Talking Leadership

Posts Tagged ‘Leadership development’

Fundamentals First

In Leadership Articles (Archives) on September 7, 2017 at 1:50 pm


“All of these principles are easy to comprehend, and all of them are damnably difficult to live and make happen. And that explains why truly great leaders are rare indeed.” Oren Harari

Writing in his book The Leadership Secrets of Colin Powell author Oren Harari is talking about the fundamentals that were so characteristic of Colin Powell’s approach to leadership. I’m not sure why, but it seems these days that there is far too little attention paid to developing strong fundamentals, maybe it’s that tendency in human nature to complicate the simple.

Good examples would be the seemingly boundless enthusiasm for personality testing and emotional intelligence workshops and books these days. I’m not saying these are of no value, only that work on these topics will not transform an average team into a high performing team. In leadership, as in virtually all other endeavours, the foundation for success is found in strong fundamentals. There will always be far more upside in teaching leaders how to stay mission focused, provide good direction, build accountability and provide skillful feedback than there is in some of the more tangential leadership topics there seems to be so much enthusiasm for, yet I frequently see these foundational topics overlooked.

So what the are some of these fundamentals? In the space I have here I can’t possibly offer a complete list but I can cover a few.

Start with the right heart

All the best leaders care a great deal about the missions and people they lead. They are in it for the right reasons. They are mission and people driven. They value relationships. This doesn’t mean they coddle team members. To the contrary, they challenge people to deliver their best work and to continually get better and they encourage and support their efforts. We can’t teach someone to have the right heart for leadership, but we can help those who already do learn how it how to express it in the right ways.

Communicate well

We talk to people we care about and we listen to people we care about. For the best leaders good communication habits connect them with people and build engagement. As I have so often said, we can’t expect engagement if we don’t engage people, if we leave them in the dark. Opening the enterprise and building relationships with strong communication skills is essential.

Provide good direction

Research clearly demonstrates that when people know clearly what is expected of them they have higher levels of performance and more job satisfaction. Yet so often I meet people who don’t know or are unsure about what’s expected of them. Learning how to provide direction well and how to avoid common pitfalls is essential. This is why I include eight keys to providing direction well in my work.

Provide lots of quality feedback

I’m convinced that every truly team building leader has great feedback habits. Why? Because teams are built one member one situation at a time and skillful timely feedback is the key. Time and time again I encounter leaders at all levels who don’t provide enough feedback as well as those who provide it poorly.


Legendary coach John Wooden wrote, “Every good leader is a natural and enthusiastic teacher.” I couldn’t agree more. Wooden’s UCLA Bruins won more national championships than any team in history. His book, Wooden on Leadership, is a brilliant volume on applied fundamentals. His efforts to build relationships and improve skills through coaching ranks high among these. Time spent developing good coaching skills is time well spent.

Build Culture

I would offer without hesitation that every significant team building effort I led at newspapers across the country featured purposeful work on culture – not what your team does but the way they do it. If the leader doesn’t do something to promote the right team culture and correct problems then who will? Culture drives performance and there is a right way to go about building it.

Make every performance count

Last on my admittedly incomplete list is the way great leaders treat performance. They insist that every team member earn his or her place. When someone isn’t they confront the problem with feedback and coaching first (here we are back at these two fundamentals) and when this does not solve the problem they know how to have those difficult conversations and make the necessary changes to the roster with skill.

I take a fundamentals first approach because 20 years of building the teams I led convinced me time and time again that they work. Today, when I encounter teams who are not living up to their potential it always traces back to fundamentals. It’s fundamentals consistently applied that will always drive the biggest improvements.

Want to fortify the fundamentals with your leadership team? Check out these options for 1/2 day workshops and individual coaching.

Engagement and the Competition for Talent

In Leadership Articles (Archives) on June 2, 2014 at 6:33 am


“Talented employees need great managers. The talented employee may join a company because of its charismatic leaders, its generous benefits and its world-class training programs, but how long that employee stays and how productive he is while he is there is determined by his relationship with his immediate supervisor.” Marcus Buckingham & Curt Coffman. First Break All The Rules.

I remember reading this opening quote the first time probably twelve years ago now, just before leaving my post as president and publisher at the Calgary Herald, where our leadership team (a team I worked hard to assemble and develop) had ended a tough labour dispute in two key departments and taken the newspaper to record earnings. The quote is presented as the most important finding in a book that was based in extensive workplace research. So when the authors described it as the most important finding, they had my attention.

Here is what I thought: Do I want talented employees? Yes, everyone else can have the other ones! I want the ones who are talented, those who really care about their work. So if I want these people I’ve got to give them great leaders. Talented people know they have choices. I’ve always known that leadership development is the key to attracting, motivating and retaining talent. Skilled and caring leaders create the conditions for employee engagement – the phrase we use most often to describe the outcome great leaders strive for. And employee engagement drives corporate performance.

I approached each newspaper leadership assignment by selecting and then developing the best leadership team I could, because I know that every team reflects its leaders. For my own book, The Heart and Hands of Leadership: The Twelve Timeless Practices of Effective Leaders, released at about the time you are reading this article, I wrote: “I believe every team that achieves commercial success with poor leadership could become so much more with good leadership. Let’s ask ourselves what these teams could become if the people who did the work were enthusiastic participants and not reluctant survivors, if they were chasing a dream they cared about for a leader they cared about.”

The employee turnover rate can be too low, which is usually a sign that leaders are avoiding performance problems, but more often it is too high, a sign of poor leadership. Good leaders create environments people don’t want to leave. Experience has convinced me that there are many talented people labouring under poor leaders who are waiting for a leader who inspires them to provide the best they have – to fully engage them in work they are proud of for organizations they are proud of.

This said, the stakes are about to go up. Over the next five to ten years baby-boomers are going to leave the workplace or scale back and the competition for people is going to intensify. Talented employees are going to discover that they have choices like never before. They will gravitate to workplaces that are well led. In this significant way a good leadership development program, one that can attract the right people and help them develop their leadership potential – will become a key competitive advantage. Will your organization be ready to compete in this environment?

Dan Gaynor

Discussion questions:

Are you willing to make changes to the leadership team when it becomes clear they are needed?
How much time do the members of your team spend on developing their leadership skills?

Read To Lead

In Leadership Articles (Archives) on April 1, 2014 at 9:31 am


I remember well as a young leader reading an article from a newsletter an early mentor signed me up for. The author described the way good feedback skills help to uncover characteristic behaviour. Until that moment I hadn’t given much thought to the importance of feedback and I’d never heard of characteristic behaviour. That article inspired me to develop the best feedback skills I could, it gave me insight into why some people do what they do, and it helped me become a more effective leader. It helped me see that there were authors who could help me develop my leadership talent. Today, many books later, I’m still reading, still learning.

While it’s true that experience is a good teacher, you will learn a lot faster if you spend time learning from those who have gone before you. But the reality is, quality mentors can be hard to find. Really good leaders are just not very common. You can find them on the shelves of your bookstore. This is why the best leaders are also readers.

This said, not everything written about leadership is good. There is too much well packaged faddish and just really bad thinking. When you read, do so with a discerning mind and look for people who have established a track record as successful leaders. Experience and common sense will help you determine what is good and what is not.

Authors tend to break into two groups: the practitioners (those who have hands-on leadership experience; and the academics (those who have studied it but never really done much of it.) Both can be good, but you have to be more discerning with the second group. Too often we think research means credibility but in leadership this is often not the case.

So with this in mind, here are my top five recommendations, books that I believe offer cover to cover value:

The Leadership Secrets Of Colin Powell, by Oren Harari: While not elegantly written, the book is certainly capably written and Harari does a very good job of getting Colin Powell’s rock solid observations onto the pages, presenting highly practical advice.

Wooden On Leadership, by John Wooden: Written by the winningest coach in the history of the NCAA, John Wooden offers great advice from cover to cover. The book left me with the impression that Wooden was a leader who above all was passionate about leadership as a craft. He spent a lifetime refining his understanding of the subject and presents his highly valuable observations in a clear well organized fashion.

Tough Choices, by Carley Fiorna: Carley Fiorna offers a memoir in which she charts her journey from humble beginnings to CEO at Hewlett-Packard. The central theme is leadership and lessons learned through each new experience. Fiorina is a good story-teller and offers rock solid advice. It’s another book I can recommend without reservation.

First, Break All The Rules, by Marcus Buckingham and Curt Coffman: This book is among the best of the researchers group. The authors draw on two large studies to determine what makes the great workplaces great. The book offers solid foundational advice that every leader should be familiar with.

Shake Hands With The Devil, by Lieutenant-General Roméo Dallaire with Major Brent Beardsley: I round out my top five with an offering by a Canadian hero. Dallaire’s memoir chronicles his life a leader in the Canadian military with focus on his most challenging assignment – UN Force Commander for the Rwanda mission in 1993. While not specifically about leadership, he offers some of the most insightful leadership lessons to be found anywhere.

For a highly practical leadership read check out my own book, The Heart and Hands of Leadership: The Twelve Timeless Practices of Effective Leaders.

Great leadership isn’t an accident, it is the product of good character and a lifetime spent refining skills. This is why great leaders read.

Dan Gaynor

Discussion Questions:

What was the last leadership book you read? What were the lessons that stood out most?
What have been the most important leadership lessons you have learned from others who went before you?

To help your leaders become the best they can be, contact me for a speaking engagement or a 1/2 workshop.