, purpose, passion, goal, mission, or idea) ONLY THEN can you start attracting the right ones. And weeding out the wrongs ones.

AND do not tolerate poor performance, as measured by their alignment to your inspiring vision. The poorest performer in your organization (company, movement, effort, team) sets the standard of performance for everyone else. Think about that for a second.

If this though experiment scares you, what are you going to do about it?


*Imagine my delight when Trent asked me join a podcast on leadership. The question Trent was asking was “what mistakes should leaders avoid?” I jotted down five headlines inspired by my new-found fame. This is the second.

Mistakes to Avoid: 1. Have a Vision

Imagine my delight when Trent asked me join a podcast on leadership. The question Trent was asking was “what mistakes should leaders avoid?” I jotted down five headlines inspired by my new-found fame, the first being:

Have a Vision (as opposed to drifting aimlessly)

Now I will be the first to quetch about how management consultants make up new words for old/obvious concepts and the try to either trade-mark them, write a book about them, or otherwise use puffery to make a feast out of a crumb. “Vision” (aka mission aka purpose aka BHAG aka passion) is one of those overloaded terms that shifts and slides depending on who is speaking in which context.

BUT, and this is a big but, you gotta know where you’re going. Take some time, quietly and without interruptions, to think about what success looks like for you, your company, you country, or whatever the appropriate scale of your endeavor is.

AND then be willing to share it, work on it, test your progress, hold yourself accountable to it, fulfill the promise of, and recruit a team (friends, family, company, movement) of people who want to work with you on that thing. If you don’t know what that thing is, then don’t be surprised when you don’t get there.