Why is leadership so damn elusive?

TruthIn my first leadership stint, I didn’t hit my stride. I left a lot of potential on the floor. I needed some time to wash off the negative experiences–many of my own making.

I lacked the confidence to lead even though as a young man I was leading martial arts classes in the dojo three to four nights a week. I finally realized that I was fumbling because I was trying to follow a template. I was overriding my instincts. I tried to emulate what I thought was leadership. That might work for some but not me. That didn’t bring out the best in me. I needed to trust myself and develop my own style. I needed to find mentors capable of unraveling the layers of leadership so I could make my own–more informed–choices. I came to realize that learning to lead well is a nuanced, lifelong endeavor and not a one-time linear path.

That realization requires I constantly move beyond my comfort zone and challenge myself to take on more responsibility backed up by reliable system of feedback so I can improve. This post is a way for me to learn. I hope this also helps you.

We all have an opinion on what’s makes a good frontline leader but what really matters most?

McKinsey  9 Element of Organizational Health

Using OHI to build and sustain financial performance.

I’m not trying not trying to button down what makes the best leader. Hoping for a one-size-fits-all formula is foolish. No business situation, firm or company is the same. Varying circumstances necessitate differing leadership styles at different stages. Still, what’s a good starting point for how a leader should be? What bevy of behaviors makes the biggest impact?

Using our own practical experience and searching the relevant academic literature, we came up with a comprehensive list of 20 distinct leadership traits. Next, we surveyed 189,000 people in 81 diverse organizations around the world to assess how frequently certain kinds of leadership behavior are applied within their organizations. Finally, we divided the sample into organizations whose leadership performance was strong (the top quartile of leadership effectiveness as measured by McKinsey’s Organizational Health Index or OHI) and those that were weak (bottom quartile).

The exhaustive research by McKinsey & Company uncloaks key insights for students of leadership to chew on:

…[A] small subset of leadership skills closely correlates with leadership success, particularly among frontline leaders.

Uncorking leadership behaviors

McKinsey found that “leaders in organizations with high-quality leadership teams displayed 4 of the 20 possible types of behavior” and those 4 behaviors “explained 89 percent of the variance between strong and weak organizations in terms of leadership effectiveness.”

Top 4 Leadership Behaviors

McKinsey’s research suggests that the secret to developing effective leaders is to encourage four types of behavior.

Four core leadership behaviors

In Decoding leadership: What really mattersClaudio Feser, Fernanda Mayol and Ramesh Srinivasan of McKinsey & Company highlight four core behaviors. In verbatim:

  1. Solving problems effectively. The process that precedes decision making is problem solving, when information is gathered, analyzed, and considered. This is deceptively difficult to get right, yet it is a key input into decision making for major issues (such as M&A) as well as daily ones (such as how to handle a team dispute).
  2. Operating with a strong results orientation. Leadership is about not only developing and communicating a vision and setting objectives but also following through to achieve results. Leaders with a strong results orientation tend to emphasize the importance of efficiency and productivity and to prioritize the highest-value work.
  3. Seeking different perspectives. This trait is conspicuous in managers who monitor trends affecting organizations, grasp changes in the environment, encourage employees to contribute ideas that could improve performance, accurately differentiate between important and unimportant issues, and give the appropriate weight to stakeholder concerns. Leaders who do well on this dimension typically base their decisions on sound analysis and avoid the many biases to which decisions are prone.
  4. Supporting others. Leaders who are supportive understand and sense how other people feel. By showing authenticity and a sincere interest in those around them, they build trust and inspire and help colleagues to overcome challenges. They intervene in group work to promote organizational efficiency, allaying unwarranted fears about external threats and preventing the energy of employees from dissipating into internal conflict.

About the Exhibit’s Footnote

McKinsey’s research is based on organizations with 7,5k to 300k employees. Yet the majority of organizations are less than 7.5k employees. Are these four core behaviors effective inside smaller companies? What does your gut tell you? What makes you want to follow someone? Look at your own career. Who inspired you? Why? Who was just inept? Why? I believe these four core behaviors give any leader a strong base to build on.

You’ll decide for yourself. I also believe that these behaviors derive from a person’s capacity for self-awareness.

Imagine you just left a meeting with the group you’re leading. Did you inspire? Did you deflate? Did you create worry? Did you leave the room of people nonplussed? Or, worse, confused? What was your wake? You may not always know but do you solicit feedback–both positive and negative–to discover your impact? Are you willing to learn? How might you communicate better? Have you created an environment where your people are willing to be open and frank with you? Do you give them the license to hold you accountable (see Code of Conduct below).

What’s Daniel Goleman say:

I have found, however, that the most effective leaders are alike in one crucial way: They all have a high degree of what has come to be known as emotional intelligence. It’s not that IQ and technical skills are irrelevant. They do matter, but mainly as “threshold capabilities;” that is, they are the entry-level requirements for executive positions. But my research, along with other recent studies, clearly shows that emotional intelligence is the sine qua non of leadership. Without it, a person can have the best training in the world, an incisive, analytical mind, and an endless supply of smart ideas, but he still won’t make a great leader.

I agree with Goleman. Not everyone does. What about you? Leading can be messy. Even the best leaders are not 100% aware, 100% of the time. It’s not about arriving but trying. Staying humble and free of ego. Experimenting. Constantly learning. And, remembering that:

As leaders, we must direct our focus outward, toward the organizations and people we are charged to lead. —Chris R. Stricklin, a combat-proven leader.

At LexBlog, we encourage each person to lead and up and down the organization regardless of title, position or authority consistent with this Code:

We love, really love, social media, blogging and all things internet-y. Get to know us, follow us, network with us and we'll share some of our overflowing social passion!

This Code hangs in our “team huddle” room in Seattle.


I recommend you read Patrick’s book (link below).

Our Code is about Team–about having each other’s back. What do you do inside your firm or company? How are you creating a feedback loop for yourself? Do you “actively engage individuals in their own development and improvement” by empowering or are you enabling by offering “excessive assistance which reinforces non-productive behavior?” You take your company to a highest levels of success by empowering your team to reach their full potential.

Related Reading