The Practice of Leadership

Recently, I have begun to feel that leadership is much more about practices than about competencies. Management is full of competencies — technical ones, project management ones, financial ones, even interpersonal ones. But leadership draws from deeper waters of the soul. How would I develop a “competency” for honesty or for inspiration or for sensitivity to others’ needs and feelings? How would I create a “skill set” about being in service to the world and to others?

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The word practice seems to me a better fit. A practice is a conscious entry into a certain kind of action, driven by an instinct for contribution, by personal values, and a desire for impact. A person may be good or not at a particular practice, but it is through great commitment to the practice that his or her leadership presence ultimately becomes known and is judged by the world.

An example. More than twenty years ago a good friend and mentor told me point blank that anyone who could not receive feedback should never be in a leadership job. For the next ten years I watched him live this ethic in his work. It was not always easy for him. Sometimes he received very difficult, untrue, inflaming feedback — but the way he handled it and learned from it was always a model to others. He did not do this to achieve a competency or win merit or approval from others or to get a great performance appraisal and pay raise. He did it as a part of himself alone, a core ingredient of his person. He had claimed a personal intention beyond and larger than himself and whether or not it would be entirely understood and appreciated. I know he had some difficult nights and he dealt with dread. Yet he exemplified a kind of magnificence in this practice that deeply inspired others like me. I believe his work with feedback defined a practice, not a “competency” — at least not in the shallow way that word is often used.

What are the most important of these practices? It’s a good question. I would say they are myriad and must be defined individually. Here are eight I have been thinking a lot about lately, based on my own inner work, my past experiences, and my work with clients:

  • Knowing oneself well enough to articulate a personal leadership challenge – a focus for profound learning; an edge for personal growth
  • Willingness to engage in feedback — both giving and receiving — with balance and honesty and vulnerability; a willingness to work through the “shadow stuff” of relationships
  • Self-care — the practice of nourishing oneself; ending the various forms of self-punishment — from overwork or alcoholism or aloneness or many other addictions
  • Influence of others — through the practice of connecting with others as people rather than through force, threat and expectation or solely through the setting of rigid personal boundaries
  • Dealing with “undiscussables” — the practice of engaging with others around the most sensitive and uncomfortable but real topics that others may not feel able to initiate — with the goals of learning, personal and systems change, and forgiveness
  • Building collaboration — the practice of turning conflict into synergy between self and others — and among others — so that group identity, collective work, capability and joy are the means to profound results
  • Enhancing personal integrity — the practice of authentic action that is neither self-righteous nor self-indulgent but adheres to a middle way that is grounded, real and deeply true to oneself
  • Perceiving the world from a spiritual standpoint — the practice of finding a personal viewpoint that is founded on awareness and love.

So much of what is written about leadership begins with these building blocks, whether the task of creating shared vision, changing systems, adequately coaching people or building partnerships.

I invite your own perspectives! To you, what are the leadership practices that you believe are most important? What have been your experiences and stories? What events or people in your life have shaped your views?

[Update 6/6/11: For more context on this posting, please see:

Eight Leadership Practices
First Practice: Knowing Your Leadership Edge
Second Practice: Developing Your Comfort Level with Feedback
Third Practice: Caring for Self
Fourth Practice: Leadership and Influence
Fifth Practice: Discussing Undiscussables
Sixth Practice: On Collaborating
Seventh Practice: Personal Integrity
Eighth Practice: Spiritual Perspective]


  • Reading your comment on my blog, made me feel I was hearing a well-known voice from distance. Even though I do not know the writer you have mentioned, I feel I have read this text before or there is something beyond the text, which is so familiar to me: a kind of “déjà vu”. I read your comment four or five times and I asked myself where, when, who told me this before.
    Thanks Dan, you opened a door I had forgotten for a while.
    Oh I also have something to say on your recent post (Practice of Leadership)which I prefer to think first.
    Happy New Year and I wish you the best

  • Anonymous wrote:

    Your “practice of leadership” philosophy is profound. Most “leaders” I have encountered in recent years do not think at this higher level. If they did, the world of work would be a delightful place.


  • Anonymous wrote:

    Hi Dan, this is Jay. I haven’t set up my account yet, so this will post as “anonymous”. Maybe that’s a good thing.

    Your thoughts on the practice of leadership here are quite profound. You are really thinking about leadership at an essence level. You and I have worked with many leaders, some of whom were operating at this level – many who weren’t.

    It occurs to me that there may very well be levels or gradations of leadership awareness. Like the line in Rilke’s poem “I live my life in growing orbits which move out over the things of the world…” Many people with power are leaders, but at what level? I have met many business and political “leaders” with a great deal of power who did not strike me as people operating at a particularly deep level of leadership awareness. (Or what Peter Koestenbaum called “leadership mind”.) I recently heard a CEO of a major US corporation refer to his wife as “an asset when I travel in the Middle East.” I was sad to hear him refer to her in that way. I didn’t get a sense of much leadership awareness from him. And, unfortunately, I don’t think the people that work for him really sense it either.

    I wonder what practices of leadership Nelson Mandela is working on. Or Aung San Suu Kyi, Koffee Anon, Colin Powell or Mother Teresa when she was alive.

    I like your list of eight leadership practices. The one that most intrigues me right now (as I said in an earlier post) is authenticity. I see that you have that in the area of personal integrity. That sounds right to me.

    I am attempting to be as authentic as possible in as many situations as I can. I have noticed myself lately sort of checking in on myself during my conversations with others. A voice somewhere inside of me says “that’s good, you are really speaking from the heart to this person” or “hey, why aren’t you phrasing your thoughts, your feelings as honestly as you say them to yourself?”

    I really believe in community. Community to me means any time there are people working or living together or who want to be connected to each other – they are building a community. And I don’t think you can have community without authenticity. So as I journey through my day, I am looking for community, for connection. And I believe that I have a better chance of being in community when I am being authentic.

    I have been working in the field of Organization Development for more than twenty years now. In its essence, I think that most of us could agree that OD is an effort to build healthier, more productive – communities. And nothing builds community faster, for me, than authenticity.

    Thanks again, Dan, for your fine work on your website and blog.

  • Anonymous wrote:

    Hi Dan,

    I really enjoyed your eight leadership practices. Something that I’ve been focusing on lately is gratitude, thankfulness and appreciation. You gave an example of a friend who was excellent at handling feedback, both positive and negative, and it struck me that living in the spirit of gratitude is probably necessary for handling feedback so well. Feedback helps us avoid living in a vacuum and allows us to better learn about ourselves (self-knowledge). And by being grateful for all feedback in this light, it becomes easier to accept.

    Thanks for the authentic and thought-provoking writing! It’s great to see more blogs like this.

    – Sean

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