Make Yourself Fit to Lead

Many business leaders today are failing. This book excerpt offers some tips for HR leaders.

This article accompanies Changing of the Guard

Friday, April 1, 2011
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This is excerpted from Leading Strategy Execution, by Richard McKnight with Tom Kaney and Shannon Breuer:

Many business consultants, scholars, and HR professionals have pointed to leadership as what is required to compete in today's business environment. They note that only through highly skilled leadership can businesses maximize the most expensive and potentially beneficial asset they have: people. As former Herman Miller Chairman, Max DePree (2004) put it, "The signs of outstanding leadership appear primarily among the followers."

This is an appealing formulation, but there is a problem: recent polling data reveals that, as a class, many of today's business leaders are failing. Consider this headline in a report from The Center for Public Leadership (2010): "Business Leaders Are Out for Themselves, Americans Say."

According to the underlying study, "In 2005 through last year, Americans' confidence in their leaders marched steadily downward." In 2010, the report says, "Only 10 percent of Americans believe business leaders generally work for the greater good of society; the majority (52 percent) believe corporate bosses work mainly to benefit themselves."


Clearly, if you wish to be effective as a leader of strategy execution, you have to induce quite a different perception in the minds of those who look to you for leadership. If there is any good news at all in this study, respondents were speaking of business leaders in general. We know from other studies that when people rate leaders as a group, they are more critical than when they rate their own boss.

Still, if you wish to implement a strategy, and to the extent that your strategy departs from the status quo, you must gain the trust of those whose support you need. Thus, our first requirement for the personal art of strategy execution:

Learn to listen and to reflect.

Most business leaders do not have to work on being more decisive. Rather, becoming more effective entails learning to listen better, a component of trust and respect. In our experience, the higher you go in the organizational hierarchy, the less you're apt to find people -- either men or women -- who are good listeners.

This is a problem for at least two reasons. For one thing, if you don't listen well to others, you can't pick up useful clues about how to influence them. For another, it makes learning more difficult because you overlook feedback about the effects of your own efforts and you think you know it all.

We have stated that strategy execution requires both leading and managing. Each involves getting groups and individuals to want to do things in a particular way and on a given schedule, often to make sacrifices in the pursuit. The leader/manager, therefore, must continually discern the needs of those people and find ways to meet them, if possible, within the realities and limitations of objectives and resources. This is impossible without careful listening.

The closer you get to the top of most organizations, the more you find the psychological profile of a type of leader that is notably deficient at both listening and reflecting.

Psychologist David Keirsey, in his classic book, Please Understand Me, summed up this type: "If one word were to be used to capture this style, it would be commandant [his emphasis]. The basic driving force and need ... is to lead, and from an early age they can be observed taking over groups (1978, p. 178)."

Noting that this type will strive to reduce inefficiency, ineffectiveness, and confusion, this type of leader is also quite willing to dismiss employees who don't go along. In an update of this book 20 years after the first edition, Keirsey (1998) did not change his view.

He said, "For [this type], there must always be a reason for doing anything, and people's feelings usually are not sufficient reason (p. 198)." Question: How can you win the hearts and minds of people if you are indifferent to their feelings? Answer: You can't. (Readers who are familiar with the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator will recognize this as the ENTJ. According to the Myers & Briggs Foundation [2010], less than 2 percent of the general population are of this type while 11 percent of managers, administrators and executives score this way on the MBTI.)

Some people think that doing so is a sign of weakness, that leadership is a matter of making bold decisions in isolation then announcing them. In fact, for most business decisions, "two heads are better than one," i.e., the data required for effective decision making is distributed and a variety of perspectives are beneficial. Good listening skills enable you to get all the data on the table.

Going along with listening, of course, is the companion habit of reflection, i.e., turning over in your own mind what you've heard while all that listening was going on. A reflective person not only hears, but also comprehends and makes sense of what is heard. Reflection is a nonjudgemental process of discernment. To discern is to derive meaning and direction through reflection.

Both listening and reflecting are most difficult when the subject matter is your own behavior, especially when you've been told that your behavior is slowing things down or eroding teamwork. Carefully attending to the concerns and objections of others about you is the ultimate test of ego strength. But the reward is learning and the greater potency that comes with it, so stick in there.

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Strategy execution can be hard, taxing work -- gird yourself.

The good news about having a vision is that life feels exciting, but the bad news is that unless you do everything right, you are the only one excited by it! Recently, a client, back in his office with us following a very successful meeting with all of his management staff, look drained. He said, "I'm thrilled at how this meeting went, but, my god, this is hard work."

Asked what he was referring to specifically, he said, "To effect change, you have to do everything right and you have to be patient! You don't know how many times I had to bite my tongue in that meeting. Holding back is not my strong suit!"

Be credible and trustworthy; be worth following.

In Chapter Five, we summarized the findings of David Maister, whose research showed the causal linkage between acting in accord with a set of values and principles and subsequent financial success in service-delivering firms.

The title of the book we cited is, Practice What You Preach: What Managers Must Do to Create a High Achievement Culture (Maister, 2003). The essence of his findings was this: when managers show respect and cultivate trust, morale ensues. And higher morale leads to greater financial performance. We urge you to take a look at this book and learn its lessons.

Bear in mind that one of the reasons why people sometimes drag their feet at the first sign of change is that change begins with an ending. While the leader's own drive to make change happen can be a powerful force, there are countervailing restraining forces. Our counsel is, "Don't be discouraged, but do be prepared."

There are any number of excellent books available today that address the connection between physical fitness and stamina and creativity. Get and keep yourself in good physical shape. If you're over 50, like we are, you might especially enjoy the wise, insightful, and funny book, Younger Next Year (Crowley & Lodge, 2007).

(The first three chapters of this book are available free for the asking from

Richard McKnight, Ph.D., of McKnight Kaney, is a Philadelphia-area consultant and coach who helps senior executives formulate and execute strategy. With his business partner, Tom Kaney, he provides services to HR professionals and officer-level line executives. He has written extensively about strategy execution and is the author of Victim, Survivor, or Navigator: Choosing a Response to Workplace Change and co-author, with Tom Kaney and Shannon Breuer, of Leading Strategy Execution. Reprinted with permission. © 2010 Richard McKnight, Ph.D.

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