The Newsletter of Redpoint Coaching
Volume 6, No. 2, March 2007

You are reading ChangeAbility, a newsletter from Urs Koenig, PhD, MBA, of Redpoint Business Coaching.

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  1. What Makes for a Great Leader
  2. Management Concepts Explained: Differentiation
  3. Giving and Receiving Feedback


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1. What Makes for a Great Leader

Over the course of the last six years I have coached more than 200 business leaders. I have observed them in a variety of settings such as in front of large and small groups, presenting to clients and during 1-on-1s with staff members. I have seen them laugh, cry, frown, yell and smile.

Here is what I have learned about what makes for a great leader:

Great leaders:

  • Understand that they are constantly in the limelight.
  • Combine personal humility with iron professional will
  • Display high self awareness around their strengths and weaknesses

1. Understand that they are constantly in the limelight.

The importance of leading by example has been drilled into me from an early age. It started (don’t laugh) in Boy Scouts, where I was awarded a leadership role - something I was immensely proud at the time - because of exemplary behavior. It continued through my national army service where I almost got kicked out of officer school because I could not get myself to respect a Colonel who preached to us about the importance of personal discipline and iron will and very clearly was an alcoholic (hint: don’t ever laugh when a Colonel is yelling at you;-)

Most executives understand the importance of leading by example. Many forget, however, that they are constantly on stage. And I mean constantly: from the minute you walk into the office in the morning until you leave at night, you are sending signals to your people about what is desirable behavior and what is unacceptable. And it does not end there. Think business travel, office parties and semi-social gatherings.

Do you ever:

  • Fall behind responding to emails and voice mails?
  • Miss deadlines without giving people involved in the project a heads-up?
  • Fail to take responsibility for a poor decision you have made?
  • Spend time gossiping with co-workers?

Who? You? Never! Of course not. Me neither.

If you do, however, be aware that your people are observing you constantly and are picking up on every little thing you do or do not do. They see everything: the good, the bad and the ugly! If that sounds scary and uncomfortable, you bet it is. The point is, that you need to be conscious of the fact that you are the leader of the pack and NOT one of the pack and that your people are constantly looking to you for guidance. Remember: what you do/don’t do is much more powerful than what you say/don’t say.

2. Combine personal humility with iron professional will.

Jim Collins calls this ‘Level 5 Leadership’ and it is both counter intuitive and counter cultural. People generally assume that being a great leader means having a bigger than life personality. Jim Collins’ extensive research in his book Good to Great, and the humble personal experience of yours truly show that nothing could be further from the truth.

The most effective leaders rarely credit themselves for outstanding results. They are the first ones to credit their people or even external factors when things go well. However, when things go poorly, they first look in the mirror to find the source of poor results.

Great leaders act quietly and calmly and determinedly. They rely on high standards rather than charisma to motivate.

Great leaders at the same time display an unwavering will. They are intolerant of any mediocrity. They do whatever it takes to produce great results – terminating everything else. 

How does this look in real life?

Consider what Collins calls the ‘Yin and Yang’ of Level 5 leadership:

  • Demonstrates a compelling modesty, yet demonstrates an unwavering will to do whatever must be done to produce the best long-term results, no matter how difficult
  • Acts with quiet, calm determination yet sets the standard of building an enduring, great company and will settle for nothing less
  • Looks into the mirror not out the window to assign responsibility for poor results, yet looks out the window, not in to the mirror, to extend credit for success to other people

3. Display high self awareness around their strengths and weaknesses

We are expecting a lot from you as our leader. You are supposed to have the intellectual capacity to make sense of complex strategic issues, the operational ability to translate these strategies into concrete plans, and the interpersonal skills to foster an all-out commitment from your staff.

It seems too obvious to even state it, but no one leader can be good at all of the above. And yet, I have seen too many clients trying to stay on top of everything – not wanting to admit to any weaknesses for fear of appearing incompetent. Ironically, it is that fear that limits them from becoming great leaders.

Let me explain. There is a crucial distinction between an incompetent and an incomplete leader (see Ancona et al. HRB, February 2007, p. 92 ff). We all are incomplete leaders, in that we all have weaknesses. Hopefully, only a small minority of us are incompetent leaders. One certain way, however, to be incompetent, is by denying that we are incomplete.

In other words, incomplete leaders differ from incompetent leaders in that they understand what they are good at and what they are not good at.

How might you discover where and how you are incomplete? Here are some options:

  • Self reflection/journaling
  • Inviting feedback from your staff, peers, clients (e.g. 360 degree,  interviews)
  • Having an executive coach shadow you

Once you have a clear understanding (and I mean a clear understanding and not ‘some sort of an idea’) about your strengths and weaknesses, your good judgment is needed in deciding how you can work with others to build on your strengths and offset your limitations.

Sometimes, you will need to further develop the capabilities you are weakest in. Other times, it is more important for you to find and work with others who can compensate for your weaknesses.

Rather than getting you to a place where you are pretty good at everything but not outstanding anywhere, I believe your energies are best spent at further polishing your strengths to make you truly one of the best in that particular area and lifting your weaknesses to an acceptable level (but not necessarily beyond that).

Your take away:

Only when we see ourselves as incomplete – that is discovering and acknowledging both our strengths and weaknesses – are we able to rely on others to make up for our deficits and in turn become great leaders.


2. Management Concepts Explained: Differentiation

Many of the most successful business owners and executives I meet have never attended business school. They were busy building the business while you MBAs sat in class ;-).

Over the course of the next few ChangeAbilities, I will therefore explain popular but often misunderstood management concepts. This month I will continue with ‘Differentiation.’

Differentiation is, in short, the way in which a company persuades customers that its products or services are different (and better) than its competitors’. Differentiation can take real forms (our breakfast cereal has more fiber) or imaginary (this scent will make you irresistible) and has become an integral part of virtually every marketing campaign.

As products become more similar, differentiation becomes vital: there is very little to distinguish between the leading cola soft drinks, for example, so companies are increasingly turning to branding in order to differentiate themselves. One mid-range automobile is about prosperity and status; another is about environmental stewardship. The more a product or service lends itself to differentiation, the larger the returns.

Michael Porter, a Harvard business strategist, argued that companies with similar products have only two methods of competition: price or differentiation. Focusing attention on the differences between products or services allows marketers to posit one as better than its competitors: better quality, better value for money.

Questions for you:

1. What differentiates your product or service from your competitors’ product or service?

2. How can those differences be exploited in your marketing?

3. How have your competitors differentiated themselves from you, and what can you learn from their marketing strategies?

This article based on Tim Hindle’s Guide to Management Ideas, London: Profile Books, 2003.


3. Giving and Receiving Feedback

If you find it challenging to give difficult feedback, check out these tools. For a general overview on how to deliver feedback:

Specifically for how to prepare a feedback session:

Send an email to I welcome your feedback!

Copyright Redpoint Business Coaching, 2007. All rights reserved

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