The Voice for Insightful Leadership with Shelley Row, P.E.

Your Search for leadership

Whew! What a year it’s been. There’s nothing like a world-wide pandemic to put a spotlight on good (and bad) leadership. Here’s my list of 2020 leadership lessons and observations. How do yours stack up?

2020 leadership lessons

  • Be ready to pivot. Each day I’m impressed by the creativity we’ve seen from workplaces, restaurants, hospitals, schools, and families. We found workarounds in ways that were unimaginable a few months ago. Conferences have gone on, birthdays have been celebrated, work has been accomplished and businesses have adapted. We CAN dig deep for creativity. Let’s remember that.
  • Prove yourself wrong. Before COVID, I maintained that my speaking and training programs HAD to be in person. They were too interactive to be done virtually. I proved myself wrong. What belief did you hold before this that you proved yourself wrong? We can do a lot more than we think we can when we must.
  • Use the data. Science and data matter. They provide a foundation for decision-making. If you know my work on intuition, you may find statement surprising. However, we’ve seen the devastation when we don’t consider the science. Listening to the gut is also important but gut feel requires examination. Science, data, and gut feel are all inputs to a decision. None should be trusted blindly but all should be considered.
  • Words matter. In my work we talk about the importance of “tone at the top.” An individual can overlook that a single voice can sway an organization or jurisdiction, but, indeed, it does and always has. The words of those in authority positions validate us, educate us, inspire us, and move us to action. The words and tone coming from the top matter.
  • Communicate over and over. During periods of uncertainty, over-communicating is key. The brain’s threat response has a hair trigger and, in the absence of information, quickly weaves a negative story. We’ve seen leaders who communicate frequently and calmly. When there’s nothing new to say, they say, “There’s nothing new to say.” The lesson for leaders: Communicate over and over. When you think you’re done, start over.
  • Human connection matters. As an introvert, I confess that I’ve enjoyed working from home without the hassle of business travel. However, for me, human connection has always been within reach. For many employees, the remoteness over these months feels isolating. The top leaders I work with make a concerted effort to connect with their staff. Even with Zoom, Teams, Slack, people need to feel.
  • Appreciate the full ecosystem. Over and over, I’ve been amazed at the spider web of linkages that we share. Never had I considered the impact of a remote workforce on, well, everyone. The shoe repair person in the basement of the now-empty office building, the small take-out lunch counters, the food trucks, the security people, the toilet paper that’s no longer needed in offices but in homes. It goes on and on. No matter the area, our ecosystems are woven so tightly that small ripples impact many. “Supply chain” doesn’t do it justice. It’s more like a “supply web.” Let’s appreciate the effect of our interconnectedness.

2020 will be a year for the history books. Let’s learn from this year and keep the leadership lessons that will serve us for years to come.

What 2020 lessons in leadership did you learn this year?

The problem with most managers

Here’s a tale of two managers. Can you relate to either?

Shontelle: She was one of my top engineers. She analyzed each problem to the nth degree. She was thorough and logical. A real problem solver. That’s why she was promoted to a team leader position. And that’s when things started to go wrong. It didn’t happen at first. I began to hear disgruntled team members complaining. Eventually, they were at my door. “She disregards my input. I don’t know why I even try.” “She never tells us anything. She keeps everything to herself.” “She barks orders like we’re trained seals.” Ultimately people left for other positions or transferred to another part of the organization. We were left with those who had no other options.

Edgar: There was a key opening in my office. It was a high-level position in our engineering organization. Until now it was filled by an engineer with a background in our work. But the new hire wasn’t an engineer. It was the buzz of the office. Could a non-engineer be successful in this role? The answer was yes, a thousand times, yes. The staff loved him. He empathized with their work struggles. He listened to their dilemmas and helped them sort out project decisions. And he knew the names of all their kids. Everyone wanted to work for him and we drew in top talent.

This is not an unusual situation. What is unusual is that we replay it over and over and make the same mistakes. The core problem is a misunderstanding of the skills needed to be successful at management. There are three mindset shifts needed to transform from technical professional to manager.

Leadership attributes and competencies

Recently, I interviewed 18 leaders in the transportation engineering industry. Leaders came from private companies, associations, universities, and public agencies. I asked them to describe the skills that make technical staff (like engineers) good at their job and I asked for the skills needed to successfully manage in an engineering organization. While I will write more about those interviews in the upcoming months, I replicated their answers with several groups of technical professionals.

When asked about the skills that make technical people good at their job, I hear:

When asked about the skills of successful managers, I hear:

The difference is The Gap. Technical organizations continually misunderstand and underestimate The Gap. To better understand and mitigate The Gap, the interviews pinpointed three areas where technical professionals need a mindset shift if they are to become successful leaders.

How to become a successful leader

Mindset Shift 1.

Get the right answer becomes get the best answer for the circumstances. Engineers, in particular, are taught to be precise, thorough, and analytical. That’s what it takes to get THE right answer. After all, whether it’s surveying, concrete beam design, water system design, statics, or dynamics, there IS a right answer. Find it, we succeed; get it wrong, we fail – literally. But in management, there is rarely a single, definitive right answer.

Management decisions – which are riddled with people issues – are seldom that precise. Non-technical factors must be considered with equal importance as factual information. The successful leader integrates factual and non-technical factors to find the best answer for the circumstances. It requires letting go of the need for THE right answer.

Mindset shift 2.

A structured approach becomes a flexible approach. Technical professionals are taught to use a logical, analytical approach to problem-solving. We define the problem, gather the data, do an analysis, evaluate results, determine the answer. Then we craft an equally logical, step-by-step briefing approach. We assume that everyone will want to know ALL the details about each step because it’s important (and, to us, interesting).

Frequently, clients, elected officials, citizens or the big boss have little tolerance or need for that level of analytical detail. Eyes glaze over and they say, “I only want to know what time it is, not how to build a watch.” The successful manager reads the room and adapts to meet the interests of the audience. They may need to spin on a dime to reorder the briefing, skip the analytics, and get to the bottom line. It’s tough for us engineers to “skip the analytics” when that’s the part we love best. It’s another tough shift in mindset for the tech professional.

Mindset shift 3.

Just the facts become consider relationships, too. Technical professionals come with an internal operating system that understands, craves, and values factual information. We can logically organize complex issues and get to sound, rational recommendations. We love this stuff. And we sometimes forget about people. We don’t entirely forget them but we overlook them because our heads are elsewhere.

Managers on the other hand flip that approach. “Empathy” was one of the most common words I heard in describing a good manager. Managers learn to value and cultivate relationships with others. It’s not that tech professionals don’t want relationships but in an over-subscribed day, something has to give. That something is usually talking and connecting with colleagues to learn about and support them. One engineer who successfully bridged the gap into leadership said, “I had to learn that spending time developing relationships isn’t wasted time it is invested time.” This, too, is a big mindset shift and one that is critically important to becoming a successful manager.

Technical people can be great leaders

In the coming months, I’ll write more about bridging The Gap and I’ll share the wisdom of these leaders. For now, consider the big three mindset shifts that an individual technical person must work on to be successful in management. These shifts are not trivial. Each requires rewiring brain patterns that are long-standing and have, in the past, led to rewards. These existing patterns must be replaced with new patterns that, over time, develop a new track record for success.

Technical professionals, we can do this. And we need to start now.

If you need support with these shifts, call or email Shelley.

Leadership development is about applied learning that lasts. When I shifted to applied learning techniques, I saw increased impact, transformed behavior, and lasting change.

Why leadership development trainings don’t work

· Does your organization provide periodic in-house leadership training that is developed and delivered by senior staff?

· Does your organization rely on on-the-job-training to develop leaders?

· Does your organization give employees an opportunity to select online training?

Interviews with technical leaders show that most training programs fit into one of these models. However, even those with in-house programs are likely to waste time and money. Why? Because they are either hoping that lessons will be learned, or they are focused on delivering content. Content-based training is an old-school approach unlikely to yield real impact.

How do I know? Because previously, I focused on delivering great content. But delivering great content misses the point. Leadership development is about applied learning that lasts. When I shifted to applied learning techniques, I saw the increased impact, transformed behavior, and lasting change.

It began with a footnote. I’m not one to read footnotes but this one caught my attention. The footnote was to L. Dee Fink’s book, Creating Significant Learning Experiences. Fink’s approach starts with the question, “One year after this training, the participants will be able to …..” In one statement, Fink brilliantly shifts attention to both behavior change and retention.

Think about it. You intend for your leadership development programs to shift behavior and last. However, when you really examine results, at best you get small, short-term changes. After a couple of weeks, everyone returns to earlier behaviors. What have you really accomplished with your training time and money? Not much.

How do you assess and revise your program to pay off rather than waste time?

Two basic principles are fundamental to successful retained learning. If your training misses either, you are not getting the value you need from your leadership development.

I. Shift from delivering content to enabling behavior change

Even great content can be forgettable if delivered in an old instructional style. You know that your program is content-driven when the instructor says, “Next, we’ll cover….”, or “we have a lot of content to get through.” The learning-focused instructor says, “Next, you’ll learn to apply….”, or “how would you apply these principles in your work?” Hear the emphasis on using knowledge in a real application. Application is the foundation for behavior change.

Drawing from Fink, these three steps shift from content to behavior change.

          A. Define behavior goals. What behavior will you observe when successful? For example: “The participant will be able to engage in difficult conversations without procrastination and with successful outcomes for all.

          B. Identify foundational knowledge needed to support the behavior change. Foundational knowledge includes listening, self-management, empathy, and the ability to adapt communication styles.

          C. Determine metrics. How will you know they can execute the behavior change? What exercises provide practice in the application of foundational knowledge? The class may discuss approaches to a difficult conversation, write their own script for a real encounter, do mock discussions in class, and commit to one real conversation in the workplace.

When my instructional design switched to applied behavior change, I discovered students’ true level of learning (which was less than indicated by quizzes that regurgitate facts), actual student learning increased, and their confidence soared through application.

II. Shift from one-and-done training to retained, long-term learning.

Rarely does new learning embed in the brain after one course. Learning takes practice, but most training isn’t designed to support the long-term. There are, however, several strategies that, when designed into leadership programs increase retention.

          A. Design training to be memorable. Memory is enabled with application-based training (rather than “stand and deliver”), use of compelling visuals, and interactive, tactile exercises. For example,, participants assemble a small cardboard box, put the names of “difficult” people inside the box, seal it and write the nasty labels that they’d like to use on the box. And they feel terrible afterward. That feeling is the motivation to learn techniques for difficult discussions that open the box. They practice conversations in class to build skill and confidence.

         B. Provide time to reflect. The brain embeds memory better if there is time to digest new information and consolidate information that is most relevant to the individual. At the end of the program, participants are given time to write down the top three take-aways that they want to apply to their work.

         C. Create follow-up activities as reminders. The brain is lazy and needs reminders to practice a new behavior. Reminders can be a simple drip email campaign on key applications. Homework assignments with follow-up are also useful.

Leadership training whether in-house or outsourced is a huge investment in time and money. Assess your training for application and retention to ensure you get the impact you expect. If you aren’t convinced that your leadership training is meeting your expectations, contact us to create a solution that does.

I started with a footnote and I’ll end with a footnote. For more information about excellence in learning design see:

· Creating Significant Learning Experiences by L.Dee Fink.

· How Learning Works: Seven Research-Based Principles for Smart Teaching by Susan Ambrose and others.

· The Science of Making Learning Stick: An Update to the AGES Model by David Rock and others.

It seems like a good idea to use your existing senior staff to develop and conduct leadership training for mid and up-and-coming engineer managers. After all, you’re already paying them and they have proven leadership skills. Why not use them to train others?

They may be proven leaders but are they proven educators? Are they trained in designing content to achieve specific behavioral goals? Are they skilled in creating a program that is engaging, memorable and “sticky”? Do they have time to provide follow-up?

Interviews with dozens of senior leaders shows that most companies – if they provide leadership training at all – provide training developed and delivered by their own staff. While it sounds good on the surface, it’s a bad business decision.

  1. Consider the cost of time invested in the participants. The time spent at the training program by attendees is pure overhead. There are no billable hours for the participants or in-house instructors. The attendees are not billable neither are they doing business development or client relationship development. What is the cost of their time alone? Go ahead. Add it up. It’s big. Now, add in the lost opportunity costs. You need the time spent in this program to be high impact with high retention and real-world application.

  2. Consider the opportunity cost of the instructors. You likely have senior staff with deep experience in the company conducting the training. These are some of your highest paid people. Instead of focusing on business development, client relationship management and billing out their time, they are pulling together a training program that isn’t part of their core job, creating materials and taking time from their day to conduct the training. Better for these talented, experienced people to inform the leadership program development using their years of experience and familiarity with the organization. With a smaller outlay of their time in training development, you keep them focused on the work that pays the bills.

  3. Consider the quality of the material. Your senior people are skilled leaders but are they skilled trainers? And do they have the time available to create a thoughtful, impactful, and memorable development experience? More likely they are pulling together word-filled slides in their spare moments or dusting off their session from last year. It takes a lot of dedicated, uninterrupted time to craft a program designed for lasting behavior change. A quality program worthy of the investment in your staff deserves a pro who knows how to create and deliver training that matters. Afterall, you wouldn’t use a geotech engineer to do hydraulic design. Use the right professional for the right job.

  • Separate business process training from leadership development. Use your in-house staff to provide business process training including everything from filling out the time sheets to writing a proposal in your style. Your managers know these issues better than anyone. It’s important information that suits them perfectly.

  • Use a leadership development expert for leadership development. If you seek perspective on your unique needs from an outside source (such as Syte Consulting Group), someone from that company could talk to your CEO and senior staff to gain more clarity on how to tackle most of the problems you face.

  • Ask specific questions to get the right person. It pays to be picky. There are lots of people who provide leadership development. You don’t want just anyone. Ask questions and look for these attributes:
    • Experienced. You want demonstrated background in leadership training and with real-world experience leading an organization. Plus, look for someone with experience in your field. Their examples and information will be more relevant.
    • Customized. Your staff isn’t cookie cutter. Your professional development program shouldn’t be either. Ask if they will customize the program to meet your goals.
    • Engaging design. Ask about the level of engagement. You want a learning experience not a set of slides and a lecture.
    • Captivating speaker. What is their speaking background? Have they studied speaking and training? Tip: Ask if they are members of the National Speakers Association. That will tell you if they have expertise in their field.
    • Follow-up. How is follow-up built into the program? One-and-done won’t cut it. The brain doesn’t learn that way. Behavior change takes repetition. How is repetition and practice built into the program?

At the end of the day, for the money and opportunity costs you incur in your professional development time, you can’t afford not to make that time count. Separate business development from leadership development. Let the professional support you, your staff and your clients deserve for future leaders.

Think a leadership development expert with these qualifications doesn’t exist?
When you choose to work with Shelley Row, PE, CSP you get:

  • Experience. Ms Row is a former senior executive for the US Department of Transportation and former association executive. Today she is the CEO of Shelley Row Associates.

  • Custom. Shelley Row works with you and your staff to define your goals and create an interactive learning experience that your staff will remember and apply.

  • Science-based. Shelley’s programs are grounded in neuroscience and informed by dozens of interviews with respected leaders in the transportation field.;

  • Certified Speaking Professional™ (CSP). As a CSP, Ms Row captures and holds the attention of your staff so that they are attentive and engaged.

  • Follow-up. Shelley’s programs include follow-up so that the learning is applied, practiced and remembered.

Want to know more? Contact Shelley Row now.

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What's your leadership philosophy?

What’s your leadership philosophy?

What’s your leadership philosophy? I’ve asked that question to interview candidates and it has been asked of me. Frequently, the candidate is stumped as was I the first time. Don’t let that question stump you.

Perhaps you’ve worked with people who were especially good or bad leaders. Perhaps you are a reader of leadership books that fill-in-the-blanks around your belief system. Whatever the sources from which you draw, your leadership philosophy is essential to guiding your work every day. It is your North star, your guiding light, the keel that keeps you upright, the rudder with which you steer, your boundary within which you work … and live. What do you believe about leadership? What are the leadership principles that guide your behavior?

This article encapsulates key considerations that formed my own leadership philosophy even though I haven’t successfully embodied all of them all the time. Without them, my work was fraught with indecision, suffered from wishy-washy direction and drifted due to lackluster communication. I offer these ideas as you develop your own leadership philosophy.

  1. Align behavior and strategy with vision (see my last blog). Once she has her vision, a strong leader constantly verbalizes that vision and ensures that her behavior is fully aligned. Nothing torpedoes a compelling vision than a leader who doesn’t walk her talk. Similarly, nothing cements an organizational vision like a leader who aligns her behavior and language while rewarding the behavior of others.
    • Strategy aligns with vision. I’m a believer in vision but vision is nothing without strategies that become actions. I like to identify the three to five critical success factors needed to achieve the vision. Strategy flows from them. For example, when I ran a research program for the US Department of Transportation, our critical success factors were: Money (funding from Congress); Staff; Engaged community (organizations and people with whom we engaged); Impactful projects with a clear federal role. Our strategies flowed directly from these critical success factors. In my current business, there are three critical success factors: 1) Compelling, useful content, 2) Interested, engaged audience 3) Methods to connect the content with the audience (newsletters, books, webinars, keynotes, consulting, coaching). It’s that simple. What are your critical success factors? Do your strategy and activities flow directly from the vision?
    • Budget aligns with strategy. Your strategy should be visible within the budget. Can you see your strategies in the funding within your budget? If not, you don’t have an achievable, sustainable strategy.
    • Communicate, communicate, communicate. The leader is the chief representative of vision and strategy. He must be an artful and constant communicator outside the organization, across the organization and to staff. A mentor taught me that your message is only beginning to get through when you are exhausted communicating it.
    • Staff should “feel” their role in the vision. Leaders frequently assume that staff “get” the big picture. Experience tells me that is rarely true. Staff need support to explicitly understand where their work fits within the organization and vision. With that knowledge, their work is grounded in relevance and they feel more fully a part of the organization.
  2. Work is about people and people have feelings. As an engineer who became a leader, I naturally gravitated to data and strategy. Consequently, my biggest realization was appreciating that all work is inherently human and humans function on feelings, not data. Don’t underestimate the importance of feelings at work. A lot of it has to do with effective communication as well. Even if it’s something as simple as providing all the employees, including the service staff, with unique ID badges reflecting the company logo (that services like https://instantcard.net/ can provide), it can facilitate a feeling of community and can make them feel part of the company.
    • Create a feel for the organization. What’s the feel of your organization and culture? Do people feel good about their contribution? Is there fun at work? Is there humanness and caring at work?
    • Treat others well. How do people feel when interacting with you? One of my barometers of a leader is to observe their treatment of the lowest service staff: janitorial staff, cashiers in the cafeteria, wait staff. Do they make them feel seen and valued?
  3. Tone at the top. What you say and how you say it matters. You, as a leader, are contagious. I’ve worked for a leader steeped in integrity and another leader who bullied and fostered fear. In both examples, overall behavior in the office shifted to mirror the tone at the top. What tone do you set?
    • Transparency. Staff don’t have to agree with your decisions, but it helps if they understand your thought process and considerations. Inevitably, leaders have more information and factors to consider than staff realize. Transparency into your decision-making process broadens understanding and creates trust. Of course, not all the reasons can be disclosed, but the more transparent you are about small decisions, the more likely they will trust you with the big ones that, by necessity, must be less transparent.
    • Provide immediate, constructive feedback. I’m astonished by the number of staff who have no feedback about their performance. One person said, “I have no idea how I’m doing.” There’s no reason for that. Research shows that the best performance motivator is immediate, informal feedback on performance or behavior. Give specific, useful feedback in as close to real-time as is feasible. Specific is key.
    • Be appropriately fair. The brain likes fairness, but a workplace isn’t always fair. My goal instead was to be appropriately Being appropriately fair allowed me flexibility to consider the individual, his circumstances, his past performance, and the context of a specific situation. Frankly, I think this is more fair than the blind application of a generic policy.
  4. Have high expectations. Expect top quality performance of yourself and staff (this doesn’t equate to long hours). Don’t tolerate consistently poor performance. If termination is needed, terminate. Even as a government leader, I terminated employment for several staff (it can be done in government but it’s not easy). When discussing the termination of staff on a panel of leaders, I was asked, “Aren’t you afraid people won’t want to work for you?” My response, “You’re right. The poor performers don’t want to work here, but top performers do.”
    • Support staff in development. “How can I support you?” That’s the question my boss asked me. It was the first time a boss specifically asked how they could be of service to me. Have you asked your staff? What can you do to support their professional development and what can you do to support their current work?
    • Reward the behavior you seek to create. Be crystal clear on the behavior that supports your culture, its tone and the vision for your organization. Then, watch for it, recognize it and reward it – visibly and vocally. The hardest part is having clarity on the behavior you seek to create. Oh…and say “thank you.”
  5. Be thoughtful. I wrote last time about the importance of connecting the dots (read here). To do that you need time. Not just any time but quiet time for thinking, observing and connecting the dots. Some of the most visionary, compelling leaders I worked with made time to think and reflect. I call it taking a brain break. How do you take a brain break and ensure that you have that thoughtful time? Being busy is not the same as being important.
  6. Be focused. It’s easy to be pulled in a thousand directions at once. As a leader, focus is key. You need clarity on the important work when the urgent work strives to derail your attention. Guard the time to work on the important activities for you and your staff. Prioritize ruthlessly. Stick with the priorities.
  7. Share control. The brain feels comfortable when it has control. Consequently, you will be uncomfortable as you enable your staff to be comfortable that they have control over their work. The biggest problems I’ve had with giving control to staff stemmed from my lack of clarity about expectations and priorities.
  8. What are key attributes of your leadership philosophy? Share them with Shelley here so we can compile a more complete list to share with others. Whatever your leadership philosophy, have one and live it.



Is your leadership falling victim to the villain? “What villain?” you say. It’s a dastardly villain that limits your leadership potential and short-circuits your effectiveness. Particularly in technical fields, we’ve been trained to go along with the villain. Here’s how the villain shows up.

Technically competent people move into management where they face new challenges – challenges with people.  They become perplexed by personality conflicts; stymied by office politics, mystified by seemingly illogical decisions, and confused why their logical points don’t carry the day. As a result, they become marginally effective and moderately inspiring as managers. Sound familiar?

But rather than learn how to work with the people issues and their feelings, they vilify feelings. I had a senior leader say, “Why can’t they leave their feelings at home and just do their job?” A CEO said, “There’s no place for feelings at work.” In both cases, they believe that “feeling” is the villain.  They’re wrong.

The real, dastardly villain is the belief that feeling should be barred from the office. It’s an outmoded perception that didn’t work before and it won’t ever work because it goes against our humanness. It attempts to make people into robots. And, it’s derailing your leadership potential.

You can, of course, hold onto the old belief system. It will continue to leave you frustrated, stressed, mystified and of average effectiveness. Yes, people will work for you but only for a paycheck. Their creativity, commitment and passion will be left behind. They will feel as though they are “just a number.” They won’t think twice about leaving.

If, on the other hand, you want to have deeper understanding of the workplace, feel less stress and frustration, be more effective, feel confident in your skills with staff, get more done and stand out from the crowd, join the movement to be a new brand of leader – an insightful leader.

It’s your choice. The only thing at stake is your future success as a leader. This is not an easy journey because it requires courage –courage to:

  • Break old mindsets;
  • Develop new skills that harness the power of both thinking and feeling; and
  • Unapologetically bring your humanness to work.

You will believe that you are more than just the data, and so are they. You will be part of a bigger movement.

If you’re interested, here’s your next step. Start replacing the outdated, villainous mindset with skill. Rather than be perplexed by personality conflicts, understand the conflict using neuroscience. Instead of being stymied by office politics, learn more about the interests of those in charge. Don’t be mystified by illogical decisions; rather understand the forces beyond the data that sway decision-making.

For now, just stop pretending that feelings can magically be shut off at the office door. Shift your thinking and notice when people exhibit a feeling about a project, program or person. It may be positive motivation, excitement or enthusiasm, or it may be disgust, anger and annoyance.  Either way, notice that we respond with feeling ALL THE TIME. It’s the way our brains are built.

Let’s not be afraid of feelings at work; let’s leverage them for the wisdom they hold and the humanness they bring. Because your staff, clients, bosses and partners are…guess what…humans.

Want to be a part of the new brand of leadership? If so, click here  YES! I WANT TO BE AN INSIGHTFUL LEADER

If you want to start your journey toward insightful leadership, contact Shelley now. CONTACT SHELLEY



The night was warm as we stood looking over the Annapolis harbor at the gathered crowd. It was a perfect evening for (are you ready?) tango. Yes, tango. Argentine tango, to be specific. The bricks of the Annapolis City Dock were covered by a smooth dance floor and a small band played tango music. If you are not a dancer, Argentine tango is not like a typical ballroom tango. Ballroom-style tango has specific steps. Argentine tango does not. It is all improvisational. The men learn to lead by shifting their bodies. Women learn to sense and follow their lead.  As we watched, the men were steady and (relatively) straightforward with their steps while the women twisted, turned, and flicked their feet with grace and style. They represented a subtle communication between leader and follower that resulted in beauty and art.

When I think about being an insightful leader, there are three lessons from tango.  The tango leads provided:

  1. Direction. The leader provides the forward direction. Will he steer his partner slightly right, slightly left or straight ahead? He watches other couples and navigate between and around them. He adjusts their rate of progress to account for others. It’s the same for leaders in an organization. You, too, provide direction and navigate employees, staff and projects around obstacles. In your case, obstacles may be political, technical, financial or personnel. It’s your job to watch the surroundings, notice openings and deftly steer the organization forward as though you are dancing together.
  2. Framework. The tango lead held his frame. He provided a firm, physical frame that gave his partner the boundaries for her dance. Within his arms and the space around his steps, he contained the space of the dance. A leader does the same. You provide the organizational framework within which staff perform and work happens. In this case, your frame work may be the organizational culture, a way of doing business, the boundaries of acceptable business practices or acceptable behaviors at work.
  3. Flexibility. Perhaps the most striking part of the tango was the flexibility afforded to the woman dancer. Our tango lead provided direction and a framework that allowed her to improvise. Steps, kicks, flourishes, twists and turns. She was the show. He gave her the space to explore her creativity and develop beauty. Too often, this element of leadership is missing. Sometimes, we as leaders create a framework that’s too tight. It confines creativity in the workplace. Instead, insightful leaders create space like the tango. There’s an openness to new ideas, new processes and procedures. Staff are encouraged to develop their creativity and show off their highest skills. The creativity of the staff can be the showpiece under a wise leader.

Because of the skill of the tango leader, the woman improvised, added her unique style and created a work of art while moving forward within the framework. How well is your organization dancing under your leadership? Maybe it’s time for a tango lesson!

Copyright: timurpix / 123RF Stock Photo



It was dark and I was in unfamiliar territory. I was aboard a friend’s boat on the Chesapeake Bay, at night, headed home, when he said, “You should drive. It will be good practice.”

“Good practice?” I thought. “Is he crazy? There are lights everywhere.” As I looked across the horizon and saw white lights, yellow lights, red lights, green lights, blinking lights, bright lights and faint lights.  “Which do I follow?” I asked him.

He said, “You’ll learn to sort out the important lights, that help you navigate to the dock, from the irrelevant ones that are a distraction.”  Wise words that also apply to you as an insightful leader.

You navigate your organization towards the future and along the way there are countless pieces of information and distractions that can take you off course – if you let them. How do you sort out the relevant from the irrelevant? Here are three tips I learned from executives I interviewed.

  • Have a clear objective. You can only navigate to your goal if you are clear on your goal. Yeah, I know…that seems obvious. And, I’m continually amazed at how often managers lack clarity on the goal. We breeze past the difficulty of finding clarity in the rush to act. Clarity immediately reduces distractions. Clarity allows you to ignore all inputs that don’t align. Without clarity, it would be like me aiming for any creek when I wanted Aberdeen Creek.To get clarity, ask yourself,
    • “What is the desired outcome?”
    • “What specifically needs to be accomplished?”
    • “What specific action do I want to occur?” Don’t settle for generalizations. Be specific

From a place of clarity, identify the key next steps. These steps help to retain clarity and focus along the way. Activities that aren’t in alignment with the steps to the objective, can be dealt with later.

  • Control the tangents. Be brutal about this. Everyone you talk to will try (maybe unintentionally and maybe intentionally) to take you off on a tangent. If you stay laser focused on the objective, you can tactfully redirect the conversation while staying aware that other issues will be dealt with later. When someone tries to divert your attention, say,
    • “That’s a good point, and we need to stay focused on the goal. We can come back to that point once we deal with this.”
    • “I appreciate you bringing this up. Let’s put this in the parking lot to address next.”
    • “I realize this is a concern of yours and we will address it, but for now, we need to stay focused on the goal for today.”

As I scanned the darkness, the horizon filled with lights. But I didn’t need the circling light of Thomas Point Lighthouse or the red and green lights of other boats. I began to train my eyes to discern the lights on the markers that indicated the way back. It went like this: Marker light…got it in my sights. Lighthouse light: it’s out of the way; I won’t run aground; no need to consider it further. Other boats: They are not in the way and not coming my way; no need to consider them further. They remain in my periphery but didn’t distract from the goal. How do you sift out the tangents, set them aside, and stay focused on the objective?

  • Check in along the way. As we motored back toward the dock, the navigational chart told me which marker should be in view next. Did it appear when and where it was supposed to? Check. We were still on course. As an insightful leader, it is wise to check your course along the way. Are you still focused on the objective? Are you still taking the steps you identified or have you succumbed to a tangent? Check in along the way and make course corrections as needed.

You, as an insightful leader, are the keeper of focus. In addition to reaching your goal efficiently, your staff will feel more secure and calm because of your clear-headed focus.

Photo Copyright : James Kirkikis



It was a beautiful fall day in Keystone, Colorado. The aspen were gold and the sun highlighted the crevasses in the mountains that guarded the lake. It was a perfect time to rent a kayak and paddle around under the blue sky. My love affair with Kayaking really began after trying one of the Lake Sunapee rentals last year due to being convinced by a close friend to give it a try. My friend is an experienced kayaker, the sort of person who has all of the equipment and regularly goes kayaking. Using a trailer to take all of this gear around with you can be difficult to find apparently, that’s why finding yourself a good trailer that has room for everything is so important. Looking at reviews, such as https://bestkayaks.reviews/best-kayak-trailers-reviews for example, before purchasing your trailer is always a good option to see what other people think. However, I am not experienced in kayaking. But…how hard can it be? It’s a kayak. I mean, if you’re not experienced like me, maybe you should read some kayaking tips on campingfunzone.com to prepare yourself. Even if it is ‘just a kayak’, there’s got to be some level of skill to it!

Truthfully, it wasn’t hard to paddle around. You need the proper kayak (like those you can go now and see online), and a little training to get that right, but it isn’t tricky to learn. It was just difficult to get to a specific point on the lake – just as it can be difficult to reach the goal that you set in your organization. Here are three points gleaned from paddling on a Colorado lake that can help you reach your organizational goals.

  1. Set a clear goal. “Let’s paddle to that grove of trees on the point,” my friend said. I replied, “Which grove of trees on which point?” It took discussion and lots of pointing to clarify which grove of trees on which point of land. It’s the same in your organization. The goal may seem crystal clear to you. It’s unlikely to be that clear to others. Talk about the goal with your staff and team. Engage them in discussion. What behavior will you all see when the goal is achieved? What specific outcome will be realized and how will you know? This is the only way to ensure that everyone is working toward the same end.
  2. Adjust constantly. Off we went toward our grove of trees. But it wasn’t that easy. We negotiated how we would paddle together without knocking each other’s paddle. Plus, the light breeze blew the kayak away from the point of land. We were constantly compensating for the breeze and an occasional boat wake. Similarly, how will your team work together and not get in each other’s way? It’s not that easy. Personality conflicts, incomplete communication and busy schedules get in the way of coordinated work. I’ve seen it first hand in my organization and in those organizations with whom I work. Busy staff don’t talk to co-workers – even briefly – to discover that they are doing the same work or that they are working at cross-purposes. It takes constant communication to make course corrections. In my office, each project had a detailed road map to guide the work. Even with the road map, it was essential that we read the “breeze” in the organization and adjust. As your work progresses, what do you know today that you didn’t know when you started? What course corrections are called for? Become an observer of the staff and their communication styles. Who is working well together and who continues to paddle at cross-purposes? An adjustment in staff roles can better align natural communication styles for more productive work.
  3. Anticipate. As we paddled, it looked like we were on track – heading straight for the point – but with one extra paddle stroke, we’d gone too far. I didn’t anticipate the momentum of the kayak and adjust my paddling in time. It took more time and effort to reach the point. Are you reading the situation and anticipating the next steps? Every office has momentum – work flows that are set in motion, processes that are half completed. You must anticipate where the momentum takes you and adjust in advance before the need is obvious. This is the work of the insightful leader. Are you a keen observer of the work flow, the patterns in the office and the external influences? It’s only then that you can anticipate the trajectory and course correct before others realize it’s needed.

We made it to the point – eventually. I learned that I have a lot to learn about kayaking. On the surface, it looks easy, but the art of kayaking takes skill and intentional thought. Providing wise leadership is the same. Data isn’t enough. You must be an astute observer of the people and work to stay on course.

Copyright: wavebreakmediamicro / 123RF Stock Photo



Some time ago, I spoke at and facilitated an Executive Leadership Program for a notable association.  The speakers were a who’s who in that industry–successful business people with a solid track record.  There were sessions on responding to RFPs, auditing and accounting, business operations, and profitability. At the end of the program, the participants met in groups and identified their top three take-aways from the day, which we recorded.  One item rose to the top of the list: Do the right thing and be nice. The group discussed that it was interesting that profitability wasn’t the first item on everyone’s list – indeed, it only came up once. But every group commented on being nice and just caring.

So, what does that look like at work?  It all comes down to behavior. If we are being nice and caring, what are we doing? Gleaning from the discussion and from my experience, there are three behaviors that communicate care.

Seek First to Understand. That’s from Stephen Covey’s classic, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. He teaches that listening is a key skill. To do that, seek first to truly understand the other person’s point of view. Listen…truly listen. What we now know from neuroscience, is that when we listen and validate the other person’s comment or emotional state, it calms them.  They feel heard, and that settles the nervous system. It’s not that hard. But, you do have to restrain your impulse to dive in with your point.  Listen first. State it back. Hear them.  It shows you care about their opinion.

Speak strongly and politely. Somewhere along the way we forgot that being strong and confident are not mutually exclusive with politeness.  We can be strong and nice.  In fact, some of the strongest people I worked with embodied quiet calmness.  Without defensiveness, they could listen, hear, evaluate and come to a reasoned conclusion. I’ve seen caustic situations diffused when a manager lets the negative energy from another slide by and comment with calm understanding.  Even performance problems can be addressed with strength, without giving in and while being polite. We forget sometimes that politeness goes a long way.

Be interested in more than just their work.  One of the leaders who spoke at the program told the group that every Friday in the middle of the day, he called his staff just to chat.  He intentionally did not talk about work but rather used that time to connect on a personal level. Connection was another key theme from the program. For those of us (like me, I confess) who derive pleasure from checking off accomplishments, we can forget the importance of connecting personally. And yet, we feel more committed and motivated when we feel that people at work care about more than work. All it takes is an honest inquiry – How are things with your kids?  Which college did your daughter select? What did you think about the game last night?

Yes, profitability is essential but what these future executives learned is that they can get to profitability when their staff understands that they just care. Let’s face it, it’s just not that hard to be nice.

Copyright: thanaphiphat / 123RF Stock Photo