By Kim McKinnon, PhD
Author's note: this is the fourth in a six-part series focusing on some
of the latest things we know about effective leadership - recent research,
best practices and a specific approach leaders can use to improve their
I was terrified! My fourth grade teacher had "invited" five "volunteers"
(including me) to go to the chalkboard. Typically this process involved
writing two of the 'answers' from last night's math homework on the board
for others to view. For those who did not fit into the 'math whiz' category,
this wasn't a happy experience. Fortunately for me, this time it was different.
Instead of instructing us to share our expertise in math, Ms. Thomas said that
we should each "write the name of your favorite movie star" on the board.
I was jubilant - no math! This momentary victory was quickly followed by
another moment of panic when I struggled to think of a 'movie star' in the
no-DVD, few television re-runs and even fewer first-run movies that came to
Mesa, Arizona in 1965. And then….in a moment of inspiration … it came to me.
I quickly, but neatly, wrote the name of my "star" and was rewarded as I turned
around to see that almost all my fellow classmates had listed the very same name.
This actor wasn't a mere ... actor; he was a genuine "hero." And although he
played different kinds of roles, he was most famous for being the ultimate
westerner / rancher / cowboy / sheriff / rescuer / fast-draw specialist/tough fighter -
all rolled into one. He was, of course, 'the Duke" - sometimes referred to in
the regular world as John Wayne. And mixed in with all the roles mentioned -
he was the ideal "hero leader" - a person who knew all the answers and did not
need any help from others to be successful in the various plights with which he
was faced. In fact, many of us learned our beliefs about leadership from
following his example - we saw that this approach ("do it yourself because
you are more capable than others") worked time after time after time.
The problem, of course, is that Mr. Wayne was not a true "hero" - he was an
actor; he was really just a man, playing the role of the ultimate westerner / rancher / cowboy….
you get the picture. Another problem was that our assumption that his "do it yourself"
leadership style was 'the correct' style, wasn't just incorrect - it was really a recipe
for becoming a very poor and very ineffective leader, especially in the brave new world
we live in today.
Our topic in this edition of "Focus on Leadership" is the responsibility the leader
has to be a great "Coach" - a person who helps others do their best work. Of course,
this is the third of five key leadership roles we've titled, "The Fundamental Five."
We've described them as follows:
The role of the coach - the leader who works with people to help them do their
best work - has been summarized in recent years through the term 'engagement.'
We've come to define an engaged employee as a person who is 'actively involved
in meaningful work.'
Guardian - establishing trust
Navigator - clarifying purpose
Coach - building engaged people
Architect - strengthening teams
Revolutionary - leading change
While we'd like to think that most leaders are 'coaches' in the way they interact
with their employees, experience tends to tell another story. In fact, we find
most of our experience, research and wisdom from the experts with the opposite
point of view. A few years ago, even noted management Guru Peter Drucker observed:
"Ninety percent of what we call 'management' consists of making it
difficult for people to get things done."
And though Dr. Drucker was kind of joking, he was kind of serious as well.
The work of Buckingham and Coffman in their book, First, Break All the Rules
provides research evidence which is consistent with Drucker. Their research
separated employees into three categories - "engaged," "not engaged," and
"actively disengaged." Unfortunately, their results for US workers were as
These findings - confirmed with follow-up research - shows that about three-fourths
of workers in the United States reported feeling not very involved in their work.
Although specific numbers varied a bit for other countries, the overall results were
the same - most people do not feel engaged.
Engaged - 26% (actively involved in meaningful work)
Not Engaged - 55% (going through the motions of work)
Actively Disengaged - 19% (actively working - to "not work")
In order to address this widespread dilemma, it's important to understand two
very important categories of information:
Here's what you need to know - and do - in each of these areas.
What Not to Do
What To Do
What Not to Do - "Dumb Practices which Dis-engage Employees"
Two popular (but terribly ineffective) practices which emerge again and
again - and seem to be quite common among those who are new to the
leadership role - can be summarized as follows:
Dumb Practice #1: Be sure to keep the really interesting or
important projects for yourself
Consistent with their old role of being a "doer" (not a leader),
some leaders horde the good work for themselves - sending an "I'm
not confident you can do the work" message. Of course, the leader's
job is not to do the work - but to get the work done through the
efforts of others. This practice results both in less engaged employees
and an ineffective leader.
Dumb Practice #2: Make sure people know who the boss is - keep
them on their toes
This approach to leading can be summarized as consciously deciding to
be a jerk. If there is one rule which ought to be taught in every
course on leadership, is it this - "Don't be a Jerk!" The supposed
sense of power that accompanies those in authority who belittle their
employees is always short-lived. Those in leadership positions who try
to lead as tyrants or extra-tough bosses are really just demonstrating
why they can not be trusted with the organization's most valuable
resource - its people.
The result of using these dumb practices to leading others is always
the same - and it's always bad; you get what you deserve: employees who
are not engaged. This also means that you have failed in your role as
a leader - a person whose most fundamental job is to get work done through
others. These others will not trust you or offer to do more than is
absolutely required - because you have failed them.
What To Do - Smart Practices Used by Smart Leader Coaches
Smart Practice #1: Provide Clear Expectations
Buckingham & Coffman's research was based on the results of surveys
conducted with many thousands of people worldwide. Their survey - entitled
the Q12 - included only the twelve most important questions. The very
first item those responding rated was:
"I know what's expected of me at work."
Although this seems to be a somewhat simple item, its importance cannot be
overrated. Buckingham & Coffman confirmed what other researchers who had
previously asked similar questions found - that most workers aren't as clear
about what they should be doing as they'd like. A study by Ferdinand Fourier
found that even the leaders know this problem. When asked, "Why don't
subordinates do what they are supposed to do?" - 99% of responding leaders
said, "Subordinates don't do what they are supposed to do because they don't
know what they are supposed to do! (Of course, the leaders realized that they
were being self-critical - of course it's the job of the leader to ensure that
their subordinates know what they are supposed to do).
The point: be very, very clear with your people what their work priorities
are; be clear regarding the standards (what is good work; great work) and
also be clear with deadlines (November 15th).
Smart Practice #2: Provide Lots of Feedback
Leaders often have a number of people who report to them. A natural consequence
of this "one leading many" situation is that communication isn't as frequent as
it could be - as it should be. And the one kind of communication that tends to
suffer most is feedback - communication to the employee about how they are doing.
This is a problem because employees really do want feedback!
One recent study discovered that leaders think they are doing a better job in
this area than they actually are. In the survey, leaders were asked to respond
to this statement: "I let my team members know when they are doing a good job."
Employees of these leaders were asked to respond to a similar statement: "My
leader lets me know when I am doing a good job."
The results, using a 5-point scale (5 was high) were like this:
Employees consistently rated their leader much lower than the leaders themselves.
Again, employees want to know how they are doing. Good leaders provide on-going,
continual feedback. This is at the heart of being an effective leader coach.
Leader's Self Rating: 4.3
Employee Rating: 2.3
Smart Practice #3: Focus on Learning and Growth
Supporting your employees in their professional development is a core activity for
really good leader coaches. Particularly with younger employees, investing in
learning and development makes good sense. Not only does this result in a higher
quality of work but it also brings about - engaged people.
Professional development is important for you, the leader, as well. One emerging
approach to leader development is the practice of leader coaching - sometimes referred
to as executive coaching - where the leader and a well-qualified coach work together
in assessing needs, designing a plan and then implementing the plan. And, since you
are reading this article - here's an offer for you: a 30-minute, complementary (free,
sample) leader coaching session. Simply contact me through my email and mention offer
AMCA-3. I'll respond to your note and arrange a convenient time for this telephone
Becoming a great leader coach is as much about what not to do (remember, you can't
do everything yourself and you can't lead if you are behaving like a jerk) as it is
about what you should do. Using the Smart Practices of providing very clear
expectations, sharing specific feedback on a regular basis and supporting your
employees as they learn, grow and improve is a very wise investment.
In the next newsletter, we will focus on the leader as an Architect - a person
who builds effective teams.
Kim McKinnon, PhD is a leadership development consultant and executive coach in
the Phoenix area and has worked with dozens of ACMA members. In addition to his
consulting, he also is on the faculty at Arizona State University and the Fielding
Graduate University in Santa Barbara. Kim has enjoyed the feedback he's received
on these articles and can be reached at:
or through his website: McKinnonConsulting.Net.