champagne on iceWhat is the purpose of employee recognition? It is to express appreciation for and validation of a person’s extraordinary contribution, extra effort or other accomplishment above and beyond the daily expectations. This is a simple concept. After all, one of the first things we teach our children is to say, “Thank you,” to others. So why, is showing appreciation or saying, “Thank you” so difficult in organizations? I believe the answer is that many organizations focus on implementing Employee Recognition programs instead of working to create a culture of high performance standards and sincere appreciation. And, since most of the programs are designed, implemented and managed by the Human Resources department, all too often the action being recognized and the moment of recognition becomes diminished by red tape, committee review, final approvals and the passage of time.

One of the most mind-numbing meetings that I have ever attended was a presentation by a Director of HR at one of my former employers. She had been leading a task force comprised of managers, HR Business Partners and employee representatives throughout the company to create a new Employee Recognition Program. While I don’t remember the details of the program, I vividly remember the two-hour meeting in which the team talked about their proposal. I sat there as they reviewed detailed categories of the types of things employees could do to merit recognition and how the various contributions aligned to certain levels of recognition in the program. This was followed by pages of guidelines that defined who was qualified to be recognized and how often; the specific categories of allowable recognition; and how it was all going to be managed and monitored to ensure the program wasn’t abused. I remember thinking, “Geez, employee recognition should be a lot more fun! It should be a heart felt “thank you” to the person receiving the recognition. Recognition should create a buzz that inspires others, not be one big blob of bureaucratic red tape!” My mind drifted to the words, “Encouraging the Heart,” which is how Kouzes and Posner describe employee recognition in their book, The Leadership Challenge. This program had no heart! I left the meeting depressed.

As life’s lessons often go, I walked straight from that meeting to my monthly one-on-one with the SVP of Product Development. One of the topics he wanted to talk about was a special recognition bonus for an employee who had just completed a complex project that was of great value to the company. He was seeking my support to recommend a large spot bonus cash award. Given the details of her work and contribution there was no question the award would have been approved, and I told him that. However, I was still thinking about meaningful recognition, so I suggested a different approach. Drawing on the principles of “Encouraging the Heart,” I saw this as an opportunity for the leader to really do something special, something personal, something that would have greater impact than a check. So I helped the manager brainstorm some other ideas that might have more of a wow-factor. I asked him what the employee liked to do and he said she was an avid hiker. I thought we were on to something, so I suggested he do something along those lines. In the end we agreed to give the employee an extra day off for a long weekend and a significant gift card to a local sports store. He really embraced the idea and off he went.

The following week I received a visit from the manager who was brimming with excitement. The employee had been deeply moved by the personal recognition. She had told him it was the most meaningful “thank you” message she had received in her career, even though she had been the recipient of many cash bonuses in the past. Furthermore, the impact of that personal and heartfelt recognition stayed with her through the years. She went on to be one of our top managers and carried that same level of thoughtfulness as she led her teams. (By the way, the final cost for this personal recognition was less than one-tenth of the amount the SVP original wanted to pay in the cash bonus—a win-win).

I have since used this approach many times with my own teams, or when designing organizational recognition guidelines and coaching leaders. It’s simple, it’s meaningful and it is often more impactful than cash. Why? Because personal recognition is sincere. It demonstrates to the employee that their unique contribution deserves unique appreciation and that you have invested some thought to make the moment special.

Of course, there are other aspects to developing a culture of appreciation, and there are budget, guidelines and governance issues that always need to be considered. But you will never go wrong if you remember the following tip: “While recognition programs and similar organizational rituals have their place, the best encouragement is always given personally, according to the individual’s own value system. Find out what your direct reports, leaders and peers find meaningful and recognize each individual accordingly.”


There are excuses . . . and then there are reasons. When it comes to helping a leader to delegate more frequently and effectively, both may come in to play. We’ll look at excuses first, then go into some of the more complex causes of failure to delegate.

Traditionally there have been three primary excuses that leaders have used to explain the failure to delegate, all of which can easily be dismissed in single paragraphs:

  • “They won’t do it as well as I would.”
  • “It will take more time to manage it, so I’m better off doing it myself.”
  • “My people are overloaded already, so why give them more work?”

“They won’t do it as well as I would.”

While that may be true sometimes, it’s just as likely that they will do it better! A person taking on a new task brings new perspectives to the work. They’re not stuck in the old paradigm or ways of doing things. In most cases, greater responsibility is a positive motivator that leads people to put more effort, energy and care into their work. If a leader is crystal clear about the desired outcome and stays in touch through regular (but not excessive) check-ins, this obstacle will likely prove to be more myth than truth.

“It will take more time to manage it, so I’m better off doing it myself.”

In the short run, perhaps. But when you consider that each task a leader chooses not to delegate is another task that won’t be subtracted from their workload, the person most likely to suffer is the leader. Failing to delegate compromises leader effectiveness and restrains leadership capacity.

“My people are overloaded already, so why give them more work?”

There are times when people feel overloaded because they have too much work, but it is also true that complaints about “overload” are really complaints about “I’m doing too much work that I don’t like to do.” When a job allows a person to fully utilize their talents, it usually winds up being fun and exciting for them—not an extra burden.

These excuses often mask deeper causes. The real reasons leaders don’t delegate present more of a challenge:

  • Organizational Culture: The leader works in a control-driven organization that expects leaders to be hands-on and hands-in. Leaders in such organizations who are not aware of every little detail of every trivial activity that goes on in their bailiwick can be subject to public humiliation. The need to CYA trumps the responsibility to delegate and empower people.
  • Ball Hog Syndrome: The leader is a control freak or has a hero complex that drives them to get in there and do it all. We call them “ball hogs” in basketball.
  • Personal Insecurity: The leader is insecure and feels threatened by the potential of his or her direct reports.

An individual leader will have a very difficult time changing an organizational culture of top-down control, so the choice a leader faces if he or she firmly believes in delegation is to either leave or “delegate by stealth.” To accomplish the stealth strategy successfully, the leader needs to have great relationships with his/her direct reports to be able to say, “Look. We work in a political organization where I have to cover my behind from time to time. This means I may ask you for more details about what you’re doing than you or I would like. I want you to know that this is not a trust issue, I’m just engaging in classic CYA.” This is not an optimum strategy, but can buy a leader some time to find another job while still leading in accordance with his/her values.

A ball hog is a more difficult problem. I don’t believe a ball hog can be helped through traditional coaching; the tendency to want to be the center of attention is too ingrained. I also believe that having the ball hog’s boss take the ball hog to the woodshed is counter-productive because it will simply reaffirm the ball hog’s belief in power and control. The only way a ball hog will change is by experiencing a failure so complete that he or she will be forced to re-examine and re-construct the self. That’s when you bring in the coach, because now he or she will need and appreciate the guidance.

The personally insecure leader can be helped through professional coaching. It has to be professional coaching so that the leader can explore causes of insecurity in a confidential setting. While there are leaders who are excellent coaches, personal insecurity is a difficult topic to discuss with anyone at work, but especially difficult to discuss with the person who establishes the expectations you’re supposed to meet. A professional has no position power and is much more likely to have the training and education in psychology and human communication needed to help the insecure leader overcome his or her fears of letting go.

Photo Credit: © Fyb | Dreamstime Stock Photos & Stock Free Images


Hopefully no one’s idea of what a great leader should be.

As I prepare to deliver a new round of our Leadership Choices course in a couple of weeks, by sheer accident I happen to be reading Robert Service’s biography of Joseph Stalin.


Surprisingly enough, I am learning a lot about leadership in reading Stalin’s biography, most of it falling in the “how not to do it” category. One of the most fundamentally evil leaders in history, Stalin would certainly fail any sane person’s gut-check level test on quality leadership. It’s therefore interesting that one could make the case that Stalin might have scored reasonably well on a survey measuring him against the five key leadership practices defined by Kouzes and Posner:

  • Challenging the Process: He entirely transformed both the government and the society. He refused to believe that experts had all the answers and constantly challenged existing assumptions.
  • Inspiring a Shared Vision: While he certainly didn’t bother to develop a consensus, he had a very clear and articulate vision of what he wanted the Soviet Union to become.
  • Enabling Others to Act: He ensured that thousands of workers were promoted into management positions.
  • Modeling the Way: He worked hard, dressed simply and rarely indulged himself in luxury.
  • Encouraging the Heart: He sent congratulations to artists, scientists and bureaucrats for work performed on behalf of the nation.

While all of this is true, it’s also superficial nonsense. Stalin never allowed anyone to challenge his processes, and any deviation from what he thought was the best course resulted in execution or a long stay in a gulag. His vision was singular and imposed upon millions of innocent people by brute force. He was a supreme control freak, paranoid to the extreme, trusted no one and gave specific instructions to even senior-level people that he expected to be carried out to the letter. He was secretive, manipulative and achieved most of his goals through terror and violence. He sent hundreds of thousands of people to labor camps and millions to their deaths.

Yes, Stalin got the job done. Not particularly efficiently, but effectively. He had a very clear idea of what he wanted to accomplish and allowed nothing and no one to stand in his way. In other words, he had qualities that people in business often say they admire, especially when they fail to look beneath the surface qualities of leadership.

Stalin’s story is an extreme example of why, in the end, the belief that “results are all that matter” is fundamentally absurd. How leaders achieve results is often more important than what they achieve, for while reporting periods and the quarterly conference call pass into history, how one leads has lasting effects on the culture. If a leader achieves results through unethical or immoral practices, through unbridled egotism or through an at-all-costs approach, he or she destroys trust throughout the organization and strips the work of any meaning. Much of my work in organizational development involves trying to help organizations where trust has been shattered by a leader who cared only about the bottom line and had no interest in the people or the culture.

People matter. Values matter. Ethics matter. Kouzes and Posner stress this in every one of their five leadership practices, if you read more deeply into their explanations of those practices. The why and the how matter as much as the what, and truly great leaders are those who never forget that.

Another great leader who made a big mistake.

Another great leader who made a big mistake.

I’ve been reading Justice for All: Earl Warren and the Nation He Made by Jim Newton. It’s an excellent biography by one of the few biographers who consistently provides a balanced view to his work.

We remember Earl Warren first of all for his contributions to the advancement of equality, particularly in the area of school desegregation. He’s also remembered for several more controversial decisions that protected the rights of the accused in criminal proceedings, but his primary claim to fame comes from his well-publicized commitment to civil rights.

What is less known is that Warren was one of the major leaders behind the internment of Japanese citizens in World War II, an act that deprived hundreds of thousands of Americans of all of their civil rights and ranks as one of the most shameful acts in American history.

From a leadership perspective, Warren is not unusual. While we all have a desire to find a leader who can satisfy our desire for the perfect hero, no leaders are perfect. Many of the people whom we consider our greatest leaders were also guilty of horrible mistakes. Lincoln wasted years of effort and thousands of lives because he had lousy talent acquisition skills and couldn’t find the right generals. FDR squandered his mandate on a court-packing scheme that damaged his effectiveness with Congress for the rest of his presidency. Nixon opened the doors to China then stupidly embroiled himself in Watergate. I’ve read hundreds of biographies of leaders and have yet to find one that could quality as mistake-free. Not even close.

The fact that leaders make mistakes is more problematic in the United States than in other countries because our belief in single-person leadership is stronger. The myth of the lone leader who can walk into town and clean up the mess like the sheriffs of frontier days is still with us. Ross Perot went a long way on that myth back in 1992, and we see the same dynamic in business every time a CEO is replaced and the new CEO is anointed a “savior” by the business press. The myth also creates the unreasonable expectations that lead to our love-hate dynamic with leaders. If they do what we think they should be doing, we’re behind them; if they screw up, we feel angry and betrayed. The essence of the leadership experience is one minute you’re a hero, the next minute you’re a bum.

Leaders make mistakes. Good and even great leaders make lots of mistakes. This is a truth that both leaders and followers must accept, for it opens the door to a long-term perspective and a fairer evaluation of a leader’s contribution. We can say that the best leaders are those who learn from their mistakes, but some leaders learn all the wrong things from their mistakes, like “I’ll never trust that SOB again,” or “that’s the last time I share information with anyone.”

So let’s say instead that the best leaders demonstrate the ability and willingness to learn the right things from their mistakes. They have the ability to self-reflect, identify where they went wrong and accept responsibility for fixing the problems created by their mistakes while working to prevent similar mistakes in the future. Most importantly, they also accept that they are human and will continue to make mistakes (hopefully different mistakes) as long as they live. The true measure of the quality of a leader lies in having a clear vision and demonstrating the fortitude to remove the obstacles in the way of achieving that vision . . . especially the obstacles created by the inevitable mistakes and character flaws of the leader.

Great leaders have one thing in common: they are never finished. They never finish striving and they are never finished works themselves. Great leaders grow and change. It is clear that Earl Warren overcame a dreadful lapse in judgment to eventually make great contributions to society, and I firmly believe that most leaders can overcome even their worst mistakes.

Except for the extremely arrogant, most leaders I’ve worked with are exceptionally hard on themselves when they make a mistake—much harder than their demanding followers are. Avoid that trap and develop a long-term perspective in your work that allows you to see a mistake for what it is: a bump in the road in the middle of a very long journey. Don’t waste time staring angrily at the bump. Figure out how you allowed the bump to slow you down, then move on.







Early in my career, I learned the importance of walking the talk: doing what you say you’re going to do.

So, in approaching a new assignment to design a leadership development program (like the one I’m working on now), I have to admit it would be very easy simply to copy from the dozens of other leadership development programs that I have developed. If I did that, though, I wouldn’t be walking my talk. My fundamental theory of organizational development states that every culture is unique and therefore every program has to be designed from scratch. While I may go back and look at what I have done before, I detach myself from the analysis and evaluate everything as if it were fresh information.

Because unless I can answer the question, “Will it fit in this culture?” in the affirmative, I have to find another way.

The first step of my design process is what I teach other trainers: immerse yourself in the subject. Lately I’ve been in heavy immersion, reading biographies of famous leaders, reviewing the great books on leadership, writing down stories from the recent past that involve leaders doing great things for their people and their organizations. Immersion accomplishes two things. First, it gives me a wealth of information that I can access when facing a group of savvy leaders who ask lots of questions from unexpected perspectives. Second, it helps me find the right language for the best possible training objectives for this particular program.

Instructional designers may tell you to start with the objectives, but I don’t know how you do that without immersing yourself in the available knowledge and in the culture of the organization you are serving.

Still, I have to admit that there are certain leadership models and practices that I return to because they contain wisdom that applies to many cultures and, most importantly, allow the leader enough freedom to personalize the approach involved. These will not work in every culture in every stage of organizational development, but they contain essential information that can make every leader more effective:

  • Dr. Paul Hersey’s Situational Leadership™ has been around for years and remains a vibrant, practical theory of leadership. The key to Situational Leadership™ is balancing flexibility with consistency by matching one’s leadership approach to the readiness level of the follower. The consistency comes from responding to specific indicators with a specific behavioral response; the flexibility comes from adjusting that response as the follower’s readiness level changes. What I like best about Situational Leadership™ is that it’s all about finding the leadership approach that will be the most helpful to that follower at that particular moment. For more information on the theory and certification, go to The Center for Leadership Studies website.
  • Kouzes and Posner’s The Leadership Challenge is a research-based approach that identifies five leadership practices common to successful leaders: Challenging the Process, Inspiring a Shared Vision, Modeling the Way, Enabling Others to Act and Encouraging the Heart. The authors also identified what followers expect from leaders, what they call The Credibility Factor. People expect leaders to be honest, competent, forward-looking and inspiring. These practices and factors are anything but dogma; the authors encourage each leader to find their own way of manifesting leadership. The latest edition of The Leadership Challenge is available on Amazon.
  • The third source I recommend is Now Discover Your Strengths by Marcus Buckingham and Donald Clifton. While this is not a book about leadership per se, all leaders need to discover their personal strengths and encourage others to discover theirs if they are to get the best out of their people. As Buckingham put in a speech he gave a few years ago, “A great manager turns one person’s talent into performance.” Within that statement are several insights: that each person working for you is unique; that each person working for you has untapped potential; and that each person working for you deserves your time and attention. The book is also available on Amazon.

So, which am I using in my current program? The one that will work best in this particular situation is The Leadership Challenge, but I will be integrating that information with knowledge from many other sources, some of which would fall into the category of “unexpected.” These include Keith Johnstone (who writes about improvisational theatre), Jennifer James (a cultural anthropologist), Robert Morrow (novelist and author of Ringing True) and a few of my own theories that should resonate in this culture.

There are two takeaways from this post. First, for those of you reading this who do not have access to leadership development programs in your organization, I want you to know that the answers to many of your questions and solutions to many of your leadership problems are available to you in the sources I mentioned. Second, no matter what leadership model you choose to anchor the design of your leadership development program, don’t choose it because you love it or you know it—choose it because it’s the best possible fit for the culture you’re serving.

And if you don’t find anything that fits . . . design your own model. If you really take the time to know an organizational culture, you will find certain values, visions and practices that might work better than anything you can get off the shelf.

Photo Credit: © Ermell | Stock Free Images & Dreamstime Stock Photos