The Most Important Leadership Competency

This article is based on my research and an HBR article   

What makes an effective leader?

This question focuses on my research and my experience as a leader, executive coach, and organizational health & development consultant.

I recently conducted research to consider the most critical leadership competencies for leaders and leadership development programs.

This quite aligns with a previous article titled Moral Courage: The Most Important Leadership Characteristic.



Demonstrates strong ethics and provides a sense of safety.

This theme combines two of the three most highly rated attributes: “high ethical and moral standards” (67% selected it as one of the most important) and “communicating clear expectations” (56%).

These attributes are all about creating a safe and trusting environment.

A leader with high ethical standards conveys a commitment to fairness, instilling confidence that they and their employees will honour the game’s rules.

Similarly, when leaders communicate their expectations, they avoid blindsiding people and ensure everyone is on the same page. In a safe environment, an employee can relax, invoking the brain’s higher capacity for social engagement, innovation, creativity, and ambition.

Neuroscience confirms this point.

When the amygdala registers a threat to our safety, arteries harden and thicken to handle an increased blood flow to our limbs in preparation for a fight-or-flight response. In this state, we lose access to the limbic brain’s social engagement system and the prefrontal cortex’s executive function, inhibiting creativity and the drive for excellence. From a neuroscience perspective, making sure that people feel safe on a deep level should be job #1 for leaders.

Do you think fear is driving your leadership actions?

Here are 7 questions to prevent fear of leadership failure. 

But how?

This competency is all about behaving in a way that is consistent with your values.

To increase feelings of safety, work on communicating with the specific intent of making people feel safe.

One way to accomplish this is to acknowledge and neutralize feared results or consequences from the outset.

For example, you might approach a conversation about a project gone wrong by saying, “I’m not trying to blame you. I want to understand what happened.”

Read How One Word Can Damage Workplace Culture

This competency challenge leader due to the natural responses that are hardwired into us.

But with deep self-reflection and a shift in perspective (perhaps aided by a coach), there are also enormous opportunities for improving everyone’s performance by focusing on our own.

Get rid of Top-Down Supervision

Leadership is not for a select few people at the top of the organization; a healthy Organization has leaders at every level.

I hear it all the time, supervisors griping that their employees lack ownership in their work and projects. But the same supervisors do not realize that they take actions that take ownership away from their people.

Read about leading with intent.

Hoping people take ownership is not a plan.

Leaders of healthy organizations implement systems and mechanisms that eliminate mechanisms that inhibit a sense of ownership.

Top-down systems rob people of their sense of ownership, so the more you can do to eliminate them, the better. I am not talking about monitoring data and results, as these should make the invisible visible.

The systems I am speaking about are where senior management determines what their subordinates should be doing and then holds them accountable.

In my experience, people do their best work when they are accountable to themselves and their teammates.

Read more about accountability.

When it comes to processes, adherence to the process frequently becomes the objective, as opposed to achieving the goal that the process was put in place.v  

It drives people crazy when the process becomes the outcome.

W. Edward Deming, who explored the principle of Total Quality Leadership, said that systems to monitor efficiency improved efficiency. But processes that monitored the process made the organization inefficient.

Monitoring processes, or how employees do their job, sends the message that we do not trust you.

And in the end, it drives employees away from taking ‘ownership.’

You will drive ownership if you are clear about your intent and what employees are not allowed to do in carrying out your plan.


Consider these questions:

How are you under utilizing the ideas, creativity, and passions of your mid-level managers responsible for their departments’ results?

Which monitoring systems can you hand over to mid-level managers and department heads?

What are the top-down monitoring systems in your organization? And how can you eliminate them?


What are the Four levels of Accountability Systems?

Level 1 – Chaos: People are not told what they are accountable for and therefore don’t do their jobs

Level 2 – Inefficient: People are told what they are accountable for but don’t do their jobs because of overwork or focus on the wrong things. This is most inefficient because resources are invested in monitoring but not in getting work done.

Level 3 – Compliance: People understand what they are responsible for and do their work because there are systems to hold people accountable. People often feel forced into doing their jobs. This is where most organizations are and work towards, but this is top-down leadership.

Level 4 – Healthy: People are not told what to do because they have figured it out independently. And they hold themselves and their peers accountable for results with a minimum of monitoring systems. This is a highly engaged, energized, and healthy organization where people have engaged and ownership of their work.


In traditional top-down organizations, accountability processes say that you, the employee, cannot hold yourself accountable for your work; therefore, your boss needs to do it for you.

In a Healthy Organization, people hold themselves and their peers to account for their performance.

Read about Healthy organizations.

Leaders in a Healthy organization do not hold employees accountable but help them hold themselves accountable.

How powerful would it be if people felt safe enough to ask others, ‘Can you help me stay on track.’

This would inspire accountability and efficiency, creativity and energy.

Three 3-minute articles to discuss with your team to create a lifetime of positive change (for everyone).

This article has been reprinted several times, most recently,

the Engineering Management Institute has reprinted it

What you can do with this: You can print, read, share, and discuss it.

How to use this material:

      • Discuss. Remind. Encourage.
      • That’s my recommended approach to helping people commit and develop.
      • I recommend reading and discussing the first three articles with your team and repeat weekly.
      • Each can be read in less than three minutes and discussed in 10 to 15 minutes.

How to prepare:

      • Share one of the articles with your team and schedule a time for discussion.
      • Or share the guide with your department leaders and have them facilitate smaller discussions.
      • Ask everyone to read the discussion article.
      • Ask them to make notes on anything they find valuable or disagree with. If you prefer, give them some questions about the material for ideas and ask them to provide some advanced thought.
      • On your own, read the article, make your notes, and answer the questions you intend to ask or give.
      • Give some quick thought to any likely objections or challenges to the material you can anticipate from your group. (Who might ask what and how you want to respond?)
      • Introduce your upcoming discussions in person or by email. Feel free to use the following as a suggested script to edit to fit your style:

“I came across a few short articles that significantly impacted me. I thought we all might benefit from reading and discussing them over the next few weeks – one each week.

“Each article can be read in less than three minutes. Please read the first one and give some advanced thought to it. Make notes on anything that connects with you.

“Let’s kick off next week strong and meet in the conference room Monday morning at 8:00 for 20 minutes at most.

“I think the effort will be good for our work, but it also might be helpful to each of us personally.”

Discussion tips:

      • Be enthusiastic.
      • Avoid interrupting or finishing someone’s thoughts or answers.
      • Add a small gap of silence to an answer – just a beat or two. This may allow someone to expand on something and avoid someone feeling that they need to rush through their answers.
      • When you feel someone might have more value to add, encourage them with a “What do you mean, Nancy?” or “Can you expand on that?” or “What happened next?”
      • Invite different people to contribute to the discussion or have other people lead the talks each week.
      • Be ready to help the discussion move on if someone takes too much control of it. (“Good point, Bob. If we have time in the end, let’s come back to this.”)

Discussion #1: Slippery Moments & Quiet Quitting

The Gallup organization says that in North America, roughly:

              • 29% of us are engaged and care about our work
              • 54% of us are just “Going Through the Motions.”
              • 17% are “Disgruntled” and get in the way of those who care

Of course, we all have moments when we are not working at our best, but the “Going Through the Motions” people or those who have “Quietly Quit” are challenging to deal with. Dealing with the “Going Through the Motions” or “Disgruntled” can be slippery and trip you up.

Slippery Moments Discussion Questions:

          • How do you think the numbers from Gallup stand up here?
          • What are some typical examples of moments we see here?
          • What are the consequences for our customers/ourselves?
          • What are your thoughts on the problem?
          • What are a few specific things we could start doing today to make those “Going Through the Motions” or “Disgruntled” moments less frequent? What else?

Discussion #2: Distraction Diet

Imagine the incredible results you’d have if you focused more during your day. You could:

                • Contribute more
                • Serve people better (internally and externally)
                • Come up with more ideas
                • Waste less time ramping back up
                • Create more opportunities
                • Plan better
                • Be less frustrated and stressed

Five ways to knock out the bulk of distractions:

        1. Establish focus hours for yourself. Set aside time each day when you’ll be unavailable for anything but true emergencies. If you can, commit to no inter-office communications during focus hours unless it genuinely can’t wait. No small talk. No “Hey… just a sec” interruptions.
        2. Turn off email alerts and commit to checking them at the most minimal level you feel is possible without harming service to others.
        3. Turn off chat and messaging apps (personal and team) unless your work requires it to get the job done.
        4. Avoid the web during your money hours (hours of the workday where you make good things happen) unless you need it for your work. The distractions are endlessly pleasant for those who’d prefer to avoid making good things happen (not your goal).
        5. Face away from distractions if you’re in a setting that allows you to do so.

Distraction Diet Discussion Questions:

          • What are the most valuable of the five ideas for us? The least valuable? Why? Why not?
          • What impact can our distraction have on our customers/colleagues?
          • What are some other ideas we could do to improve?
          • If we gave out an award to the most focused person on our team/department, who would win it? Why?
          • How can we help each other when we slip? What kind of agreement can we make to stay committed to better focus?

“The major problem of life is learning how to handle the costly interruptions. The door that slams shut, the plan that got sidetracked, the marriage that failed. Or that lovely poem that didn’t get written because someone knocked on the door.” ~ MARTIN LUTHER KING, JR. (1929 – 1968)

Discussion #3: Do as I say, not as I do.

Given that most of us can’t get it right all the time, is it just more good advice?

          • Someone suggests you be more approachable to invite opportunity and better relationships, but you hide behind your desk.
          • Is the advice wrong if a boss is not patient or thankful but suggests that you should be?

When I find myself indulging in being grumpy, I’ve found it helpful to remember four things:

          1. I’m a grown-up.
          2. It’s not about me.
          3. I won’t be here forever.
          4. I want to make good things happen for others (which, in turn, will make good things happen for me).

Do as I Say Discussion Questions:

          1. What connected most with you from the article? Why?
          2. Why do you think someone’s hypocrisy makes it easier for us to disregard their advice?
          3. What does “Go first … and stay with it” mean?
          4. How do you think we can better minimize our occasional negative moods?
          5. What would you add or revise to overcome grumpiness?

My conclusion

It’s always the leader.

  • We try to hire the right people. We do our best to develop and grow those people.
  • But we get busy and stop listening. Take a few moments each month to use these questions to prompt a conversation.


  • You will be surprised, even shocked, with what you will learn.
ACT, BE, DO: What Skills are Needed for Leadership Nirvana?

ACT, BE, DO: What Skills are Needed for Leadership Nirvana?

Leadership Nirvana … What the heck is that? More importantly, what skills are needed for reaching leadership nirvana?

Let’s find out.

What Skills are Needed for Leadership Nirvana?

There have been times in my career when I have experienced what can only be described as leadership nirvana. 

When I have been part of teams that achieved leadership nirvana, we seemed invincible. Teams that were much more than the whole being more than the sum of its parts: We were exponentially greater!

I am even writing this – recalling those times when the team pulsed and hummed with potential – I feel my pulse quicken, the adrenaline courses and I still get an endorphin rush.

During the early years of the Bosnia/Croatia war, I was the Sergeant Major of a company of infantry soldiers who were rated the most combat-ready in our division. We were skilled, efficient, driven, hungry and proud! (Get to know more about me here)

We were proud of our accomplishments and so loyal to each other that we would rather die than let someone down. And we were in the highest level of service to each other.

Servant leadership might be the antithesis of your thoughts on Army or, possibly, business leadership. Nonetheless, this was the ultimate example of Servant leadership—focusing first on the needs of soldiers to achieve results.

3 Actions for Leadership Nirvana

What is the underlying methodology for performing this remarkable accomplishment?

  • STEP #1 ACT
  • STEP #2 BE
  • and finally: STEP #3 DO


Wonderfully Simple. Yet, Infinitely Complex


Commit to ACTing in the manner that you want to see more of and being engaged, regardless of the circumstances.

Think about what it is you would like to see from your team and model it, try:

  • More enthusiasm. Less cynicism.
  • More results. Less business. 
  • More objectivity. Less wishing and guessing.
  • More focus. Less distraction.
  • More approachable. Fewer eggshells.
  • More patience and kindness. Less grumpiness.
  • More encouragement. Less withholding encouragement.
  • More appreciation. Less entitlement and neglect.
  • More listening. Less telling.
  • More truth. Fewer half-truths, omissions, and exaggerations.
  • More creativity. Less mediocracy. 
  • More pursuit. Less passivity.
  • More humility. Less ego and politics. 
  • More time, effort, and care. 

This also includes acting with a “team-first” mindset. Here’s how to do just that. 


Commit to BEing connected by talking, listening, and showing and sharing.

This looks like…

  • Having more frequent, intimate and meaningful conversations about what it is you and your team do and the value you and your team bring to the world.
  • Showing people the big picture more often.
  • Sharing any external feedback – good and bad – you get from the people you serve.
  • Sharing it as much as possible to help your people be more connected to that big picture.
  • Letting people know you have their back and appreciate them.
  • Sharing your purpose, your mission.
  • Telling them. Showing them. Encouraging them. Thanking them.
  • Doing it in person and doing it in writing.
  • Consider a quick daily meeting that allows everyone to share what they are working on and any challenges they are facing to help people feel more connected to each other and each other’s work.

When we are more connected to each other, we feel better about each other, more accountable to each other, and have an easier time supporting each other.

(When you ask what skills are needed for leadership, moral courage is always on the list. Click here to read why it might even be the most important leadership characteristic)


Want stronger people and to work on developing future leaders?

Do these things: 

  • DO involve them in solving the challenges you face.
  • Whenever possible, let your people lead the effort to make something happen.
  • Let them see things from your point of view, so they are better informed and have a better chance of solving problems with you. And, eventually without you.
  • Ask people often to give you their thoughts – good and bad.
  • Ask them how they would change things if they were in charge.
  • Then, really and sincerely listen.
  • When we are more involved in something and more accountable for something, we are more engaged.
  • Do whatever you can to help people be personally responsible for results and serve the people you serve.
  • Let them know that you involve them because you are interested in their development and in them becoming more valuable to the organization.

If you have created that high-trust environment and high-trust relationships, let them know you are helping them practise and perfect their abilities so they are valuable no matter where they work.

What happens in your place of work?

It may be obvious to find leadership euphoria when the goal is honourable. But trust me, it isn’t a given. All organizations struggle with developing the leadership culture required to achieve nirvana. But when you know what skills are needed for leadership development and reaching leadership nirvana, you’ve got a leg up on the process. 

That said, I felt close in less dramatic settings, like nailing a project or closing a big deal.

It doesn’t happen every day, and you may never reach it, but it is to Act, Be and Do your job as the leader to clear the path to leadership nirvana!  

Did you enjoy reading “ACT, BE, DO: What Skills are Needed for Leadership Nirvana?”

Here are three more posts to read next:

This post about what skills are needed for leadership was first published in 2019. It was updated in 2021 just for you. 

5 Steps You Can Use To Build a “First Team” Mindset

Credit to:

Patrick Lencioni & The Table Group for the “First Team” concept,

Jason Wong of

and  Dalmau Consulting for the image

I loved my job.

I was part of a powerful and effective executive team to whom I was loyal. I had no problem identifying that they were the team I was personally responsible for and accountable for.

They were my ‘First Team.’

I had built my team into a great team. People took on some of the most complex projects you could imagine and not just succeeded but excelled. I felt great loyalty to everyone who directly and indirectly reported to me.

But there is no doubt that my division was my ‘Second Team.’

Read about what Punk taught me about this situation.

First Team?”

A First Team – best articulated by Patrick Lencioni – is the idea that true leaders prioritize supporting their fellow leaders over their direct reports—that they are responsible to their peers more than they are to their individual or “Second” teams.

If you’re not entirely on board with that concept, I get it.

In my experience, a “First Team” mindset has been transformational in creating a high performing organization by improving the quality of leadership and management practiced.  

When leaders have built trust with each other, it becomes significantly easier to manage change, exhibit vulnerability, and solve problems together.

I was part of a team who looked and functioned as like example A in the drawing:

When I fell out of my “First Team.”

Things changed when I got a new boss close to me and considered myself a trusted confidant. Over time she went quiet, stopped sharing reasons for decisions and stopped responding. People were hired onto the leadership team I belonged to, whom I believed did not demonstrate the standards I expected of them. My performance began to slip, and my reactions to events were not always as professional as I either hoped or was expected of me.

In retrospect, all the signs pointed to the simple fact that I was nearing or had gone past my best before date as far as she was concerned. To be clear, I have never purported myself to be perfect in any regard. Still, in this case, I was dealing with a boss who was not providing me precise and proper performance management nor effective leadership.

As pictured in example B, I lost faith in my boss and much of the leadership team.

So much so that I focused on my team, and slowly but surely, I became more and more isolated from the organization’s objectives.

 Other Examples of a Broken “First Team”

Imagine a world where the top leaders in your organization are gathered to solve the company’s most pressing challenges. Instead of coming together as a team focused on solving that problem, they approach the exercise more concerned about their self-interest than solving the company’s needs, as pictured in example D above.

Or are you part of a leadership team so disconnected from the rest of the company that they have

no idea what is happening on the shop floor? Picture example C above as the worst of ‘Undercover Boss.’ Where leadership has no idea.

But probably just another day at work for many people, and it’s why I spend a lot of time building a First Team mindset with my clients.

Read more about unaligned leadership teams.


Here are some of the ways I’ve had success in creating a First Team mindset:

Be Explicit

Be explicit about the behaviours you expect from your leaders. Be clear with my managers about their responsibility to one another, including detail of the First Team expectation in the job description and interview for how they’ve practiced it.

Treat Them Like a Cohort

If you don’t treat your leadership team like a cohort, they won’t become one. Ensure you regularly bring together your leadership team, including everything from mailing lists and slack channels to team-building exercises and social events.

Information and trust are the currencies of leadership, and demonstrating an equal distribution through shared experiences is a powerful tool.

Help Them Help Each Other

Encourage interdependence and normalization of help-seeking amongst team members.

Please encourage them to talk to one another about their problems and refer them for help.

Role-play difficult conversations with a fellow manager role play it.

Help Them Help You

Invite your First Team to help you solve your problems.

This vulnerability may feel scary, but it has proven beneficial to leverage your leaders’ capabilities to lead to better outcomes for your organization. And it is a great development opportunity because it exposes them to the types of problems they will face at the next level of their career.                   

Make it Stick

To ensure that you and your leadership team is adhering to the First Team concept, I recommend reviewing the following with your team:

    • At every opportunity, point out the priority of Team #1 before making any critical decisions.

This will put leaders in the correct frame of mind.

    • Demand that team members prioritize the executive team over all others.

When the executive team is truly cohesive and prioritized appropriately, their ability to face complex challenges with further confidence bonds the team and models unity to the organization, this requires an absolute, unwavering commitment to the First Team.

    • Explain how the team’s direct reports will be impacted.

We all know that if there is any daylight between executive team members, it ultimately results in unwinnable battles that those lower in the organization are left to fight.

Like many of the concepts I consult on, First Team is as powerful as it is simple.

Learn more about how I work with executive teams

I have seen highly educated leaders with vast experience have an “aha” moment about the First Team concept resulting in an immediate impact on their team’s cohesion and ability to succeed.

Moral Courage: The Most Important Leadership Characteristic

Moral Courage: The Most Important Leadership Characteristic

I often work with people who are transitioning from follower to leader.

The one question that always comes up is: What characteristic makes a good leader?

I tell them the answer is moral courage. 

I have come to realize I was never as concerned about my boss’ technical expertise as I was with their moral courage, honesty, and ethics.

Coincidentally, Abacus Data shared the results of a poll examining Canadians opinions of the leadership, answering the question by saying:

“Leadership can be hard to define – but … people … know what they like when they see it. We gave respondents a forced-choice question about what was most important to them in deciding to support a … leader.  By a considerable margin, “values” (42%) were identified as the top quality to look for, followed by judgment (29%). “Ideas” (15%) and “attitude” (13%) were well back in consideration.

What Matters Most in a Leader?

For me, values and judgment add up to Moral Courage. In the past, courage hasn’t been recognized as an essential attribute for business leaders.

This is changing.

Future leaders will need the ability to act courageously.

Without question, innovation is needed in “for’ and ‘not for’ profit businesses, but it is courage that makes change possible. 

In a recent Harvard Business Review article, Rosabeth Moss Kantor wrote:” moral courage enables people to stand up for principle rather than stand on the sidelines.” 

What is Moral Courage in Leadership?

Courage in leadership is doing what’s right, despite being afraid of risking negative repercussions.

Fear is the most common reason people give when they avoid being courageous. Think about how you feel when you watch a leader who demonstrates personal courage. Most likely, you will trust that leader more.

Courage comes from being very clear about essential values and working to achieve goals that are consistent with those values.

Ultimately, every leader has the choice to either lead with courage or lead without it.

Examples of Courageous Leadership Behaviours

  1. Moral courage & humility when providing honest feedback in conversations and discussions or managing up to your supervisors or boards
  2. Allowing alternative & opposing viewpoints to be shared with the rest of the team.
  3. Speaking up rather than being compliant in silence.
  4. Leading through change & not settling for “we have always done it this way.”
  5. Taking ownership when you are in uncharted territory, and the safe path is to do nothing.

How are you, or your organization, doing at removing the barriers to morally courageous behaviour? Try this simple exercise here to find out. 

Developing Moral Courage

  1. Be very clear about your vision and values.
  2. Scripting in advance what to say
  3. Anticipate those who will disagree
  4. Have the honesty to admit when you have made a mistake or took a wrong path
  5. Be willing to entertain new ideas and change your assumptions.

Courage is a learned skill, and we all can be courageous. To be brave means stepping out of your comfort zone and taking the risk.

As we invest in the future and emerging leaders, isn’t it better to learn values, judgment, and moral courage in a SYSTEMATIC and PURPOSEFUL way instead of allowing them to muddle through?

Do you think fear is driving your leadership actions? Here are 7 questions to prevent fear of leadership failure. 

If you’re interested in going deeper or moving your career to the next level, you’ll also want to have a look at my 1-on-1 coaching services.

If you enjoyed this article, be sure to check these out, too:

How One Word Can Damage Workplace Culture

9 Stupid Management Practices (and what to do instead)

The 6T’s To Know What To Delegate

This article was originally published on January 5, 2015, and has been updated.