Think Leadership Ideas

7 Leadership Actions

The comments and questions from many of my workshop participants and coaching clients often reveal that their basic concept of leadership is about being in charge - i.e. obtaining a position of power, having the most information, and giving orders. The classic boss. From this viewpoint, effective leadership requires having the answer to any question brought to you by someone lower in the hierarchy so you can tell them the right thing to do. What leaders do is make decisions and give marching orders.

There is indeed a command-and-control aspect of leadership. However in today’s knowledge-based environment, most value is created by bringing together specialized know-how from interdependent sources. The head of almost any organization needs the knowledge of customers, matrixed team members, vendors, professionals, or other stakeholders over whom they exert little power. Executives, business owners, and team leaders find themselves needing to bring out knowledge rather than impart it.

So in a knowledge, service, and interdependent environment, if you are not actually telling people what actions to take, what is it that leaders DO to get results?

The following are seven leadership ACTIONS other than telling someone what to do: exemplify, acknowledge, articulate, frame, follow, facilitate, and presence. (Yes, the latter is intentionally used as an active verb - see why below).

Do yourself what you want others to do. Walk the talk. One of the most powerful acts of leadership is setting an example. Gandhi said it best, “Be the change you want to see in the world.”

If serving as an example is powerful, so is acknowledging others who serve as examples. In a world where we couldn’t possibly have time to attend to everything, showing interest, asking questions, giving something attention all elevate an item in importance. The act of offering recognition, public and private, formal and informal, to those who are already performing well can deeply impact future behavior of those recognized and those who witness it.

There is tremendous force in effectively speaking on behalf of a group, to give meaningful voice to collective values, and goals. To inform others, to be able to summarize the what, why, and how of a circumstance, to describe the current path, and to invite people to a vision of the future - all are potential leadership actions of consequence.

Framing means using expressions that guide what someone is likely to think (or not think) about an issue, the way that a picture frame puts boundaries around an image. All language involves not only the direct meaning of the words used, but also a host of associations and ideas that channel our thinking in specific directions. For example, public policy makers saying they are “hard on crime” creates different ideas than if they say they are interested in “safe neighborhoods” although either could be about the role of the police department. There is a different set of thoughts that arise when an executive says “everyone here is family” rather than saying “we treat each other like customers” - although both expressions may intend to convey a positive work relationships.

Leading doesn’t happen until someone follows. Often the most significant act one can do is to follow someone else’s lead - especially if others will then follow you.

If knowledge-based work is about bringing together diverse know-how, dialogue is the process by which this know-how is synthesized into something of value. The ability to convene, listen to different perspectives, steer conversations so everyone can contribute, and guide people through processes for joint problem-solving and decision making are all critical to knowledge environments, especially those seeking to bring out the best talents of everyone involved.

Woody Allen once remarked that eighty percent of success is showing up. Absolutely, one has to show up to do any act of leadership. How much more powerful if one takes leadership action when fully present, ready to make a contribution with the all the personal gifts one has to offer.

Used as a verb, to presence is taking action to be present, physically, cognitively and emotionally. One not simply participates, rather brings into existence deeper understanding, a specific emotional tone, or a spirit that is shared with others. Presencing is one of the key elements of bringing about substantive change in human endeavors, as studied by the Society for Organizational Learning over the last couple of decades.

A final word of wisdom. While all of the seven actions can be enhanced when done from a position of authority or responsibility, having a leadership title is not a requirement. Anyone can presence, exemplify, acknowledge, articulate, frame, follow, or facilitate to gain followers for a course of action.

Leading is far more than making decisions and directing others. In the 21st century leadership will increasingly focus on giving people a genuine choice about their action, while making the choice to follow compelling.

by Tom Stevens (c)2007
Tom Stevens helps individuals and organizations create brilliant futures and make a difference. To contact him, visit

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