Diagnosing Versus Labeling

Two words that routinely surface when discussing the topic of leadership are consistency and flexibility.

  • Good leaders are reliable, dependable and consistent. You never have to wonder where they are coming from or what they are up to
  • Good leaders are flexible. They adjust or tailor their approach depending upon the people they are dealing with and the circumstances they are facing

When you unpack those declarations a little bit, you find they fit together very nicely:

  • Good leaders are typically driven by two objectives:
    • Success: They are “execution animals.” They love goals. More than that, they love difficult goals. They thrive on achieving worthwhile and tangible objectives that are significant, make a difference and raise the proverbial bar
    • Engagement: They invest in others. They earn their trust. They get them to “buy in” to the journey that inevitably is imbedded in achieving the goal or accomplishing the objective

In this regard, good leaders can consistently be counted on to meet or exceed performance expectations and to have the best interests of the people they work with front-of-mind. They always provide honest, objective feedback to those around them in service of those aims. Good leaders also actively recognize that the most inconsistent thing they could possibly do is to treat everyone the same. Flexibility is the key. People that are learning a new set of skills for the first time and are excited about it are drastically different than those who could perform their job in their sleep.

So, how do good leaders know when to do what? They develop and refine their diagnostic skills! Good leaders are thoughtful people. They think before they act. In the context of Situational Leadership®, they identify a specific task and objectively assess the ability and willingness of the person that will be performing it. That assessment determines their approach.

Objectivity is a term that is grounded in logic but is challenged by bias. Most of us exert significantly more effort defending our self-perceived objectivity than we do identifying, acknowledging and counterbalancing our biases. That reality can be manifested by managers that impulsively “place people into boxes” in an effort to justify their approach. For example:

  • Janice is a high performer (i.e., “Able and Willing”), that’s why I empower Janice
  • Sheila is a low performer (i.e., “Unable and Unwilling”), that’s why I have to watch her like a hawk

For the record, Janice is not “Able and Willing!” It all depends on what we ask Janice to do. The same goes for Sheila. People do not fit into boxes! People are at one level of Performance Readiness® or another depending upon the task they are responsible to complete. As such, both Janice and Sheila need to be objectively assessed on a task-by-task basis. And, therein lies the distinction between the diligent process that defines the competency of diagnosis, and the irresponsible dereliction of leadership duty that is embodied in labeling.


  1. Use the following scale to assess your “objective diagnostic skill” from 1-10 (1=Low, 5=Moderate, 10=High).
  2. Share your self-assessment with a trusted leadership mentor and ask him/her:
    1. For feedback on your self-assessment
    2. What they do to objectively assess the performance needs of the individuals they influence for the tasks they perform