Great Leaders Show And Tell

In Alaska, rarely do we enjoy our outdoor activities alone. With harsh weather and remote areas where we like to play, getting hurt when you’re alone can be disastrous. Similarly, I’ve found that the best way to learn a new outdoor activity is by doing it for the first time with someone who is good at it, asking them to teach me and show me the ropes.

Most of my mountaineering skills I’ve learned from my friend, Doug. He’s taught me how to detect areas of avalanche danger. He’s shown me how to test the mountain snow. He’s shown me how to use probes and avalanche beacons. He’s taught me techniques for climbing steep inclines in deep snow. I now do things and go places that I would not go if Doug had not taught me and showed me how to go there safely.

The same is true for people who follow our leadership. Are you trying to create a certain culture where you lead? Most of us are. We want a culture where a certain pattern of behavior is the norm. To lead people into that pattern of behavior, we need to do two things for them. These apply whether we’re re-orienting a whole corporation or raising a family.

First we must tell those we’re leading where we’re going. This seems obvious, but leaders typically aren’t heard as much, or as clearly, as we think we are. We assume that if we’ve told someone something once, that’s enough. The truth is it’s not nearly enough. Particularly when it comes to casting vision for change, our people need to hear our message multiple times. When you start to get sick of repeating yourself, that’s when you can start to feel confident that you might be communicating the vision or direction enough. Sorry, but that’s how it works.

Second, we must show our people what we want the culture to look like. We must demonstrate the behaviors and practices that we expect to see from them. Remember, they can’t be what they can’t see.

Two Danger Zones

There are two danger zones that we need to avoid if we want to create a culture we dream of.

Tell, Don’t Show

The first danger zone is the Tell, Don’t Show Zone. We all know our actions speak louder than our words. So does our inaction. If the change doesn’t visibly begin with us, the value of the vision becomes suspect. People aren’t likely to follow you somewhere they can’t see you going. If we’re leading by example out of sight of our people, it’s like the tree falling in the woods when there’s no one around to hear it. To them, it’s like it didn’t happen. So think of ways to make your behavior changes viewable.

Show, Don’t Tell

The second danger zone is the Show, Don’t Tell Zone. We often make assumptions about how much people are noticing. So we wonder why our leading by example doesn’t seem to be working. Shouldn’t people be picking up on this? Most of the time, we need to be more explicit in talking about our expectations than we think we have been. Would you try to raise your kids without explaining your expectations to them, just expecting them to pick up on them from watching you? No way! Teaching someone how you want them to do something makes your expectations more clear and builds confidence that what you’re asking for is doable.

Show and Tell

The Show and Tell Zone is the sweet spot. This is where we repeat the cycle of explaining our exceptions, demonstrating what those expectations look like in view of our people, helping them act accordingly, observing, and giving clear feedback.

If we’re more intentional about both explaining what we want and what we’re doing, and more intentional about demonstrating what we expect in view of the people we’re expecting it from, we can be more satisfied with the effectiveness of the culture we’re trying to create.

For Discussion:

  • Are you visible enough to the people you’re leading that they can see you living out the culture you want for them? How can you increase your visibility?
  • Are you clear enough in your instructions and vision casting? Do you repeat you instructions often enough that everyone is clear? How can you increase your clarity? A written Leadership Philosophy is a great place to start.

Great Leaders Ask


An executive I work with was telling me recently how his boss, the CEO, made a significant announcement to the whole executive team. The announcement came as a surprise to him and others on the team. He told me how he wished the CEO had consulted with him in the process of putting together his plan that he had announced. He saw a couple significant holes in the CEO’s plan that he probably would have been able to help his boss avoid.

But, as far as he could tell, the CEO had not asked for input prior to announcing his plan. And even after the announcement, the CEO did not express interest in input from his team.

This executive was now faced with the question of whether to point out the holes in his boss’s plan or just ignore them and hope for the best. Was the CEO going to be receptive to constructive critique of his plan now that he had announced it to everyone? The right thing for this executive to do was let his boss know his concerns. But the CEO had created an awkward situation that was unnecessary.

Maybe the CEO was thinking, “This is not a democracy. I make the calls here.” Maybe it was just an oversight this one time. Maybe he was under some other pressure. There are a lot of possible reasons that would seem valid.

But there are at least three good reasons for a leader to slow down and seek input from her team. First, no leader has the full picture. They might like to think they do, but they just don’t.

While it’s right and commendable for a leader to take responsibility for the organization’s direction, how many missteps could be avoided by taking time to ask for the input of a leader’s trusted team members?

Secondly, getting input from team members is a great, simple and FREE way to build the morale of a leader’s team. One of the greatest rewards of high-level work is the self-esteem boost that comes from being consulted on important issues, especially in our areas of expertise.

Thirdly, great leaders do more than just get things done right. They intentionally develop more leaders around them. Including junior leaders in our decision-making process is a great way to help them grow with us as leaders. It’s also a great way to assess their current leadership capacity, helping you know how best to coach them in the future.

So, take the time to slow down and seek input from those around you. It’s good for you as the leader, and it’s good for those you lead.

Discussion questions:

  1. Do you naturally think about using everyday decisions to help develop the leaders coming up the ladder behind you?
  1. Do you remember how it felt when your leader consulted with you on important issues? How did it influence your respect for and loyalty to your leader?
  1. Do you have a teachable spirit toward the members of your team? Do you honestly value their input?

Great Leaders are Great Learners


My all-time favorite leadership quality has got to be teach-ability. If someone has a teachable attitude, there’s no limit to what they can accomplish.

On several occasions throughout my career, I have been asked to lead people in an organization that I had no experience in. When I was asked to serve as Lead Pastor of ChangePoint, a very large church in Alaska, I had never worked on a church staff before. Even though I had twenty years of leadership experience in other kinds of organizations, I knew I had a lot to learn about how to lead a church. I was selected for this role over people who had several years of experience in church leadership. So I knew there would be some natural skepticism about whether I was right for the job.

So, before I even started the new job, I met with the whole staff. After introducing myself and my background, I told them frankly that I was under no illusion that I had all of the knowledge and experience necessary to be great in this role right away. I was going to need their help and guidance as much as they were going to need mine. For the first few weeks, I spent lots of time with staff members, learning about their departments, responsibilities and routines. As a result, I earned their trust and collaboration relatively quickly.

When I look for people to work with or for me, the first thing I look for is whether they are willing to learn new things. Are they open to new ideas? Are they willing to try things in new ways? Or do they insist on doing things the way they already know? Do they already think they have all the answers? It’s really true that no one likes a know-it-all.

Teach-ability says a lot about the character of a leader. It tells me they are humble, as well as loyal to the organization. It tells me they value others more than their own agenda.

If a leader is willing to let go of the nagging need to impress those they lead, they can demonstrate a willingness to learn from them, and they can build trust and respect much faster than they would by trying to demonstrate how capable they are.

So consider how you can learn from others around you. Ask great questions and don’t be afraid to ask for help. You’ll gain respect and model great teamwork for those you lead.

For discussion:

  1. What are a couple of areas where you’d like to personally grow in your character or competency as a leader?
  1. Who do you know in your organization who could teach you a skill or procedure that would make you better in your job?
  1. Who do you trust to give you honest feedback about your performance? Have you asked them for their honest opinions?

Great Leaders Go First


Have you ever been told by a leader that you were expected to take some new initiative or idea seriously, only to find out that the leader didn’t take it seriously himself? They emphasized how important everyone’s participation was, and then they didn’t participate themselves. After all, they’re much too busy.

How did it make you feel about that leader? How did it make you feel about the initiative that they said was so important? Did you still take it as seriously?

“Do as I say, not as I do,” can be pretty de-moralizing to an organization, and undermining to a leader’s credibility. Great organizations are never led from the middle. They must be led from the top.

That doesn’t mean that a leader is expected to do everything that she expects her people to do. That would be totally impractical. And delegating meaningful work to others is one great way to develop them as leaders.

While delegation is an important skill for preventing burnout and for developing more leaders, it’s important to remember that some things cannot be delegated. Leading significant, organization-wide change cannot be delegated. Passion for a cause cannot be delegated. If there’s an attitude or a paradigm that you want to see become contagious in your organization, you must first spread the germs yourself. Too many great initiatives and changes have fizzled, because people perceived that the senior leader didn’t take it seriously.

If you’re asking others to change, you must demonstrate that you are changing (not that you have arrived, because no one believes that). They need to know that they’re invited to come where you’re going, not that you’re sending them somewhere you’re unwilling to go yourself.

Let’s use a practical example. You believe that ethics training is important for your staff. In your role, you deal with tough ethics issues regularly, most of your staff do not, and you want them to be ready to handle tough ethical dilemmas. It feels like a waste of your time to personally attend the training, because you don’t really need it.

Consider attending the training anyway, in order to model what you’re expecting of your staff- that you want them to take the training seriously. And if you can take time to participate, they certainly can. That’s the strong message you’ll send.

The alternative is to try and hang on to your credibility by explaining that you’re already good at dealing with ethical questions, and that’s why you don’t need the training. Which of these two approaches do you think will get you the result you’re looking for from your staff?

Recently, a leader who I was leading and coaching said that the most inspiring thing about my leadership was getting a front row seat to watch how much I was personally growing as a leader. I couldn’t ask for a higher complement. She saw that, if I could learn and improve as a leader, then she could too.

Remember the rule of thumb for leading people, “They can’t BE what they can’t SEE.” You must show people what you expect, not just tell them.

Great Leaders are Challenging



During my family’s first winter in Alaska, we went to the town of Willow to watch the official start of the Iditarod, the world famous sled dog race, which lasts nine to fifteen days, covering over a thousand miles from Willow to Nome. Teams consisting of one man and up to 16 dogs endure whiteout conditions, sub-zero temperatures and gale force winds. Wind chill temperatures can get as low as -100 degrees F.

The marshaling area where mushers get their teams prepared before their turn to start the race is one of the most noisy, chaotic places I’ve ever seen. As the dogs are getting clipped in to their lines, waiting for their turn to start the race, they are fussing, howling, jumping, and nipping at each other constantly. It’s as if they can’t stand holding still.

We walked a little down the trail to see the dog teams pass by as they were on their way. The contrast was striking. The dogs were silent, focused on the mission they had trained for, tongues flailing, pulling with all their might.

I couldn’t help but notice the difference between the teams standing around before the race and the teams on the trail focused on their mission. The only sound from the teams on the trail was the occasional command of their musher.

We’ve been addressing in previous blogs what it takes for great leaders to earn the right to lead. They must commit to investing in more leaders, not to just having more followers. They must be accessible role models, inviting others to get close to them. And they must simplify what they do so that others can imitate them.

But all of these strategies for being highly follow-able are not ends in themselves. They are a means to an important end. That is to accomplish the mission that the team was built for.

It’s been proven over and over that teams are most engaged in and fulfilled by their work when they are led by a trusted leader on a mission that challenges them to be and do more than they thought they could.

People often criticize the Iditarod for being cruel to the dogs. But it’s been proven repeatedly that the dogs absolutely love to run this race despite the harsh conditions. We sometimes mistakenly think that we must make people’s work as easy as possible for them if we are to expect good results. Nothing could be further from the truth. Great leaders challenge their followers to become more than they thought they could be. That’s key to a leader’s role of making more leaders. That’s why great leaders spend so much energy earning their teams trust.

One thing that’s true of every champion dog musher is they LOVE their dogs, and their dogs know it! If our followers know how much we care about them and trust our leadership, then they are ready to go with us on the toughest missions.

So set challenging goals for your team. If you’ve given them a lot of yourself, then ask for a lot in return. Make increasing their skills, responsibilities and authorities part of your business growth strategy. Most of your team will rise to the challenge, and your whole team will be stronger.

Great Leaders are Intentionally Unimpressive

A legendary Jedi Master, Obi-Wan Kenobi was a noble man and gifted in the ways of the Force. He trained Anakin Skywalker, served as a general in the Republic Army during the Clone Wars, and guided Luke Skywalker as a mentor.

Here’s an important paradigm to start the new year: Great leaders are intentionally unimpressive.

In much of my military officer experience, leadership was a competitive sport. Officers had to compete against each other for promotion, assignments and other opportunities. As a result, officers spent considerable amount of effort trying to be more impressive than their peers. The temptation was to over-inflate our competencies while hiding our weaknesses.

But here’s the irony. No one respected their bosses for being good at that game. In fact, we often resented them for their inauthenticity. That was the way the game was played. That was how one climbed the ladder of SUCCESS.

This is an important area where the path to SUCCESS and the path to GREATNESS part ways dramatically. Striving for success means demonstrating that we’re “the greatest thing since sliced bread.” The organization would most certainly fail without us.

But great leaders are coaches, seizing opportunities to multiply their character and competencies in others. They seek to make others better, not to be seen as better than others. Consequently, they make every organization, every family and every community they touch better.

When giving a presentation, for example, a SUCCESSFUL leader leaves the audience saying, “Wow! He’s so good at that. I could never be that good. What would we do without him?”

But a GREAT leader leaves the audience saying, “Oh, that looks easy. I think I could do that.” Then the great leader says, “Yes, you can. Let me show you.”

Now let me ask you: Which of those two leaders do you think really has more value?

Here’s the hard truth: If your people are so impressed by you and your talents that they think they can’t make it without you, you might be exactly what your company says they need, and you might be considered a huge success. But as a leader of your people, you have failed.

And here’s an even harder truth: If you’re known for your supposedly indispensable talent, you’re actually on your way to being forgotten. Because in today’s economy, extremely talented people are a dime a dozen. And you can always be replaced with someone a little more talented than you. And if talent is your organization’s currency, that’s probably what will eventually happen.

This is one area where it’s hard for success and greatness to co-exist, because being impressive and being imitate-able are so diametrically opposed. So we’re faced with a choice. Do we continue to strive to be the most impressive person in the room, playing the role of talent rather than leadership? Or do we lead in such a way that our people can learn from us and grow alongside us, becoming greater leaders themselves?

Discussion questions:

  1. In what ways do your impressive performances make your skills seemingly out of reach of others?
  1. Do you do things in such a way as to show others how to do them, or do you keep your skills as trade secrets?
  1. How can you simplify your practices so that others feel more comfortable imitating them?


Great Leaders Are Inviting



Why do you suppose, with the thousands of leadership books available, that there is such a deficit of great leaders today? It’s not that people don’t read leadership books. Many of those books are best sellers.

Leadership books are great, and leaders should read them. I’ve read lots of them. They can be very helpful. But they alone are entirely insufficient to see people grow into great leaders.

It would be nice if we could just buy someone the right book, tell them to read it, and just sit back and watch them do all the things they read about. But important skills aren’t developed that way.

Think about it. Would you trust a doctor who earned his credentials only from reading books or blogs, going to conferences or watching videos? How about a pilot? How about an electrician? All of those learning tools are good. But they are all insufficient.

Relationship is indispensable to great leadership development. Entering critical roles requires apprenticing from someone who is what the follower wants to become. We must be shown, not just taught. This is why pilots, doctors and most tradesmen go through extensive, personal apprenticeship before they are given the responsibility that goes with the job title. People are trusting them to get it right.

Effective leadership development is apprenticeship. If a leader is going to make more leaders, they must be willing to play the role of coach.

And effective coaching relationships require proximity. Future leaders must be invited into a close enough relationship with their leader that they can see their leader in action and imitate his actions. As my friend, Jo Saxton, often says, “They can’t BE what they can’t SEE.” If you’re not willing to let people close enough to see you wrestle with conflict and hard decisions, don’t expect them to see you as their coach. They will find someone else. Believe me. And if you give people leadership responsibilities in your organization without coaching them to succeed, then don’t expect great results.

Making more leaders also requires transparency and vulnerability. It does not require you to model perfect execution of every leadership task. In fact, your people learn a TON from watching how you handle making mistakes.

My friend, Mike Breen, taught me that people don’t need me to be a perfect example, just a living one. That means a leader who is authentic, not pretending to have it all together (because everyone already knows you don’t). That’s what it means to be worth imitating. If you’re living transparently and working hard at becoming a great leader, admitting that you have not yet arrived, you will find lots of people wanting to follow you on that journey and learn from you. But if you feel you must impress them in order to lead them, you will most certainly lose them.

I’m not condoning managers and supervisors being incompetent. I’m assuming you’re already a good manager. Remember, here we’re talking about what’s below the surface in the lives of great leaders.

In coming weeks, we’ll discuss HOW to have coaching relationships with employees that are productive, transparent, authentic, appropriate, professional, and not exhausting.

Discussion questions:

1. Are you trying to impress those you lead or coach them? Are you willing to let them learn from your mistakes?

2. Are you a leader who has kept your employees at arm’s length? If so, can you explain why?

3. Are you willing to make time for your people and give them access to your real life as a leader?


Make a lasting investment in your organization’s leaders in 2016. Check out my upcoming Leadership Excellence Courses in Seattle, Vancouver, B.C., and Anchorage, Alaska here.

Great Leaders Create Culture


The first priority of great leaders is making more leaders. But it doesn’t just happen. Making leaders requires selflessness, confidence and intentionality (see last week’s blog).

And making more leaders doesn’t happen without a plan. That’s why many organizations fail to grow their leaders. They don’t have a viable plan to do so.

As they say in the financial planning world, no one plans to fail. They just fail to plan. So leadership development never makes it beyond the bucket list of things we’d like to do.

Raising up more leaders is like growing a garden. A gardener knows that not every seed he puts in the ground will grow into a producing plant. She knows that she actually has very little control over which plants will grow and which ones won’t.

So gardeners put their effort into creating the environment that is most likely to cause seeds to produce good plants, and plants to produce good fruits and vegetables. They maintain good soil for the plants to grow in. They provide the right amounts of water and nutrients. In a green house, gardeners can provide the right kind of lighting. And a gardener uses lattices, rows and stakes to provide the right amount of structure and direction for growth.

Said another way, the gardener creates a culture for plants to thrive in. In the same way, great leaders don’t manipulate people into becoming leaders.

The best way for leaders to make more leaders is to create a culture where potential leaders can thrive! But the leader must be central to that culture, not stand outside of it as if it’s for someone else but not for them.

So what are the characteristics of a leader-multiplying culture? As I’ve learned over the years from my leadership coaches at 3dMovements, here are two key characteristics of the leader-multiplying culture that great leaders intentionally create around themselves.

 First, and most importantly, a leader of leaders must cultivate an inviting culture around himself. People must perceive that they are welcome to follow the leader, and that the leader is worth following. The leader doesn’t need to chase followers, but simply gives them access to his life. She doesn’t try to control who receives the welcome or who perceives the value of following her. But great leaders keep the invitation open.

Initially, an inviting culture may sound exhausting. And being a leader worth following can sound intimidating. In coming weeks, we’ll address these issues in detail.

Second, a leader who makes more leaders must cultivate a challenging culture. When a follower feels welcomed to follow a leader they perceive is worth following, they are ready to receive challenge to grow as a leader. Future great leaders want to improve, and they want to receive performance coaching from a leader who cares for them.

Most supervisors have never been coached by their leader, so they have no clue how to coach others. But leaders who learn how to coach their employees to improve their performance can build truly great organizations made of high performance teams!

If this sounds overwhelming, hang in there. In the coming weeks, we’ll cover how to appropriately create a welcoming leadership environment and how to challenge our followers to higher levels of performance.

Discussion questions:

  1. Think of a leader you’ve known who made you feel welcome to be with them. How did it affect your respect for them?
  2. What characteristics of a leader are worth imitating?
  3. Did you ever have a coach who inspired you? What did you find inspiring about them?

If you want to learn how to be great at performance coaching for your employees, I’d highly recommend taking my Leadership Excellence Course. Check here for courses coming to Seattle and Anchorage, or here to bring one to your organization.


Great Leaders Make More Leaders


The number one job of great leaders is to make more leaders. This is how great leaders leave a legacy for every organization, every family, and every community they touch.

This may be different than how many leaders would define success. But remember, we’re not talking about success. We’re talking about greatness. If a leader has a well-written job description, it defines what the leader needs to do for the organization to be SUCCESSFUL. And that’s important! I don’t mean to marginalize this.

But I do want to call leaders to something higher than just running a successful organization. Let’s talk about making your organization great!

A great organization is one where leaders coach their followers to become great leaders themselves. This doesn’t happen automatically. It begins with great leaders who have certain character and skills. Let’s talk about character first.


Leaders who make more leaders are selfless. They put the needs of their followers, and of their organizations, ahead of their own. They make time (the most precious commodity they have) for others. They help others grow as they are pursuing their own growth. So they are inviting others into their worlds when it would likely be easier not to.

Leaders who make more leaders must be intentional. A leader who prioritizes time for investing in junior leaders is sacrificing something else less important intentionally. Investing in people requires a much bigger investment of time and emotional energy than is required to just perform normal work tasks. But great leaders understand that investing in more leaders is one of an organizations highest payoff activities over the long run.

Organizations that make more leaders are led by confident leaders. Insecure leaders will never make more leaders. The best they will do is make more followers. Insecure leaders are afraid to give away leadership to others. What if they actually make leaders who are better than they are? What if junior leaders stop depending on them and start thinking for themselves? What if junior leaders get promoted ahead of them? Insecure leaders hold junior leaders back because of their own fear.

But let’s think about this logically for a minute. Do you think that a leader who excels at bringing the best out of his team and makes more leaders is more valuable to her organization, or less valuable? Great leaders know that making more leaders creates value for their organization, and makes them more valuable in their boss’s eyes, not less valuable.

More importantly, great leaders see the leadership vacuum in our world, our communities, and our families, and they will step up and do their best to do something about it. And great leaders don’t compromise their values to get ahead of others.

Next time, we’ll talk about specific leadership skills necessary for making more leaders.

Discussion questions:

  1. How are you scheduling time to invest in the leaders you’re responsible for?
  1. What are some methods you use to grow the character and skills of other leaders?
  1. How are you setting an example of professional development for those who follow you?


What is a “Great Leader?”

Who is on the top of your list of great leaders?
What great leaders have had a personal impact on your life? Think of great leaders from history. Now think of great leaders who you’ve personally known. What made them great in your eyes?

This blog is for those of us who want to make an impact as great leaders.

Before we begin our discussion of great leaders, we should agree on a definition.

For simplicity’s sake, let’s just say a leader is someone who gets things done by influencing others.

So what makes a leader “great?” The big point I want to make is that greatness is not the same as success, so a great leader is not the same as a successful leader.

I’m not saying that greatness and success are opposites, or that they’re even mutually exclusive. If they were, there would be no leaders who were both great and successful. But it’s important to note that there are great leaders who we would not think of as successful. Likewise, there are successful leaders who we would not consider great.

Here’s the big difference. We consider a leader successful because of high achievement. We measure them based on their accomplishments. And that’s a good and important thing.

But we consider a leader great because of the positive influence they’ve had on the lives of others. We measure them based on their character and care for others.

In Alaska, we’re accustomed to seeing icebergs from time to time, near our many glaciers. Icebergs are majestic and powerful floating structures. They can be the size of buildings! What some people don’t know is, 83 per cent of a floating iceberg is unseen, below the surface of the water. But what’s below the surface buoy’s up and supports the 17 per cent that is seen. iceberg

The life of a leader is much like the iceberg. Business and operational successes are easily seen, and get most of our attention as a result. But 83 per cent of great leadership is largely overlooked, because it is not readily seen without going deeper.

Like the iceberg, it’s the 83 per cent of the life of a leader that’s unseen which allows the 17 per cent that is seen to either “sink or swim.” Focusing on the 17 per cent above the surface can help you achieve success, which is important in any organization. But getting below the surface, focusing on the 83 per cent is how a leader begins the journey to greatness.

The world is in desperate need of great leaders of character; leaders who give more to their world than they take; leaders who care about investing in the next generation of leaders.

There are plenty of people offering advice on how to become more successful. Every five minutes there’s a new tweet in my Twitter feed telling me what successful people do. (Many of the articles contradict each other.) I read and apply some of them because I want to be more successful, as every leader should.

But I want to go beyond just being successful. I want to be a great leader. I hope you do too. But it doesn’t happen by accident. Going for greatness requires thinking differently than striving for success. That’s the conversation I want to create with the Great Leaders Blog- a conversation about what’s below the surface.

Until next time, here’s a paradigm to chew on. If we set our minds on being successful, we may or may not ever become great leaders. But if we set our minds on becoming great leaders, our definition of success may change, and we may find ourselves being more successful at what really matters than we ever dreamed.

For discussion:

  1. Think of a great leader who impacted your life. Tell someone about that impact, and why it makes that person great in your eyes.

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