For sheer mass, you could do worse than to collect all the checklists recommended by this or that leadership guru. Many try to define the “nine essentials” of, or the “19 keys” to, or the “eleven must-haves” for… effective leadership.

There’s truth in the best of those lists, but I have a number to suggest as well:

• Wisdom.
• Courage.
• The will to act.

This post touches on courage; later posts will address the other two.
In bet-the-company and/or bet-my-career decisions the need for courage is often clear. So let’s consider the less obvious courage required of leaders day-to-day, in tasks as common as performance coaching.

The heart of coaching is feedback, defined here as information that influences job performance. Feedback’s power is documented, and it’s free. Yet Americans at work too often report feeling shortchanged, unclear on the answers to a pair of core questions:

1.) What’s my job (specifically)?
2.) How am I doing?

Recognition of good work seems especially scarce.
Too often, the unhappy sequence seems to be: (1.) People generally prefer coaching to overly direct leadership, (2.) feedback is essential to leaders’ coaching, and yet, (3.) too often, the feedback never arrives.
What gives?
In my opinion, often the answer is courage.
Some leaders are candid enough to acknowledge their fear of “pushback” from those receiving direct feedback. And pushback is a factor.
But the driving idea is even simpler: The feedback never gets delivered! The “recipients” aren’t recipients at all; they never get the chance to receive – or to react.

It does take courage to deliver corrective feedback. I can attest from my own role as a coach; straight talk can be tough to deliver.
But while you can and should think over your tone or timing, there is no real alternative. Mark Twain put it plainly, if harshly. “A half-truth,” he said, “is the most cowardly of lies.”
If you reach that point in your own coaching, especially if you need to be more direct, remember:

• Corrective feedback can be the most valuable.
• Straight talk, often called the truest test of real friendship, can also help build a strong work relationship.
• If you were the person being coached, wouldn’t you want the truth?

Ineffective feedback can install an artificially low ceiling on job performance. The leader-coach who overcomes his or her fear of straight talk, who delivers corrective feedback clearly but calmly, helps remove that ceiling.

A few resulting suggestions:
Listen. The ranks of omniscient leaders are thin!
Listen to ideas, struggles, reactions… whatever the other person offers. You may learn some things. Or you may disagree and need to say so, but not yet. First make sure you understand, and that the person you’re coaching can see it.
Overall, make your feedback specific, current, balanced, brief and clear. Communicate with confidence, but don’t overwhelm.
Equally, avoid a hesitant, almost apologetic approach that undercuts your credibility.
If you haven’t quite done so already, face your fear. Respect and trust those you work with enough to give honest, direct feedback. The actual consequences of well-delivered corrective feedback rarely equal the imaginary ones.

Here’s one way to start:
Begin (or resume) asking for feedback from those same direct reports. Topic: Your leadership – what you do best, and what you could improve.
Do this, stick with it, and you more fully open the door to honest feedback and clear communication as a productive way of life in your relationship, team, department, division or organization.


“Violence is the last refuge of the incompetent.”

— Isaac Asimov, author

Let’s move on to leadership and anger.
A few weeks ago, a senior executive gave great advice to a visiting group of managers-in-training. It came down to this:

Set high standards.
Hold people accountable.
You don’t have to be a jerk about it.

More needs to be said, even though some of the strength in his three-part coaching lies in its simplicity. So please bear with me as I do my best to complicate this.
Also: I’m a writer, teacher and sometime leader, not a psychologist; these are practical-level thoughts. If while reading this you get the feeling that some counseling might help you, look into getting that help. Your family doctor or the HR department at work are good places to start.

Too many leaders confuse anger with power.
Anger creates fear, stress, and near-paralysis on all three levels – individual, group and organization. When a leader tells you he or she “blew my stack” and that’s when things started getting done… well, sure. Kick something, and it moves.
And when it comes to rest, you may have to kick it again.
And again.
Being kicked is another matter.
Before you know it, fear and all the trade-offs of fundamentally aggressive leadership kick in too. Relationships weaken, creativity drops, morale worsens… and, depending on who’s involved and perhaps on what’s gone before, even worse outcomes, like “political” sabotage, can arrive too.
Risk-taking? Forget it.
Anger isn’t power. It has some power. But there’s more to it.
Kick something, it moves. Which means, first, that once you undertake this dubious strategy, you may need to do an awful lot of kicking – ushering in all those trade-offs and, I am sure, others I’ve left out.
More enlightened power is earned, or at least developed. Elements like knowledge, experience, skills, relationships, achievements and many others contribute to the ability to get things done.
You don’t have to be a jerk about it, whatever it is. If you let anger loose, you’re simply losing emotional control.
That’s not leadership. That’s emotion.
We move now to an inspiring passage where, as one who has done some leading in business and sports and family life, I explain how I’ve avoided anger at all times, no matter what.
I only wish I could!
Words I chose too often amid anger are words I would gladly recall.
When I teach conflict management and mention those regrets, the nods in the room are pretty much universal – in agreement, perhaps, and in folks’ remembering their own histories.
So what’s the alternative? Robot leaders? Maybe clone Mr. Spock, the emotion-free alien from the old “Star Trek” series?
While these are, one more time, just the comments of a writer-teacher, and while the counseling community can help you explore this in far more depth and with far more skill if you feel the need, here are some steps you might try:
• Be honest with yourself. Take stock. Are you letting go emotionally — but calling it necessary? Or seeing it as leadership?
• Be direct. There is remarkable power, as a mentor put it years ago, in asking for what you want. Few forms of powerlessness are unhappier than the one that goes, repeatedly, “I can’t even ask.”
• Think over the vast difference between assertiveness and aggressiveness. Assertiveness is being clear, direct, earnest, even passionate — about what you need or expect. In leadership it’s a big part of working with and through others. Aggressiveness means getting what you want at all costs; going for a win-lose.

Another thoughtful friend spent years reporting to a strong, charismatic senior leader who regularly exploded with anger, ignored boundaries, even indulged in paternalism so often that his good qualities could be offset. He had some fine qualities – and, often, good intentions; I knew him a little.
But as a leader….
My friend succeeded that senior leader, and a year or so later we were chatting about his experience as, now, a senior executive. He let me know that, uncharacteristically – he’s a low-key, friendly guy — he had blown up at his staff, much as his predecessor so often did.
He seemed to consider it necessary, or at least unavoidable.
He’s a good enough colleague and friend to deserve the truth. I described his response as anger, and briefly discussed trade-offs those explosions can bring – as they so often did with the leader he succeeded.
He was polite enough to listen; I can’t yet say whether he found those thoughts helpful.
Reflecting on it later, because this is a bright, talented leader whom I admire, I wondered whether the reason some of his direct reports, and others, were sometimes saying one thing to him about their work but doing another, or not letting him know when tough questions came up, etc.… might be simple. His company’s history – and now even his own anger at times – had people running for cover instead of stepping forward with great, risky but creative ideas.
Doing so out of habit more than choice sometimes, but still running.

Choosing to make a difference, to serve your people and your goals vs. giving in to angry impulses… it’s not easy. Perhaps it’s just part of being human – in this culture at least.
Regardless, you have a choice. The three-part advice at the top of this piece makes it plain: Set high standards, hold people accountable, and you don’t, absolutely, have to be a jerk about it.
Be clear, direct and open. Listen. Make expectations known, and follow up. Work with people, not at them. Praise good work. Build strong workplace relationships rooted in trust.
Trust is so much more easily broken than built.
One of the easiest ways to prove that, and one of the most needless given the alternatives, is with a few out-of-control angry words. Violence may indeed be the last refuge of the incompetent.
For some, it’s the first.
Give it some thought? And when you’re ready, I hope you will explore these ideas with someone you trust — and with the people who answer to you. Great leaders listen, learn, change and grow.
You could say that’s the first refuge of the competent.

Whether you lead a corporation, a production line… or a softball team or a church or family: Ever asked yourself, after a particularly wrong-headed decision, “What was I thinking?”
Me too. We learn more from struggles than from Great Moments. I have a suggestion for you — but first a little background; please bear with me.
In writing, verbs drive; other parts of speech take a back seat. At heart writing is thinking, so verbs drive some of your thinking, too.
“Words can’t express…” is a familiar phrase, and certainly helps convey grief and similarly strong emotions.
Far, far more often, words have astonishing power, especially in a language as rich as English. Problems arise not from words’ weakness, but from the sheer force of their impact.
We take that for granted sometimes, partly because our lives, our thoughts, are so immersed in words.
So here’s a simple distinction that can help you as a leader, by helping you coach more purposefully.
And yes, it’s about verbs! Specifically, “have” vs. “be.”
Think of have as get; think of be as give.
If you’re too focused on what you can get from those you coach, you may be missing opportunities to give — and what you could give may be pivotal.
You may be wondering why this little essay is sinking into touch-feely irrelevance — those of you still reading, that is. Please hang in there for a few more lines…
So which do you prefer when you’re coached — a coach who seems to care mainly about himself/herself, or a coach clearly focused on what you need and on helping you get it?
In more than three decades in and around staff leadership, it became more than clear to me: Focusing on what I could give often led to the best results, especially long-term.
Focusing more on what I wanted for myself just didn’t work that well. Trust suffered — again, especially long-term — and there is no real coaching without trust.
To check this out, I suggest an easy self-test:
On blank paper or screen, put two headers: Have, and Be. Divide them with a line down the page.
For up to half a day, after each conversation or call or meeting — and ideally, while coaching someone — put a check mark in the column that better fits the way you behaved. Don’t worry about heavy analysis, just go with your gut.
Then total both columns. Sit back and ask yourself what they might mean.
While it’s true that “have” can refer to a legitimate goal or purpose, sometimes you may find your approach was, at best, only self-centered.
As for “be,” whether it refers to resources, good listening or corrective feedback, did you mean it? Did you actually provide what was needed?
Years ago someone I admired so much that I considered him a second father was eulogized as “a man for others.” He was exactly that… and the eulogist’s praise can figure in your self-examination.
What kind of a leader are you? Do you coach mainly for others, building a strong work relationship as you go? Or are you mainly “in it to win it” — just for yourself?
Sure, there’s always at least some of both. But the little exercise above can help you take stock. Depending on what you find, it can help you keep your ego in check. Here’s what it comes down to:
Years ago, a gifted facilitator spent nearly two hours, straight, doing little more than listening to an angry group. The occasion was a workshop follow-up meeting.
About a month before, this group had been thoroughly trained in interpersonal skills, delivered by one of the best consulting firms in the country.
But back at this group’s headquarters, in a toxic culture, most had been pilloried — for actually trying listen and otherwise use what they had learned. One was asked, “You been to charm school?”
When the follow-up session began they jumped all over the facilitator, angrily describing how the skills don’t work and the workshop was a waste of time.
The facilitator just listened. Now and then he summed up what they said.
After the two hours the pace finally slowed, the volume dropped, the complaints tailed off… and still the facilitator just listened, now and then still summing up what he’d heard without defending or commenting at all.
Finally the room went silent.
The facilitator still didn’t argue or defend or try to contradict. All he had to say, quietly — for that was his temperament — was one thing.
He surveyed the group and said, “Well, there is another question you can ask, if you want. (Pause). It’s just, ‘what kind of person do you want to be?’ ”
He asked that more than 20 years ago. It remains one of my own best learning moments.
As you consider “have” versus “be,” I recommend asking his question about that choice, too.