The Pursuit of Excellence

Posted: October 5, 2016 in Leadership
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Note: Please contact me if you or anyone you know of is interested in publishing this series as a book (or in any other format). I can also provide a full book proposal and will refer you to my agent. This is Chapter 2 of my series on leadership and leadership development, based on my experience as an army officer and over 10 years as a business and management consultant helping businesses and executives to thrive in the face of rapid change, risk, and uncertainty. It comes from a book I started to write two years ago. I’ve been posting the introductory chapter and Chapter 1 as a series on this blog, which you can consult at the following links:

Leadership is the same in the military, business… and hockey

My purpose in writing this series on leadership

What do I mean by leadership anyway?

Why the military approach to leadership is so powerful?

Chapter 1: Competence Is the Heart of Leadership

Are great leaders born, or made?

I wish now to explore the second principle of military leadership: to appreciate your strengths and limitations and pursue self-improvement. As with any domain, excellence in leadership requires concentrated effort, diligent practice, and varied experience. This principle is the oxygen that fans the flames of your passion for growth and excellence. Even more, it demonstrates the fundamental importance of self-development for leadership.

In his seminal work, The Practice of Management, no less an authority than Peter Drucker claimed, “leadership cannot be created or promoted. It cannot be taught or learned.”  Even more incredibly, he believed that classical Greek philosophy and literature as well as the Old Testament had said everything worthwhile on the topic! If the most famous management guru and business consultant of all time thought that leadership couldn’t be taught, then who am I to question it? Well, I do question it, because he was completely wrong about this.

Drucker’s beliefs about the innateness of leadership are representative of a fixed mindset. A leader with a fixed mindset will hesitate to get into risky situations where he may make mistakes and look foolish. He will be closed to criticism and feedback about his performance. He will stay within the bounds of what he perceives as his innate talents and preferences.

Needless to say, the fixed mindset is not conducive to discovering one’s strengths and limitations and reduces the opportunities for self-improvement and the pursuit of excellence. Someone with a fixed mindset will be intolerant of mistakes and sub-optimal performance in himself and others. For him, errors indicate limited talent and potential. As a result, failure or difficulty is viewed as permanent and unchangeable.

Luckily, many people exemplify the growth mindset. A leader with a growth mindset will see opportunities for learning and development all around her. She will accept prudent risk to acquire and hone her knowledge and skills in various aspects of leadership. She will be open to experience and feedback—both positive and negative—and will forgive her own mistakes and limitations and those of others. Perhaps most important, a growth oriented leader will view errors and mistakes as discrepancies and deviations from objective standards. She will see these as highly valuable feedback and information for getting back on track in order to achieve her goals and improve her leadership.

Know thyself: Overcoming obstacles to self-development

The fixed mindset is the main obstacle to self-development and usually comes from the wrong attitude to experiential learning. This attitude can in turn be attributed to prior disposition, temperament, inexperience or upbringing. The fixed mindset can also arise when someone lacks knowledge and skills. You’re off to a bad start in development if you don’t even know or believe that learning and growth are possible. If you’re thrown into the breach with inadequate training, inappropriate role models, and missing guidance and supervision, then it only makes the situation worse.

Ironically, quick and early success can foster the fixed mindset. We’ve all known children who are bigger and stronger than their peers, or who, for whatever reason, mature quicker than others of the same age. This gives them a marked physical or cognitive advantage. Children who grow up with this early lead often find themselves influencing other children simply because of their physical and mental capabilities relative to the other kids, not because of inherent competence, accomplishment, or “talent.”

This combination of childhood ease and success can also extend into early adulthood. Some people have simply been born into a favorable situation and fallen into leadership without earning their stripes. As the old saying goes, they were born with a silver spoon in their mouth. Million Dollar Consultant Alan Weiss uses a baseball metaphor: “Some people are born on third base but think they hit a triple.”

We grow by challenging ourselves and overcoming resistance and obstacles. If everything comes too smoothly or quickly we can easily slip into a belief that we’re predestined for greatness or just don’t need to school ourselves through intense study, practice, and criticism. Call it the “aristocratic syndrome,” a belief that one is not only destined to rule, but deserves to rule, that excellence and respect are one’s birthright, and do not have to be earned.

The entitlement mentality can also combine with a sense of self-satisfaction. “I’m already an excellent leader and don’t need to improve.” This attitude can arise when success and promotion come easily, or when someone has achieved their objectives with little difficulty, usually through the luck of the draw or early advantages. No one is immune from this syndrome.

Finally, the fixed mindset can also manifest as performance anxiety. Individuals with a fixed mindset are often afraid of making mistakes, thinking that they will look foolish or that others will think they aren’t smart enough. Let me be clear. It’s quite natural to feel a bit nervous whenever we take on new responsibilities. We’ve all been there. The difference is in how we deal with that anxiety. Butterflies are a sign that we care about our performance or the task to come. They’re a signal to take the task seriously and to do our best, not a brake to action.

The way to overcome the fixed mindset and its triumvirate of entitlement, smugness, and fear is to adopt a growth mindset. The growth mindset as applied to leadership has four main components. I call these the 4 Pillars of Leadership Excellence. They are pillars because they hold up the entire structure of leadership development and the growth mindset. They lead to excellence in leadership because they describe the goal of development (objective standards), the power of example (role models), along with an objective understanding of observable performance and behavior (self-knowledge) and the subjective awareness of performance and behavior in action (self-awareness).

Each of these pillars can stand alone, but also interacts directly and synergistically with the other three. For instance, access to role models strengthens learning on the basis of objective standards. Self-knowledge gives the leader a sense of how he is perceived by others against those standards. The developing leader can also assess his performance and behavior against those of his role models, while also adjusting them in real-time through self-awareness. Let’s look at these pillars in more detail.

Objective standards

Objective standards are… objective, and public. Standards are formal and informal expectations about behavior, thought, interaction, and performance. Standards can be universal and national, professional and social, gender-based and age-based, or fall under any number of other categorization schemes. The management competencies we examined in chapter 1 are just such objective standards.

As for inspiration and change management these vary from country to country, culture to culture, company to company, or even from team to team within an organization. For instance, my research and experience have led me to conclude that leadership expectations vary considerably across cultures. Leaders in Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, Democratic societies (known as WEIRDs) are expected to be participative, democratic, inspiring and open to debate and questioning by followers. Conversely, leaders in more traditional societies are expected to be more autocratic, decisive, and directive. Followers in these cultures expect their leaders to know the answers to questions, to have solutions for problems, and to give them detailed direction and guidance.

Role models

Role models are people who are conceived worthy of emulation. They are public, because they can be readily observed and studied by others, but also subjective, because not everyone has the same preferences and needs. Someone can be a role model without realizing it. By extension, we all imitate others whether are aware of it or not. Either way, role models exist and they provide the concrete instantiation of the objective standards to which everyone strives in their development. Leaders are, of necessity and by nature, role models, whether they want to be or not. Followers and subordinate leaders tend to adopt the behaviors and attitudes of their leaders and superiors. The latter provide an example for how to behave, perform, think, and interact as leaders within society or their organization. Role models can be positive or negative, but never neutral.


Self-knowledge is objective and personal in nature. It represents the individual’s self-understanding and self-perception as seen from the perspective of other people. Consequently, self-knowledge covers the domain of objective, observable performance and behavior. Self-knowledge is gauged against objective standards. Self-knowledge tells a leader how she is viewed and evaluated by others, whether they are followers, peers, the public, clients, or superiors. It is the external, third person perspective on her performance and behavior. Self-knowledge allows a leader to self-assess competencies and performance against the objective standards of society, culture, organization, and profession.


Self-awareness is at the intersection of the subjective and the personal. It is the most powerful of the four pillars. No amount of self-knowledge, theoretical grasp of competencies and standards, and emulation of role models can lead to learning and growth unless they are internalized. Self-awareness is immediate and continuous consciousness of our thoughts, actions, attitudes, words, emotions, body language, etc., while we’re in action. While self-knowledge is our understanding of how others see us and evaluate us before and after we go into action, self-awareness is the process of self-observation and self-evaluation we go through in real time. It is moment-to-moment awareness of our thoughts, actions, and emotions from the inside. It’s like watching our selves in action on our own internal video monitor, giving us a near-instantaneous ability to use the resulting “mindview” and “mindtrack” as immediate feedback for further thinking and action. With self-awareness we become self-assessors and self-critics, not in a negative, self-defeating way, but in a positive, self-empowering way. Self-awareness is what allows us to turn our theoretical knowledge and understanding into practical and pragmatic results.

The following diagram summarizes the relationships between each of these four pillars of leadership excellence. The key is that self-awareness only occurs in the present moment, shown as “now” on the figure. “You Now” is you as you are immediately, aware of your thoughts, actions, etc., in the present moment, witnessing your self in action and adjusting how you think, interact, etc. on a moment-to-moment basis. You acquire self-knowledge by observing and evaluating “Past You” and “Future You” with the examples of “Past Role Model(s)” and “Future Role Model(s). Objective standards are always in the background, providing a point of comparison for your observations and assessments of your role model(s), your self-knowledge, and your moment-to-moment self-awareness. This is what enables learning and development as a leader.


Enhancing self-awareness

There are plenty of ways to improve self-knowledge and to incorporate new information and skills into our leadership repertoire. Many of these techniques are well known and I’ve also developed others that I’ve included throughout the book. So we’ve got self-knowledge well covered. With that said, you may be wondering how you can enhance your ability to be self-aware and “in the moment” as you lead.

Self-awareness—what it is, how to achieve it, how to use it—has been the subject of theorizing, debate, and wisdom literature for thousands of years. You may be surprised to learn that self-awareness forms the bedrock of meditation practices east and west. It is also fundamental to practical philosophy. This is the tradition that helps you live a better life and achieve your personal goals, as distinct from academic philosophy, which has evolved to become somewhat detached from real-life concerns.

Anyone who has read Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, Plato’s Euthyphro, or the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius will readily understand that this philosophical tradition is much more about living a good and productive life, than just debating how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. Though I’ve practiced meditation and other self-awareness exercises from so-called spiritual traditions, I don’t think they are sufficiently relevant in the context of leadership to warrant further consideration.

On the other hand, Western practical philosophy has been informed by cognitive and ethical questions from the beginning. Plato, Aristotle and the other great Greek philosophers wrote as much about leadership and psychology as they did about any other topic. Marcus Aurelius was a Roman emperor who applied the principles of Stoic philosophy and wrote his intimate thoughts in a diary, which has come down to us as his Meditations. You can’t get much more practical than that. I therefore propose the following three exercises for enhancing self-awareness. Each one corresponds to a different timeframe: future, present, and past.

  1. Rehearsal (future): Rehearsing the future and practicing what you have to do give you a foretaste of your thoughts, emotions, and behavior before it occurs. These techniques give you greater presence of mind once you go into action. They help you develop a baseline against which to compare your eventual performance. You can rehearse mentally or through simulated interactions with others. High-level athletes do such “visioning” to get into the right mind before performing. In the military, rehearsals are built into planning and battle preparation procedures at all levels. There are various approaches, such as war games, “chalk talks,” “walk throughs,” tabletop exercises, and many others. Imagine at least three different scenarios and their potential consequences. Picture the events or interactions, their surroundings, actors, possible action-reaction-counteraction sequences, decisions, obstacles, and outcomes. Develop “what if” contingency plans to deal with these. Practice the words you will use and your behavior; try to predict the emotions that will arise when you are in the situation. Consider how you will react in each step of the scenario. If you wish, you can do this alone, with one other person, or with your entire team.
  2. Breathe in, breathe out (present): This technique is useful for self-awareness when you’re in an actual leadership situation. It might seem disarmingly simple, but taking the time to breathe when you’re interacting with others, considering decisions, giving direction, etc., slows you down and creates mental space to gain more awareness of your surroundings as well as your internal dialogue and emotions. Slowing down gives you time to think, to consider various options, to appreciate what’s actually happening moment-to-moment. It might sound corny, but breathing reconnects you to your body, especially emotional states. I can remember a situation while on a peacekeeping mission in Bosnia. An officer with one of the belligerent forces said something to me and I can distinctly recall having a sinking feeling in my stomach. In hindsight, it was an instinctive fear reaction. As I breathed in and breathed out, the thought occurred to me that my nervous system was interpreting the words as a threat. I quickly recovered and was able to utter something humorous. This disarmed my interlocutor immediately and opened a window of opportunity to realize that I had reacted emotionally; it was, quite literally, pure gut reaction. Had I acted without rational thought I could have done something stupid which would have definitely exacerbated the situation.
  3. After-action review (past): Once an incident or event has occurred, you can go back over it in your mind to analyze it and draw out lessons for the future. The insight you generated during rehearsals and the awareness you gained by breathing in and out during the event are the information you need to generate self-knowledge. How did your actions and words compare to the baseline you established by rehearsing? Did you achieve your aim, or were you drawn off course during the interactions? Could you have done better? What worked; what didn’t work? I could go on and on, but the important point it to use the experience to enhance your future preparation, rehearsals, and in-the-moment thoughts, actions, and emotions. This exercise is even useful if you were surprised by the event or caught off guard, with little or no time to prepare beforehand. Whatever the situation, the lessons gleaned from your interactions will greatly improve your preparation and self-awareness in the future.

The learning process

This is not a treatise on learning, but it helps to have a model of how learning happens. One of the most powerful concepts in this respect is the “learning curve.” Learning occurs over time as we invest resources and effort in acquiring and honing new knowledge and skills. The learning curve follows the well-known “s-curve” form, which is how change tends to propagate through a complex system.

The important point to note is that performance improves slowly at first, despite a major investment of time and effort. If the investment is sustained, however, performance improves faster and faster until it reaches a maximum rate of learning. At some point, improvement slows until it plateaus. This progression through the basic learning curve is good for any particular set or sub-set of competencies, whether it be knowledge, skills, or attitudes. I’ve illustrated the phases of learning on the following diagram.


I’ve defined four main phases in this process. Learning starts when the subject becomes aware of a need for improvement or the potential to move to a new level. This is probably the most critical step in learning, and corresponds to the initial appreciation of strengths and limitations that forms the first part of the leadership principle under examination in this chapter.

Learning requires an open, growth-oriented mindset; the four pillars of leadership excellence support the growth mindset, as described in the previous section. Objective standards delineate the competencies that are required for progress. Role models demonstrate these standards in action for purposes of emulation. Self-knowledge is required to develop a keen sense of how others perceive one’s performance and behavior against these standards and in comparison with role models. Finally, self-awareness is needed to implement new knowledge and apply new skills with the right attitude.

The second part of the second leadership principle is critical for undertaking learning and development, as it advocates the pursuit of self-improvement. I can’t overemphasize how critical self-motivation is to learning. No amount of hectoring or goading can move someone to willingly undertake learning. If you want to improve as a leader (or in anything else for that matter), you must be motivated to embark on a cyclical learning process.

The rapid progress phase is encouraging because progress comes relatively easily. However, it can be some time before we start to move up the learning curve. This is why intrinsic motivation and persistence is key. After a time we reach the point of diminishing returns and, eventually, a plateau. The danger at this stage is that our competencies and associated performance start to decline. Motivation is required to maintain skills and knowledge in an attitude of constant and never-ending repetition and improvement. This is particularly important in the absence of further qualitative jumps in performance or competence. I’ll come back to this in the next section when I discuss prudent risk-taking.

Learning itself is a cyclical process based on feedback. We need to act in order to generate results that we can then observe and assess against indicators. These are the objective standards and role models. Self-knowledge and self-awareness underlie these steps of observation and assessment and, with the help of supervisors, mentors, and coaches, provide the inputs for adjusting our actions, plans, aims, and needs.

Life on the edge and the risks of learning

It’s become something of a truism that there is no reward without a commensurate level of risk. Acquiring leadership competencies and experience and developing as a leader are certainly no different. It’s critical to point out though that I’m talking about a commensurate level of risk, not foolhardiness. Prudent, calculated risk-taking is the motor of development. As shown on the learning curve, there always comes a point when the learner plateaus. If progress is to continue on the road to development, then he or she must jump to a higher learning curve. This is shown on the following figure.


As we can see, there are two ways to make the transition to a higher learning curve, with different types of risk. In the first type, the learner makes a performance leap to the next curve. In the second type, there is a performance drop. It’s natural to prefer the first kind, but it’s the second kind that usually prevails. In a performance leap, we’re trying to achieve a higher performance level from the previous plateau without falling below it onto the next curve. Overall, the new curve is higher, but it starts initially lower. This requires a scaffolding of some kind. That could involve training, coaching, and close accompaniment and guidance through the transition period.

However, if we try to make the leap without that scaffolding—or a safety net—then performance can actually fall until we find our legs (or wings). I will talk about how to erect this scaffolding and the underlying safety net in more detail in chapter 7, but for now we can see that the key to making this transition is to achieve a balance between the responsibilities, competencies, and authority of the leaders we are developing. Leaders learn and progress best when they have just the right level of challenge. Call that the Goldilocks approach to development: not too cold and not too hot. There is no point in throwing someone into the deep end of the pool if they can’t swim yet.

Playing offense: Exploiting your personal center of gravity

Playing offense is about seizing and maintaining the initiative in order to reach your objectives. When you play offense, you choose the time and place to act so you can maximize your chances of success. Just like an army on the offensive, you need a clear objective and mission. You also require a deep appreciation of your strengths so you can leverage them to the hilt, complemented by a realistic appraisal of your limitations so you can overcome or mitigate them.

Your most fundamental strength is your personal center of gravity. Physically, the center of gravity is the central balance point in the body. Many of the martial arts are based on using one’s center of gravity for leverage. In military strategy, this is also called the point of main effort. The idea is to put maximum weight behind the main thrust, so that it can literally punch a hole through enemy lines, thereby creating room to maneuver. It’s like trying to move a heavy piece of furniture. You are much more efficient and effective if you “put your back into it.” Putting your weight behind the structure makes moving it much easier, and safer. You’re combining your mass with the force of gravity and the momentum of the object. That beats trying to pull the piano or chest or whatever you’re trying to move from the front or from the sides using your arms.

From the perspective of leadership, strengths can be skills, attitudes, or elements of knowledge. Personality or character traits can also be strengths, as well as natural proclivities or talents, such as intelligence, visual and spatial abilities, and sociability.

Is There An Ideal Leadership Personality?

From my experience and research, there is no ideal personality type or temperament that is uniquely suited to the exercise of leadership. I’ve known leaders who were extraverts, highly talkative and social, but I’ve also known leaders who were introverts and kept mostly to themselves if given a choice. Neither orientation is inherently better. The critical factor is to know what your preference or tendency is and to use it to good effect.

For instance, a manager who is quiet and reserved will often be successful at drawing out the quieter members of his team so they can contribute as much as the more talkative types. This may be because he can empathize with introverts. But it can also stem from simply not talking as much. This can open a space for others to contribute their opinions and ideas. If you’re talking a lot or thinking about what you will say next, this isn’t necessarily conducive to a listening attitude. I have found more introverted leaders can also be much more thoughtful and rational in considering various options before making a decision. This is because they tend to talk only when there is a good reason to do so. I’m an extrovert myself, and I’ve had to train myself to wait and calm down before giving my opinion or making a decision, largely with salutary effects.

Conversely, extroverted leaders are quick off the mark and often make hasty decisions. I believe this comes from the feeling that they have to say or do something, anything, rather than sit back and think before moving. That can be a very strong trait in a crisis or emergency, when it’s time to “lead, follow, or get out of the way.” On the other hand, it can also be a hindrance when there is time available to make a rational analysis and then come to a decision after comparing courses of action.

How can you pinpoint those particular competencies, traits and talents that are strengths and that you can exploit to build your leadership?

  1. Passion: One hint is that you’re passionate about it. You know you’re passionate about something when you feel energized by it. You also know it’s a passion when you don’t really view it as work, and you relish the thought of getting down to business. For instance, I have always been passionate about analyzing process issues to find potential solutions. I don’t view this as work, but really more as a game, a way to challenge myself and to push my mind.
  2. Recognition: Another indication of a strength is that you are constantly recognized for that particular characteristic by others, and they trust your abilities in that area. Examples include the ability to communicate well, good speaking and writing abilities, analytic or synthetic skills, and even traits such as empathy, enthusiasm, humor, positivity, and resolve.
  3. Ease: The third sign of a strength is speed and ease of execution. When you’re good at something, you can do it quickly and relatively easily. You get on with the business without hesitating and are confident about producing favorable results.

There is no magic recipe or unique list of strengths. This is one reason why I’m not enamored of trendy topics in leadership. Whether it’s emotional intelligence, left brain/right brain thinking, generational awareness, or “servant leadership,” you must know what makes you tick and then how to use this knowledge to exploit your strengths and mitigate the effects your limitations. Each situation is different, as is each leader and follower (or group of followers). The ability to play the hand you’re dealt is basic to the growth mindset. You must accept that you have strong points and weak points and that you have to work with that from the start. Nothing is cast in stone and you can adapt your leadership to the needs of the situation, your followers, and your particular competencies, temperament, and personality.

Exercise—find your strengths

This exercise is to help you identify your most important strengths. I’m asking you to identify your strongest knowledge elements, skills, and attitudes/traits in the areas of management, inspiration, and change. We’ll be looking in more detail at inspirational and change competencies in subsequent chapters, where I’ll incorporate further exercises. In the meantime, just do the best you can so you can start to build your understanding of your leadership assets.

Strengths Matrix
Knowledge Skills Attitudes
Management Competencies
Inspiration Competencies
Change Competencies

Once you’ve identified your main strengths—those things you’re passionate about, you’re recognized for, and you find easy and quick to achieve—you can put them in order of power as personal tools. You can think of the elements contributing to each of the strengths you’ve included on a 5- or 10-point scale. Say you identify public speaking as one of your strengths. You can evaluate this strength in terms of passion/interest, ease/speed, and recognition/trust. Perhaps you are very passionate about public speaking, so you give yourself 5 out of 5 on that item. However, you acknowledge that you still need to acquire skill and experience in this area, so you give yourself 3/5 for ease/speed and, because you aren’t well recognized in this area yet, you see that others don’t fully trust your speaking abilities. You therefore assess your level of trust/recognition as 2/5. Meanwhile, you might discover that your much stronger in another trait or competency. In that case, you could have 5/5 in each of the three elements, a strong indication that this could be your center of gravity, or a constituent of it.

The idea is to find your center of gravity. If you recall, that is your fundamental strength, the one that gives you the most power to influence others and achieve outstanding results, as well as your central point of balance. Once you’ve identified your center of gravity, you must then exploit it as much as possible, in concert with your other strengths, so you can achieve maximum efficiency and effectiveness as a leader.

Playing defense: Managing your limitations

Offense is never enough. You must also play defense so as to mitigate or eliminate your limitations and weaknesses. This is so they don’t overwhelm your strengths and make you ineffective. In simple terms, a limitation is anything that can hinder you from achieving your objectives quickly and effectively. Limitations can stem from lack of competence or inexperience. This can stem from inadequate training and developmental guidance, or simply because you haven’t had the time or opportunity yet to acquire them. Alternatively, limitations can be deeper, coming from poor aptitudes or inclinations in certain areas as well as inappropriate personality or character traits.

How do you know something is a limitation? Well, if strengths are at the intersection of passion, ease, and recognition, then it stands to reason that limitations arise from some combination of lack of passion or disinterest, difficulty and arduousness, and poor recognition or distrust by others.

Exercise—find your limitations

I’ve included the following table to assist you in identifying your limitations. It’s basically the same as for strengths, but with the object of highlighting areas where you lack expertise, skills, or the right attitudes and traits. I invite you to complete this exercise in the same way as the strengths exercise. Once you’ve completed each of the cells in the table, you should order the limitations in ascending rank, from ones that generate the greatest weakness and vulnerability, to those that are the least limiting. The obvious way to do this is to implement the same rating scale on each of the elements as for the strengths identification exercise. In the rating of your limitations, though, you would give yourself low points on passion/interest, ease/speed, and recognition/trust the more of a weakness or vulnerability is generated by that limitation.

Limitations Matrix
Knowledge Skills Attitudes
Management Competencies
Inspiration Competencies
Change Competencies

Combining strengths and limitations

When we combine the appreciation of strengths and limitations, we can see that they actually exist on a continuum, or spectrum. On one end of the scale we have our most powerful strengths, while on the other we have our most limiting weaknesses. Each of these characteristics can be viewed as strengths and limitations that vary according to the situation and the group one is leading. A trait that is a clear strength in one field of endeavor may actually be a major limitation in another. Take decisiveness as an example, which is highly prized in the military and other occupations that deal with danger and high levels of risk, but tends to appear in a negative light in a university setting, where collegiality and academic independence are the norm.

This is where the pillars of the growth mindset become particularly relevant. You need to know what the objective standards of behavior and performance are in any particular culture or setting. You must also emulate highly regarded role models, and acquire the self-knowledge and self-awareness to modulate your behavior, performance, and interactions as needed to adapt to the needs of the situation and the organization your part of.

Now, you might be thinking that the whole point of the approach I’m describing is to acquire the competencies needed to be an outstanding leader. This is indeed correct, but there will always be areas where we aren’t as strong as we could or should be. For one thing, there are never sufficient time and resources to develop all the competencies that could be required. Secondly, situations are constantly evolving. We gain new followers or collaborators, new competitors arise, stakeholder and client expectations change, and so on.

The trick is therefore to identify specific competencies for development and then manage all other limitations. I talk about managing limitations, because it’s probably impossible to eliminate them completely. All we can realistically do is contain them and mitigate their effects so they don’t hinder us excessively. I call this playing defense, because we don’t always have the initiative or the luxury to concentrate on all areas at once. This is why I emphasize the need to rely on your strengths, especially your center of gravity, to be successful and to grow as a leader.

Defensive principles to manage limitations

In my previous book, Brilliant Manoeuvres, I give a detailed description of the main principles of defense as used in military strategy and tactics. I also show how they can be applied in the context of competitive business strategy. However, these principles are also valid for leadership and other influence applications. As such, they provide an excellent framework for finding effective and efficient means of managing one’s leadership limitations. These defensive rules are synergistic; they are meant to build on and reinforce each other. The six defense principles are:

  • Position – building your leadership and influence on the basis of your center of gravity and your other strong points
  • Preparation – offset slowness and poor skills by starting early and preparing meticulously
  • Depth – assume that you may be wrong in your initial assessment of a situation and that you require contingency plans and other backup measures “just in case”
  • All around defense – while the main threat or danger may be identifiable, these may also come from out of nowhere
  • Mutual support – find allies or supporters to offset your limitations with their strengths; combine your efforts to maximum effect
  • Active defense – don’t wait for problems to occur or for weaknesses to undermine your efforts; take the initiative as much as possible through contingency plans, alliances, collaboration and preparation.

The Case of the Nervous Speaker

Let’s make it a little more concrete and imagine that you’ve identified public speaking as one of your limitations. You plan on taking a course on public speaking so you can improve in this area, but your fundamental weakness is your nervousness in front of groups. In the meantime though you still have to mitigate this limitation. You want to speak to your team about your new vision and plans to achieve it, and also to gain their input and engagement, but you can’t wait for the speaking course to do it. You decide to implement a number of the defensive principles to manage this potentially crippling limitation. Meticulous preparation and planning are your offensive center of gravity, so you begin by writing out your speech and reading it several times until you’re comfortable with your main points and message. You practice it in front of a camera and then watch the video so you know where you need to eliminate hesitation and distracting habits of speech.

You develop answers to potential questions and objections that may arise in the Q&A after your address to your team and rehearse these with your right hand man. You brief two experts on your team so you may call on them to answer questions about their respective areas of expertise so that you can provide the right answers, at least through them. Finally, you decide to make light of your need to practice the speech right at the start, in order to lighten the mood and to release the tension, especially yours. This will exploit your self-deprecating sense of humor (one of your strengths) and will get everyone in a good mood. By combining these measures, you’ll have applied the principles of position, preparation, depth, mutual support, and active defense. You don’t need all around defense, but your preparation provides an overall ability to meet any challenge that may result.

12 techniques to energize your self-improvement

  1. Endeavor to adopt and maintain the growth mindset.
  2. View your successes and failures as feedback for learning.
  3. Study the objective standards of your field, profession or organization.
  4. Observe and emulate positive role models.
  5. Practice the discipline of self-knowledge in order to assess your leadership against objective standards.
  6. Practice the discipline of self-awareness so you can witness your behavior, thinking, and performance on a moment-to-moment basis and adjust these accordingly.
  7. Create a vision of how you wish to lead in the future, and then determine what competencies and traits you will need to achieve that vision.
  8. Assess your past performance as a leader so you can draw lessons learned for now and the future.
  9. Identify where you are on the learning curve for the particular competencies you need in leadership. Are you at the initial awareness stage, making rapid progress, reaching diminishing returns, plateauing, or in decline? What is needed to move to the next stage of leadership competence?
  10. What is the next learning curve for you? What are the most likely risks and opportunities you face when making the leap to the next curve?
  11. What are your top leadership strengths and your center of gravity? Develop a strategy to exploit your center of gravity.
  12. What are your top leadership limitations and vulnerabilities? What is your strategy to manage these limitations, depending on the situation and the people you are leading?


  • There is no truth to the belief that great leaders are born that way and that you can’t really develop or acquire the competencies for leadership. This belief stems from a self-limiting, fixed mindset.
  • The growth mindset is essential for learning, growth, and development in any field of endeavor, and certainly this is the case for leadership.
  • The growth mindset as applied to leadership has 4 Pillars of Leadership Excellence. They describe the goal of development (objective standards), the power of example (role models), and the understanding of objective performance and behavior (self-knowledge) with the subjective awareness of performance and behavior in action (self-awareness).
  • One of the most powerful concepts for leadership development is the “learning curve.” Learning occurs over time as we invest resources and effort in acquiring and honing new knowledge and skills.
  • Prudent, calculated risks are the fuel of development. If progress is to continue on the road to development, then the learner must jump to a higher learning curve.
  • Just like an army on the offensive, you need a clear objective and mission. You also require a deep appreciation of your strengths so you can leverage them to the hilt, complemented by a realistic appraisal of your limitations so you can overcome or mitigate them.
  • Strengths come at the intersection of things you do quickly and easily, you’re trusted and recognized for, and you’re passionate about.
  • It’s not enough however to play offense. You must also be able to manage your limitations and weaknesses so they don’t overwhelm your strengths and make you ineffective.
  • I talk about managing limitations, because it’s probably impossible to eliminate them completely.
  • All we can realistically do is contain them and mitigate their effects so they don’t hinder us excessively. I call this playing defense, because we don’t always have the initiative or the luxury to concentrate on all areas at once.

My name is Richard Martin and, as indicated by the title of this blog, I’m an expert on applying readiness principles to position companies and leaders to grow and thrive by shaping and exploiting change and opportunity, instead of just passively succumbing to uncertainty and risk.

© 2016 Alcera Consulting Inc. This article may be used for non-commercial use with proper attribution.

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