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Lessons of Leadership Development

“Leadership is unlocking people's potential to become better.”
– Bill Bradley

2019 marks the 20th anniversary of the founding of ATW Training Solutions. Our purpose statement – “Unleashing Human Potential” – guides all that we do at ATW. For the last two decades, we have trained thousands of leaders on how to be effective and successful. The focus for leadership training is straightforward: helping leaders acquire and hone “best practice” skills in leading others, and helping leaders avoid common mistakes and career “derailers.”

The combined experience of ATW’s facilitators is extensive in working with leaders at varying levels in all kinds of organization. We have had the opportunity to see striking examples of both effective and ineffective leadership. I asked owner Todd McDonald and the ATW facilitation team to identify what they view as the most important skills for leaders to master as well as the mistakes leaders frequently make and need to avoid to keep from getting derailed in their careers. Here is a summary:

Effective Leadership Skills

Communication. Skilled leaders are consistent and persistent communicators, meeting regularly with teams and one on one with individuals to ensure that everyone has the information needed to succeed. These leaders give ongoing feedback, both positive and constructive, so that employees know how their contribution is viewed. When necessary, leaders provide coaching to help improve performance. They tell stories to reinforce how the values of the organization guide daily work. They hold difficult conversations with candor and respect. Most importantly, these leaders really listen with empathy and care. Leaders who view communication as one of their greatest responsibilities usually are the most successful and admired.

Expectations. The best leaders set crystal clear expectations tied to the vision and mission of the company. Depending on the organization, these expectations may be termed SMART goals, key performance indicators, core objectives, critical outcomes, and so on. In many cases, leaders believe they have established clear expectations, but employees report being uncertain exactly what is required of them. Effective leaders outline not only the What/When/How, but also explain the “Why?” behind expectations. This not only heightens engagement and motivation, but also helps employees exercise initiative in solving problems and making decisions when they encounter obstacles to success.

Accountability. Strong leaders hold people accountable. When there are problems with achieving outcomes, they explore and seek to remove barriers to accomplishment. They do not accept excuses or let people off the hook. These leaders demonstrate confidence in the ability of their people to excel and help them do so. When necessary, they impose consequences so that everyone understands they are always accountable for their performance.

Development. Effective leaders focus not only on the work to be done, but also on those who do the work – they always look for ways to develop talent and bring out the best in people. They give people challenging “stretch” assignments to build their confidence and competence as preparation to assume greater responsibilities. They ask questions and help people come up with their own solutions. They build teams that are high functioning, giving each other feedback and resolving conflict themselves rather than counting on the leader to do so. The best leaders leave behind a legacy of other skilled leaders who can take the organization to even greater heights.

Recognition. Great leaders routinely recognize and praise contribution. They celebrate wins and significant achievements, allowing people to share in the well-deserved glow of accomplishment. They do not take people or their achievements for granted. They make a big deal out of success.

Leadership Mistakes and “Derailers”

In many ways, the biggest mistakes leaders make are the opposites of the effective leadership skills: not communicating clearly and listening; not establishing clear expectations and providing feedback; not holding people accountable and stepping up to deal with difficult situations or people; not developing people; not recognizing and celebrating achievement.

In addition to these derailers, we see some other common mistakes leaders should take particular care to avoid.

Mistrust. Leaders who are not trusted are not able to lead. Every interaction with people is an opportunity to build – or erode – trust. Be sure that you are trustworthy; literally, worthy of people placing trust in you. People will watch you to see if you say one thing and do something else. If you are untruthful or don’t follow through with commitments you make, others will mistrust you and not follow your lead.

Assumptions. Always test assumptions about people and situations to be sure you are working with complete and factual information. What you assume to be true may be an incomplete or distorted view of reality. If you lead based on erroneous assumptions, you limit your effectiveness.

Ego. As a leader, you are in a superior position, but you are not a superior person. Leave your ego at the door and treat everyone with respect. Egotistical leaders who lead through fear and intimidation may gain temporary compliance, but they do not get long-term commitment. Further, they do not retain top talent.

“Leadership is a choice, not a position.”
 – Stephen Covey

Micromanaging. When leaders don’t “let go” of the details, they send a message that people are not capable. Leading means getting work done through others, not doing everything yourself or insisting that everything be done your way. You cannot get the best out of people by overmanaging them.

Unavailable. Leaders have so much to do that it is easy to become unavailable to your people (this is a problem especially when you lead people who work remotely or at a different location). How you spend your time as a leader signals what you value and consider important. If you limit your availability, you also limit how effective a leader you are. Being available to work with and develop your people is a high priority investment in future success.

Inflexible. Being a firm and consistent leader does not mean being inflexible. The best leaders are aware of their own behavioral style and the impact they have on others. To be effective requires being flexible in your leadership approach. If you are inflexible, you are likely to build inflexibility in others and foster a culture of conflict.

ATW’s decades of working to develop and support leaders provides some very clear lessons for leadership effectiveness. What will you do today to become a stronger leader and avoid the common mistakes that can derail your success?

Dee Oviatt is Senior Training Consultant at ATW Training Solutions. Dee can be reached at or by calling 515.727.0731

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