The Nine Secrets of Effective Leadership

Like many blog­gers, I am reg­u­lar­ly con­tact­ed by pub­li­cists who send me new books, hop­ing for an endorse­ment as part of a viral mar­ket­ing plan. I have a stack of these books about lead­er­ship and man­age­ment. A few are good. Some are not good at all, and for a vari­ety of rea­sons, the largest of which is the implic­it claim to cer­tain­ty, author­i­ty, and sim­pli­fi­ca­tion by authors about sub­ject areas that are noto­ri­ous­ly gray. One of these books — it is unim­por­tant to name — stood out for me in this regard. Each chap­ter began with a page devot­ed to a quo­ta­tion from col­leagues about how knowl­edge­able and skill­ful the author of this book, a for­mer exec­u­tive, real­ly is. The effect was vain and self-serv­ing, as if to prove the author’s cred­i­bil­i­ty through the endorse­ments of friends and for­mer sub­or­di­nates. I won­dered about the inten­tion. Ini­tial­ly, I thought the book might have been self-pub­lished but it was not. Sad­ly, it had the imprint of a major publisher. 

Per­haps the rea­son such books are pub­lished is inside us, inside our hunger for voic­es that promise cer­tain­ty, author­i­ty and sure answers — not more ques­tions and com­plex­i­ty. Along with oth­er forms of author­i­ty, I’ve also noticed how we like sci­ence, such as the dis­cov­er­ies of brain chem­istry, to explain things, espe­cial­ly the chal­leng­ing stuff of human behav­ior. Anoth­er recent book that crossed my desk shows how unciv­il behav­ior is cost­ly to busi­ness because peo­ples’ feel­ings get hurt and they with­draw or take revenge — and this can be explained in terms of what is hap­pen­ing in the brain. I have to ask, did­n’t we already know this? Why do we need the chem­i­cal evi­dence? But appar­ent­ly we do. It makes it cer­tain, “objec­tive,” ver­i­fied by experts who have proven these things empirically.

Please don’t get me wrong. I’m not against sci­ence or con­fi­dence in one’s views about gray top­ics. I’m sim­ply sug­gest­ing that per­haps lead­er­ship, in its essence, can­not be so eas­i­ly reduced, no mat­ter how much we might hunger for that feel­ing. And more so, to try to do so con­stant­ly does us a disservice.


I remem­ber a class I taught some years ago. At the begin­ning, I asked peo­ple what they want­ed to learn. One of the par­tic­i­pants in this par­tic­u­lar ses­sion spoke up hon­est­ly. “You know, I don’t real­ly want to sit here all day,” she said. “What I’d per­son­al­ly like is to know what lead­er­ship is and what it is I need to do to do it — and that’s all. Please just tell me, so I don’t waste my time here all day.” The rest of the class laughed, but the par­tic­i­pant was dead seri­ous, and I applaud­ed her for being so clear about her needs. But I also had to explain that lead­er­ship does­n’t come via a for­mu­la from an out­side author­i­ty; that it is not a mat­ter of sim­ply doing cer­tain known things repet­i­tive­ly. It’s not a for­mu­la. I think the per­son was hop­ing for a short lec­ture titled, “The Nine Secrets of Effec­tive Lead­er­ship” and I was sor­ry to dis­ap­point her. 

The prob­lem, of course, is that there are not nine secrets, no mat­ter how many times we try to dis­cov­er, cre­ate, or define them. The stuff of lead­er­ship actu­al­ly can­not be quan­ti­fied in this way, which is, per­haps, pre­cise­ly why we keep try­ing. I cer­tain­ly find myself try­ing from time to time, includ­ing as part of this weblog. But I’m com­ing to believe that lead­er­ship in its essence is real­ly quite shad­owy and impre­cise.

Let me share some­thing of what I mean. A com­mon lead­er­ship dis­cus­sion top­ic is the dif­fer­ence between lead­er­ship and man­age­ment. A recent inquiry about this sub­ject, for exam­ple, to the Lead­er­ship Think Tank Group of LinkedIn has gar­nered over three hun­dred com­ments! We keep talk­ing about this poten­tial dis­tinc­tion as if one day some pre­cise answer will be found. We pre­tend that the ques­tion is ulti­mate­ly answer­able — which is why we keep talk­ing — but we nev­er actu­al­ly achieve a final answer at all, sim­ply an ongo­ing dia­logue. There’s noth­ing wrong with this dia­logue, per se — it’s a con­struc­tive, aware­ness build­ing activ­i­ty — but it is a sub­jec­tive thing and a per­son­al hypoth­e­sis that comes of it, not some absolute truth.

Sup­pose we go in a dif­fer­ent direc­tion alto­geth­er. We give up lis­ten­ing to experts for awhile. Sup­pose we assume that lead­ing can­not be objec­tive­ly defined at all beyond a cer­tain point; for exam­ple, in terms of the sheer num­ber of those who say they admire a par­tic­u­lar leader. Sup­pose instead we assume that lead­ing means being more fre­quent­ly bathed in these unan­swer­able ques­tions and dia­logues than rigid answers, that lead­ing is often less in fos­ter­ing grand changes than lit­tle ones, that it is not a state­ment of author­i­ty or exper­tise at all, but a con­fes­sion of a hum­ble pur­pose, sub­jec­tive in the extreme and about things that are incom­plete, imper­fect, and very imper­ma­nent. Sup­pose it is in the act of cre­at­ing the ques­tions. Then it seems to me we would be talk­ing about some­thing that is actu­al­ly new and fresh, real­ly alive, and like life itself, not some­thing assert­ed as cer­tain, and there­fore already dead. 

I’ve prob­a­bly told this sto­ry before, but it is rel­e­vant. I hap­pened to be work­ing with an exec­u­tive team on the verge of mak­ing some orga­ni­za­tion­al shifts. It’s been so long ago I no longer remem­ber what they were about, but I sus­pect the imple­men­ta­tion of sev­er­al new com­pa­ny-wide pro­grams. Any­way, dur­ing the dis­cus­sion a num­ber of the exec­u­tives were notice­ably uncom­fort­able about the plan for roll-out and this seemed to be because they had not been giv­en one. Sev­er­al said they thought there would be “major fall-out” if the exec­u­tives did not act per­fect­ly in con­cert. In fact, a sug­ges­tion was kicked around to devel­op a script they all could lit­er­al­ly read to staff to ensure con­sis­ten­cy in the mes­sage. The con­ver­sa­tion went on in this vein for twen­ty min­utes or so before the CEO inter­vened, in a calm voice not­ing that hav­ing a script was prob­a­bly the last thing they want­ed to do. He sug­gest­ed alter­na­tive­ly that they con­tin­ue to talk about the prob­lems of con­sis­ten­cy and align­ment but under­stand that in the end they would be there alone to make the announce­ment to peo­ple and that these announce­ments nec­es­sar­i­ly would vary from one anoth­er because, after all, the exec­u­tives were all dif­fer­ent peo­ple with dif­fer­ent styles. If it were too uni­form, he said, the employ­ees would see right through the changes and know they were not actu­al­ly being tak­en seri­ous­ly, that the exec­u­tives were sim­ply car­ry­ing out orders that did­n’t mean that much to them. “Raw is bet­ter,” he said. After a pause, he con­tin­ued, “And, yes, we’ll make mis­takes. There will be dis­crep­an­cies in what we say and we will get caught in them. But that will be an oppor­tu­ni­ty to con­tin­ue to talk about the changes, to talk to one anoth­er, and keep the dia­logue open with employ­ees. If it is ‘per­fect,’ we’re done for.” Instead of agree­ing with the exec­u­tives’ anx­i­eties and ask­ing the Employ­ee Com­mu­ni­ca­tions Depart­ment to write that script for every­one, the CEO asked peo­ple to be them­selves and to be real. 

Tell me which one of the nine secrets of lead­er­ship (or nine­ty secrets or nine hun­dred) this sto­ry belongs to. Is it the secret about being authen­tic? About cre­at­ing strate­gic align­ment? Per­haps it’s the one on telling the truth, fos­ter­ing engage­ment, or being coura­geous. Maybe it’s a secret called trust in self and others. 

We are so fond of order and know­ing for sure. We like experts. We want our con­cepts and mod­els and proven answers, our “oper­a­tional def­i­n­i­tions,” our con­for­mi­ty. What I am increas­ing­ly con­fi­dent about is that the small, the imper­fect, the impre­cise, the awk­ward — and the raw — will escape it all, which is, per­haps, why they con­tin­ue to be our great­est teachers.

Technorati Tags: . Link to blog posting. Link to Oestreich Associates website.


  • Daniel O'Connor wrote:

    Bril­liant stuff, Dan. The Appeal to Author­i­ty is prob­a­bly the deep­est, dark­est “lead­er­ship” secret of them all, the one that secret­ly keeps so many peo­ple from real­iz­ing their own potential.

  • Nice post, Dan! I must con­fess that when I saw the title, I was sur­prised since it did­n’t seem to be in keep­ing with my impres­sion of your style, but of course, you were just teas­ing us, and the arti­cle is com­plete­ly con­gru­ent with the sub­stan­tive pon­der­ing that I’ve come to expect of you. Thanks!

  • Thank you, Karen. Well, you are right: the title is just a lit­tle bait on a hook.…

  • Bril­liant stuff, Dan. The Appeal to Author­i­ty is prob­a­bly the deep­est, dark­est “lead­er­ship” secret of them all, the one that secret­ly keeps so many peo­ple from real­iz­ing their own potential. 

  • Thank you, Daniel. Your point is right on tar­get. The appeal to exter­nal author­i­ty can implic­it­ly be used dis­miss our own poten­tials, judg­ment, and expe­ri­ence. The pity is we do it to our­selves by also buy­ing in.

  • Dan: As usu­al, your post has stirred up lots of thoughts and feel­ings, but I’ll restrict my com­ments to three top­ics, all of which revolve around prac­tices I see emerg­ing in social media: selec­tive self-reflec­tion, def­er­ence to author­i­ty and the beau­ty of small.

    I have been notic­ing a num­ber of Twit­ter users who are adopt­ing a prac­tice sim­i­lar to that of quot­ing oth­ers who are quot­ing them (or say­ing how inter­est­ing / use­ful they — or their tweets — are). For exam­ple, a blog­ger who retweets some­one who is tweet­ing about a blog post they’ve writ­ten. A less osten­ta­tious prac­tice is “thanks for the RT”, but even that seems some­what pre­sump­tu­ous (to me), sug­gest­ing that the oth­er Twit­ter user is doing some­thing for the ben­e­fit of the blog­ger / orig­i­nal Twit­ter user. If / when some­one tweets about some­thing I’ve writ­ten, I pre­fer to think that this is more about them than me (though I’ll admit to feel­ing joy when­ev­er some­thing I’ve writ­ten has prompt­ed some­one to com­ment on it, via Twit­ter, my blog or elsewhere).

    I’m also notic­ing the kind of def­er­ence to author­i­ty that you ref­er­ence in the con­text of lead­er­ship per­vad­ing much of social media. I find it iron­ic that as more and more orig­i­nal sources of infor­ma­tion become avail­able online, it seems that few­er and few­er peo­ple are tak­ing the time to read them, think about them and/or com­pose their own reac­tions to them … pre­fer­ring to sim­ply echo some­one else’s summary.

    Final­ly, despite my com­plaints about some prac­tices pro­mot­ed by — or through — social media, I do think that the pro­lif­er­a­tion of wide­ly acces­si­ble plat­forms for more peo­ple to find and express their voic­es can effec­tive­ly empow­er more peo­ple to risk small, imper­fect, impre­cise, awk­ward and raw acts of leadership.

  • And as usu­al, Joe, you’ve replied to my post with your own “stir­ring” thoughts.

    Point #1: I think it’s hard to tell what moti­vates peo­ple to retweet the retweet­er. Could be ego; could be real grat­i­tude that any­one retweet­ed. I do believe it’s okay to expe­ri­ence joy when see­ing that oth­ers are moved to respond, as in “OMG, I’m not alone in the cyber­verse!” The ego part becomes more cer­tain for me when some­one seems to express a pat­tern of show­ing off across dif­fer­ent media types and through a vari­ety of real-time behaviors.

    Point #2. I agree. The effect is a copy of a copy of a copy. You’ve seen them; the type or image becomes increas­ing­ly distorted.

    Point #3. Thanks for this great obser­va­tion — it gives me hope, too!

  • Late to the par­ty here. But thanks for shar­ing this on my post. We do share the same frus­tra­tions about the ten­den­cy to sim­pli­fy and cod­i­fy mate­r­i­al that can­not be stuffed into those for­mu­las. You make some great points. My favorite is the Raw is Bet­ter quote. Bril­liant. Thanks, Dan.

  • Thank you so much, Blair! 

    For those look­ing for Blair’s post, both sage and charm­ing, you can find it here.

    All the best

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