What Do Leaders Do? | Center for Leadership Studies

What Do Leaders Do?

What is your all-time favorite movie quote? For clarity’s sake (and by definition), your all-time favorite movie quote is: “The most memorable line a professional actor has ever delivered in a movie you have seen.”

It’s the kind of line that, no matter how hard you may have tried, you can’t get it out of your head. In all likelihood, the first time you heard this line you had a visceral, emotional reaction (e.g., you laughed out loud, cried out loud, etc.). You have invested about eight seconds in the review of this blog – and we’re betting you have that quote, and maybe several others, firmly implanted in the forefront of your consciousness.

In doing what wound up being “unintentional research” for this blog, we ran that little exercise with several people at work. As you might imagine, the responses we received were “all over the map:”

The other thing we noticed while we were in the midst of this “project” was that just about everybody went beyond answering the question to us with unsolicited rationale for his/her selection (“Here’s WHY my quote is clearly the best …”). That spurred discussion. After several informal exchanges, the one quote that received a universal “thumbs-up” from our staff (e.g., “Oh … yeah … that’s a good one for sure!”) was:

And, we suppose it kind of makes sense. People who work for a company that provides leadership training for a living would naturally identify (at some level) with a quote that gets to the heart of organizational behavior. For us, it’s a funny thing (as we believe the enclosed clip demonstrates) and it’s a serious thing, all at the same time.

So, in full acknowledgment of the “cheesy” segue, we would like to transition from the world of cinematography to the world of leadership development and take a stab at answering “Bob’s” question. At The Center for Leadership Studies, here’s what we do: We Build Leaders™! How do we do that? We design and develop curriculums featuring training programs and sustainment strategies that are grounded in core, time-tested CLS principles:

  • Stay True to the Foundation
  • Recognize Leadership is Multi-Directional

Our Foundation

In the late 1960s, Dr. Hersey first addressed the “what do leaders do” question by identifying three core, common and critical leadership competencies (Diagnosing, Adapting and Communicating). In the process of re-validating this competency framework in October of 2011, CLS identified a fourth competency: Advancing. Here are brief descriptions of each:

  1. Diagnosing: “Understanding the situation you are trying to influence.” While the stakes may or may not be as high, (depending on what the leader is trying to accomplish) getting an accurate diagnosis is as important to the leader attempting to influence as it is to the physician preparing for a medical procedure. There are multiple variables to consider and a variety of different contingencies to proactively take into account. The way we see it, Emotional Intelligence and Business Acumen are the key building blocks for diagnostic skills.
  2. Adapting: “Adjusting your behavior in response to the contingencies of the situation.” We would suggest that, all other things being equal, when we find ourselves in a leadership role for the first time, we typically react on the basis of instinct. We respond with the best of intentions and implement an approach that “feels right” on the basis of our own personal value programming. “Adapting” is all about recognizing your natural, behavioral response to leadership opportunities, then consciously expanding your personal mastery of alternative approaches. The absolute, most inconsistent thing you can do as a leader is to treat every person, and every situation, the same.
  3. Communicating: “Interacting with others in a manner they can understand and accept.” It’s unfortunate, but many associate communication solely with the ability to “stand and deliver.” If that were the case, any politician that could read a teleprompter (and pound his or her fist on a podium at the appropriate time) would have an approval rating well north of 50%. Effective communication is ultimately determined by followers and is primarily a function of:
    • Understanding: Leaders need to be able to articulate the gap between “what is” and “what is needed or desired” in a manner that is both clear and actionable. Followers need to be clear on the challenge or opportunity that presents itself and the role they can/will play in response. The language the leader uses is critical as the same words can mean different things to different people. Beyond language, the tone, delivery and all-around effect of leader-initiated communication needs to be considered and customized based on the individual or group receiving the message.
    • Buy-In: Leaders need to be credible, believable and trustworthy. Ever try “participating” with someone that didn’t trust you? We would suggest those conversations could be categorized as both frustrating and time-consuming. Communication is much more about “what followers hear” than it is about “what leaders say.” Effective leaders build credibility day in and day out with those they attempt to influence. That credibility translates to buy-in and buy-in translates into vision being placed into action.
  4. Advancing: “Managing the movement.” Dr. Hersey described Situational Leadership® as a dynamic model. In his words, “Things are either getting better (development), or they are getting worse (regression); nothing stays the same.” From our perspective, truer words were never spoken.
    • Development: When an individual or group is learning something for the first time, confidence is usually the most important element of willingness that needs to be monitored. The more a follower sees himself or herself “having what it takes” to effectively perform a particular task, the more insecurity gives way to confidence and motivation.
    • Regression: With regression, motivation is frequently the component of willingness that is most in play. In its most typical form, a follower has mastered a task and has lost a certain amount of enthusiasm or dedication to continue to perform it. In that regard, it is not a question of the follower asking himself or herself the question, “Can I do this?” but, conversely, asking the question (one way or another), “Is there something else I can do?” When leaders see regression, they need to intervene in a timely manner. If done quickly enough, that intervention typically takes the form of a candid discussion focused on performance slippage with a high probability of effective resolution.

Follower progress and derailment are both organizational realities. Ultimately, leaders bear responsibility for “managing that movement” by acting as catalysts for development and collaborative impediments for regression.

Leadership is Multi-Directional: We run an exercise in our Situational Leadership®: Building Leaders program where we ask learners to chart the direction of their influence attempts:

  • When you are engaged in the practice of leadership, what percentage of your attempts are focused on:
    • Direct reports?
    • Peers?
    • Up (e.g., your boss or your boss’ boss)?

Usually, learners identify that 50% or more of their influence attempts are lateral or up in the organization (sometimes those percentages are far greater than 50%). For us, this is ongoing confirmation that leadership is most accurately defined as “an attempt to influence” and that influence is multi-directional. In that regard, we distinguish leaders in organizations as follows:

  • Personal Leaders: Individual contributors with no direct reports or formal authority
  • Team Leaders: Managers or supervisors with formal responsibility for any number of individual contributors
  • Organizational Leaders: Directors or managers of other managers with formal responsibility for a region, division or business unit

Team and Organizational Leaders (e.g., managers, supervisors and directors) are distinguished from Personal Leaders (individual contributors) by their formal responsibility to manage the performance of employees/direct reports. Each level identified routinely attempts to influence both laterally and up. These three subsets of leaders, in combination with our four primary leadership competencies, have helped us identify 33 prioritized leadership skills. In short, we view the competency model as our developmental road map. It grounds our activities and centralizes our focus. Beyond that, should anyone ever ask us: “What would you say … you do here?” We’ll be ready!



Do you think you know what it is your leaders “do here?” Click on the link below to be guided through the competency model and leadership curriculum and identify your organization’s most pressing leadership skill gaps.
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