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What Do Great Leaders Do Differently? II

  What's the difference between leaders that are great and other leaders? That question has fascinated me as long as I've been in the working world.

I've read all the leadership books I could find for my entire working career. They weren't all that helpful. They either told me how one leader had done it, or they talked about leadership traits.

Traits or characteristics are fine and dandy for discussion purposes. It's fun to argue about whether compassion is more important than mission focus and things like that. The problem is that those discussions don't tell you anything about what you should actually do. They don't, and can't, function as a guide to action.

The only books that I could find that were helpful were written by John Kotter, a professor at Harvard. I asked myself, "Why are these books different?" The answer turned out to be strikingly simple. While other folks were testing theories in the best "scientific" tradition, Kotter was watching doing research in the wild. He was watching what leaders actually did, and then drawing conclusions from a number of examples.

It seems to me that Kotter started the move toward that kind of research into management and leadership with his book, The General Managers. Since then, several other writers, Warren Bennis and Burt Nanus, James Kouzes and Barry Posner, and others have done the same thing. The movement, if that's what it is, was given a boost by Tom Peters, who does the same thing but talks about it more and more loudly and more effectively than anyone else.

Anyway, I figured I could do that. Basically, I'm just a dumb preacher's kid from the Bronx, but I'm not hampered by a PhD or the kind of "physics envy" that tends to screw up research in the behavioral sciences. Besides, I wasn't after irrefutable scientific truth that would last the ages. All I wanted to know was how to do what those great leaders did so I could learn to do it myself and tell others.

I studied thirty-six great leaders from around the country. How did I define great? In order to qualify as a "great leader" for the study, they had to be rated as such by their organization, their subordinates and their peers.

That's where I learned my first lesson. I found that lots of folks would qualify on one of those counts, but not all. Organizations suggested folks that subordinates and peers simply hated to deal with. They also suggested folks who had performance numbers way below some other leaders.

All of these folks were responsible for a group's performance. That means they had three roles to fill: supervisor, manager, and leader. The had to achieve what we defined as the twin objectives of any leader that I learned in the Marines: accomplish the mission and care for your people.

The each had the five generic jobs to perform. They had to make sure that today's job got done efficiently and well. They had to care for the future by planning and by growing their subordinates. They had to handle critical incidents when those low frequency, high impact events occurred. The had to do performance interviews. And, they had to create a great working environment, one where performance and morale were both high.

So, what did they DO different?

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Great leaders show up a lot

Great leaders show up on site. They catch folks in the hall and talk to them. They show up at the cafeteria, and in email boxes. Showing up a lot is the core, key behavior of top leaders. They get two benefits from it.

They get to know their people. By being around them they find out who does what well and who needs attention when. By watching what they do and listening to what they say, the find out what the real issues are on the front lines.

Great leaders are great communicators and they learn how by showing up a lot. That's where they learn what communication style each subordinate likes, what matters to them and what kind of problems each one is having.

By showing up a lot, great leaders get the opportunity to share their ideas about the direction and purpose of the organization. They get to lead by example, too, showing people what's important, by what they pay attention to.

There's another, more subtle benefit, too. Because they're around a lot their people are more comfortable with them. Face it, if the boss only shows up to dump on folks or to pontificate, that's what folks will expect, and it's not a confidence building expectation.

Great leaders rehearse mentally

Great leaders think about the kinds of situations they might face. They plan for them. They imagine the situations in detail. And they run through them in their mind--a kind of mental practice.

Great leaders rehearse the long term future and they rehearse individual encounters. They play "what-if" in their head.

Great leaders also keep the future in mind. They remain aware of the future consequences of their decisions. They think farther ahead than most of their peers.

In recent years, scenario planning has come into vogue. When we first started hearing about it, we thought that telling stories about the future worked because it was a way to get lots of information about planning in a small space.

As it turns out, the real advantage of scenario planning is that it helps you recognize changing future situations.

Great leaders pay attention to the future, because it's their job to choose the path for their organization in an unfamiliar forest. Without mental rehearsal and thinking about the future, leaders are forced to rely on precedents to deal with new situations. In today's rapidly changing environment, that doesn't work.

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Great leaders manage the consequences of performance

Great leaders don't think in terms of rewards and discipline that they deliver. More commonly they see such things as the natural result of a subordinate's performance. Great leaders manage the systems of consequences so that it's in the best interest of the subordinate to do what's in the organization's best interest.

This starts with clear expectations. Great leaders spend a lot of time making sure that their people understand exactly what they expect and what the consequences of behavior are. They do this by spending time with individuals and groups, practicing active listening and repeating key points again and again. Great leaders seem to understand the power of frequent communication better then their peers.

They make sure they model the behavior they want. They practice leadership by example.

Great leaders stay focused on performance. You don't hear them talking much about somebody's "attitude." They don't spend a lot of time on the internals. Instead they concentrate on the performance they want from subordinates and on the things they can control

They try to eliminate any excuses and then make the consequences of performance (good or bad) as inevitable as nature.

Great leaders do lots of performance interviews

A performance interview is an interview with someone who works for you where you have an objective about changing their performance. Great leaders do a lot of them.

Most of the interviews are short and informal. They last seconds rather than minutes. Great leaders tend to make small course corrections early, rather than waiting for problems to develop.

Strangely enough though, it seems that a characteristic of top leaders is that they take enough time for the interview, no matter how long that is.

I studied a selection of leaders and the time they took with their subordinates on an annual performance evaluation. The average time for all leaders was 15 minutes. The average time for the top leaders was 55 minutes.

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Great leaders critique their own leadership performance

You can't get better at something if you don't see it as a performance issue. Great leaders believe that leadership is the most important thing they do. They believe that it's something they'll get better at if they work at it. For that reason, great leaders are continually doing "after-action critiques" on their own performance.

They pay attention to the items that are under their control and try to do those better and better and better. They monitor the results they get from their actions and then modify their actions to get the result they want.

This grows out of the concentration on consequences and behavior. The result is that the great leaders use a wider array of leadership and communication tools and use them more effectively than their less effective peers.

These are the behaviors that great leaders do. If you do them you'll be a great leader to work for. And you'll create a great working environment for the folks who work for you.

Created/Revised/Reviewed: 12/31/00


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