Leadership is Not a Label

Thoughts on Excellence Free E-Newsletter Series
Issue No. 12
April, 2010

By Dan Coughlin



It’s official. I’m at the halfway point in my career. 25 years ago, with my mechanical engineering degree in hand, I started my career as the head soccer coach at Tri-State University in Angola, Indiana. Over the last 25 years of working with individuals and groups the topic I have studied the most is leadership. It is my favorite topic of all. Here are five lessons I’ve learned about leadership.

Lesson #1: Leadership is Not a Label

In studying leaders and in working side-by-side with leaders as an executive coach in over 30 industries, I have always searched for what these individuals had in common. First, here is what they did not have in common: height, size, race, gender, sexual orientation, spiritual focus, or personality type. Leaders come in every size and shape. Some are men and some are women, some are tall and some are short, some are big and some are thin, some are light-skinned and some are dark-skinned, some are straight and some are gay, some are devoutly spiritual and some are atheists, some are quiet and some are loud. I found no title, income level, or authority that ever automatically made a person an effective leader.

Lesson #2: Leadership Means Influencing How Other People Think

After studying leaders for a long period of time, I discovered that leadership really means influencing how other people think in ways that generate better sustainable results both for the organization and the people in it. It is the person’s ability to influence how other people think that determines his or her effectiveness as a leader.

Lesson #3: Leaders Answer Four Critical Questions

I did find one thing that all effective leaders have in common. They all actively worked to answer the Four Critical Leadership Questions. Now they didn’t call it that and most of the time they didn’t write down these questions. However, each person did work to find the answers to these questions and then persevered to implement his or her answers.

The Four Critical Leadership Questions are:

  1. What outcome do I want to improve for my organization and why do I want to improve it?
  2. Who do I need to influence in order to improve that outcome?
  3. What do I need to influence them to think about?
  4. How will I influence them?

Take out a sheet of paper and write down your answers to these four questions. Let’s go through the four questions together and I’ll offer some additional thoughts for each of them.

What outcome do I want to improve for my organization and why do I want to improve it?

Leadership is not acting. You can’t just walk into a room and say with a deep voice, “Let’s go out there and rock the world.” Leadership has to be geared toward improving some outcome. On your sheet of paper, write down the specific outcome you want to improve in your organization. Be as clear as you can be about what it is you want to have happen. Then write down as many reasons as you can think of as to why you want to improve that outcome.

Who do I need to influence in order to improve that outcome?
After you identify the desired outcome, then write down who needs to be involved in improving that outcome. Be clear about whom it is that you need to influence.

What do I need to influence them to think about?
Notice an important point here. The question doesn’t say, “What do I need to tell people to do?” If people are just doing something because they are told to do it, what happens when you’re not there to tell them what to do? The key is to identify what you want them to think about when you are not present. For example, if your desired outcome is to have customers who are vastly more loyal to your brand than your competitors, you might want to influence your fellow employees to think about the value of significantly more loyal customers. Once people start thinking about that outcome they can come up with all kinds of ideas on how to improve the customer’s experience. If they buy into the idea that vastly more loyal customers will improve their careers over the long term, they may very well focus to an even greater degree than you do and in more of a hands-on fashion than you can toward improving the customer experience on a consistent basis.

How will I influence them?
Now we are getting down to the act of leading, or influencing, others. There are 11 different types of leaders I’ve met or studied in my career. Each type can be effective in leading other people, and you can be more than one type of leader as you go about trying to influence your target audience to improve the desired outcome. I’ll explain the 11 Types of Leadership in just a moment.

Lesson #4: There are Different Types of Leaders

In reflecting on the various individuals I have watched effectively influence the way other people think and generate significant and sustained results for their organizations, I have found that each of them provided one or more of the following types of leadership.

Types of Leaders

  1. The Researcher — this person’s advice is based on data and carefully selected examples from the past.
  2. The Exemplar — this person’s behaviors and personal choices model the desired performance so well that he or she influences other people simply by being watched.
  3. The Teacher — this person breaks down the idea and explains it so well that other people truly get it and can run with it even when he or she is not present.
  4. The Visionary — this person describes a compelling dream of what the future can look like and that vision is what people hold on to as they go about their daily activities.
  5. The Storyteller — this person tells stories that convey a powerful point.
  6. The Coach — this person engages the other person in a conversation and offers advice based on observed behavior.
  7. The Facilitator — this person asks open-ended questions and gets multiple people involved in developing the answers.
  8. The Collaborator — this person exchanges ideas with the other person and works together with the other person to develop even better ideas.
  9. The Organizer — this person influences other people based on the roles he or she places them in and the way resources are distributed.
  10. The Motivator — this person provides inspiring words with an inspiring tone, but his or her impact oftentimes has a short shelf life.
  11. The Dictator — this person tells people exactly what to do and how to do it, but this approach is generally only useful in dramatic life-or-death short-term situations.

To familiarize yourself with these different types of leadership, here are a few exercises for you to consider doing.

Exercise #1: Think of three leaders who affected your life in an important way. Then scan the list above and determine which type or types of leadership they provided.

Exercise #2: Think of a time when you were an effective leader. Then scan the list above and determine the type or types of leadership you provided.

Exercise #3: Write down how you will influence the individuals you identified earlier. Which type or types of leadership are you going to provide to influence them to think about what you want them to think about?

Lesson #5: You have to Earn Your Platform in Order to Lead

Regardless of the type of leader you want to be in any given situation, you have to earn the right to be the leader. Speaking from a platform is not difficult. You walk up three steps, walk over to the middle of the platform, and start speaking. The greater challenge is to earn your platform as a leader, which is the privilege of having people trust you and be willing to consider your influence. Tony Dungy, the former Indianapolis Colts head football coach, talked about this in his book, Uncommon: Finding Your Path to Significance.

Once you have earned your leadership platform never take the privilege of having a platform to influence other people lightly. It can take many years to earn a platform as a leader and a few minutes to lose it.

What do you need to do to earn other people’s trust and their willingness to consider your influence? Anyone can be a leader, but no one is guaranteed to be a leader. Take the time to answer the Four Critical Leadership Questions, and then every day act in a way that other people can trust you and will want to consider your influence.

Interviews with Experts on Leadership

A relatively new feature on my website is my Featured Book Recommendations section. In this section I provide an in-depth book review and conversation with the author(s). Currently this section contains interviews with three experts on leadership.

The first expert on leadership is Steve Jamison, who is in my opinion the world’s best author at interviewing extraordinarily successful athletic coaches and extracting their insights on leadership and teamwork. He has worked very closely in writing books with the late Bill Walsh, the former head coach of the San Francisco 49ers, John Wooden, the former UCLA men’s basketball coach and winner of 10 NCAA Division I Championships, and Brad Gilbert, the extraordinarily successful tennis coach of Andre Agassi and Andy Murray.

The second expert on leadership is Jason Jennings, who has studied in-depth more carefully selected business leaders than anyone I know of. In his most recent book, Hit the Ground Running, he studied the 10 most successful new CEOs in the first seven years of the 21st Century.

The third expert on leadership is Roy Spence, CEO of GSD&M Idea City, who along with Haley Rushing from GSD&M Idea City, wrote the book, It’s Not What You Sell, It’s What You Stand For. These two have worked closely with leaders at Wal-Mart, Southwest Airlines, BMW, and a host of other companies.

To read these conversations with the authors and the book reviews click here.

Republishing Articles

My newsletters, Thoughts on Excellence, have been republished in approximately 40 trade magazines, on-line publications, and internal publications for businesses, universities, and not-for-profit organizations over the past 20+ years. If you would like to republish all or part of my monthly articles, please send me an e-mail at dan@thecoughlincompany.com with the name of the article you want in the subject heading. I will send you the article in a word document.

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