Five Strategic Ways Leaders Provide Clarity (Mark Miller)

Winning Well Connection

We’ve always been big fans of Mark Miller and his prolific writing. What makes Mark unique from many leadership authors is that he’s actively working as a corporate executive while staying committed to inspiring leaders through his writing. 

Click on the image to purchase Mark’s book.

Engagement in leadership is vital. However, as you go through your career it changes.

That realization came to light when someone recently asked me a question I had never really considered: Does engagement look different as a leader moves through his or her career?

Although the core drivers of engagement are largely universal, I think the question itself could point to an insight.

Over the course of a career, a leader’s primary focus often shifts.

Preparation – Early in your career, you may spend more time and energy focused on learning. You may not know enough in the beginning to add real value. This phase could include learning about your chosen field, your role, the skills needed to excel, the industry, etc.

Production – During the next phase, as you learn and grow, you should be able to produce more. If you are in sales, you should close more sales; if you are an engineer, the scope and complexity of the problems you tackle should increase. As a leader, you should become more proficient at helping your team accomplish their goal.

Reproduction – Finally, as you mature, leaders often experience one more shift; you could easily find yourself investing more time and energy in future leaders. This could be teaching, coaching, mentoring younger leaders, or even representing the organization in various settings. Emerging leaders gain huge advantage when you provide historical context and perspective.

I now feel the need to state the obvious: I believe our careers rarely fit so neatly into these phases. We can, and do, move in and out of these different stages throughout our careers.

However, if you are finding it difficult to engage in your current role, consider your stage of career. Perhaps the answer is right in front of you … Prepare, Produce or Reproduce. Adjust your focus as needed and stay engaged!

Judging Your Engagement

As we discussed just above, one’s engagement phase ebbs and flows throughout a career. Regardless of the stage you’re in, you’re on the right track.

Men and women who are fully engaged outperform those who are merely going through the motions. This may be the most staggering revelation of common sense to anyone who leads people.

However, this obvious reality also occupies many waking hours for leaders around the world. Though there is no single, miraculous tactic to permanently lift the engagement of people, an engaged follower base always begins with an engaged leader.

Here’s a good starting point to judge your level of engagement, no matter the phase you’re in:

An engaged leader provides clarity.

The engaged leader sees and senses ambiguity. He or she is close enough to the work and the people to know when an infusion of clarity is needed – which is daily!

Clarity may be the greatest gift a leader can give an organization.

You may be thinking: “Clarity around what?” As much as possible!

All high-performance organizations have staggering levels of alignment. Alignment is impossible without clarity.

Here are five candidates for clarity:

  1. Purpose – Does EVERYONE in your organization know WHY you exist?
  2. Mission – Does EVERYONE in your organization know WHAT you are trying to accomplish?
  3. Values – Does EVERYONE in your organization know the beliefs that should guide their behavior?
  4. Goals – Does EVERYONE in your organization know what a win looks like?
  5. Strategies – Does EVERYONE in your organization know how you plan to win?

Obviously, once an organization reaches any scale, a single leader cannot carry the mantle of clarity single-handedly. Engaged leaders create the expectation and the infrastructure to cascade clarity.

Clarity which resides only in the heart and mind of the leader is merely a figment of the imagination.

Clarity must reach the front lines – that’s where the real power resides.

Is your organization clear on what matters most?

Winning Well Reflection

In our experience with thousands of leaders and managers around the world, the number one cause of workplace relationship problems is expectation violations. In other words: people simply aren’t on the same page. Mark’s suggestion that clarity the greatest gift you can give your people cannot be overstated. A strong focus on results where everyone knows exactly what winning looks like is vital to your success.


what everyone is saying about intimidation

What Everyone is Saying About Intimidation

I’m not often intimidated by questions from my MBA students, but this one was a stumper. It’s a question I’ve been wrestling with most of my career. “Why do so many execs choose to take stances of fear and intimidation?”

Why Do So Many Execs Try to Intimidate Their Followers?

It started with our discussion of Amy Cuddy’s Ted Talk on how your non-verbals can impact your confidence. If you haven’t seen it, it’s a powerful story. She conducts an experiment where interviewers try to be as intimidating as possible, with a stoic, non-emotional expression.

Fresh out of a season of interviews, this behavior struck close to home for many of the extremely bright, promising leaders, which led to discussions of where else such intimidation tactics are used by leaders in business each day. And they asked the ultimate question: “Just why do they do that?”

My theories:

Someone Intimidated Them

Not just one someone, lots of them. Intimidation has become the norm in some cultures. So if they want to be an exec they learn to intimidate too, without considering the impact. I remember being coached shortly after my promotion to the executive ranks that it was time “to smile less.” I frowned at the demand, thanked her for the feedback, went back and smiled at my team, and kept on smiling at the strong results they produced.

Intimidation Gets Short-Term Results

After all, in a fast-paced environment, short-term results are sexy. If you’re in a hurry for results, just follow Ask Men’s “How To,” advice, including “let them fear your eyes, never be nice, and use your Brando voice.” It will work–for a minute.

They’re Scared

Act tough, and scare enough other people–no one will notice your fear.

Intimidation Is So Much Easier Than Leading Well

“Those people” are so hard to engage and motivate. Best just to scare them into doing what you need.

How to Respond to Intimidation

“I tried to go out for theater or theater arts, but I was too scared or too intimidated. But I had a lot of friends on the cross-country team that had great senses of humor.”Dana Carvey

Well first, don’t let the turkeys get you down. Rise above the game. Be better than their silly intimidation tactics. Find mentors and peers who can support you. Learn how to position your ideas so they are most likely to be heard.

These tools can help.

The PERSUADE model to convincing your boss and the VOICE model for positioning your ideas.

Bullies tend to move on when they don’t get a reaction.

And most importantly: REMEMBER HOW IT FEELS.

I’m not sure why being intimidating results in amnesia. Intimidation sucks. Remember that feeling. Don’t pass it down the line.

How did you feel early in your career? What’s your stance now? How do we prevent the intimidation contagion from spreading?

Winning Well: A Manger's Guide to Getting Results without Losing Your SoulWant to get results without losing your soul? We have many practical tools and techniques in our book, Winning Well.

You can download our FREE book group facilitator’s guide here.

See also: 5 Reasons Your Employees Might Fear Speaking Up

the most frustrating choice managers make

The Most Frustrating Mistake Managers Make

When managers see their role as a small cog in a bigger system they do whatever they can to fit in. They trade power for conformity.

Their team yearns for bold vision, challenging questions, and scaffolding support. But they look up and see weakness, which makes them feel weaker and diminishes results.

Nothing saddens me more than potential leaders who give away their power. Feeling powerless to change the game, they buckle down and support, but don’t inspire.

Somehow they think this approach will inspire loyalty and translate to results. They’re in no position to empower, because they have not power to share. Great leaders generate power and then share it.

5 Ways to Regain Leadership Power

Teams are empowered by power. Be sure you have enough to share.
  • Connected – Build great relationships up down and sideways. Your team longs for a leader who’s in the game, and teaches them how to play it.
  • Courageous – Stop complaining about the system, or what can’t be done. If you really think you’re powerless, step down and let someone else be the leader.
  • Creative – Help your team find solutions in the areas they feel most helpless
  • Challenging – Encourage your team to do more than they ever thought possible. Expect a lot.  Keep raising the bar. Forget benchmarks and establish higher standards. Celebrate progress and build desire for what’s possible.
  • Calm – Stay above the fray. Buffer the madness, but also teach them how to sail in a storm.

Yes, this is part of our crowd-sourced e-book series on the Biggest Mistakes Team Leaders Make, so please share your stories.

The Trouble With Servant Leaders

“I’ve failed.” Mark’s voice shook as we met to discuss next steps for Lisa, his troubled employee. He’d tried everything to help Lisa succeed. She’d get better for a while, but then her old habits would surface. Lisa was impacting the team and results. It was time for her to find something new. “I can’t believe I couldn’t help her, I’m usually better than this.” Mark kept shaking his head. This servant leader was filled with compassion for Lisa, but had none left over for himself.

I know that feeling. Seeing such potential, investing everything you have to help, and then watching the backwards slide. The truth is humans are complex. Most of the time we can help a great deal, and sometimes what we have to give is just not enough. You bring in reinforcements, and they still struggle. When they fail you feel like you’ve failed. It’s hard to let it go.

Servant leaders have such compassion for others, that often they have little left for themselves. They forgive others when they struggle, but don’t offer themselves that same latitude. Servant leaders don’t want to let anyone down in their serving. They hold themselves to a higher standard, and feel depressed when they can’t be everything they hope to the people who need them.

Words I’ve heard from some of the best servant leaders I know, this week:

  • “My team’s working so hard, I’m doing everything I can to help them… I just feel so bad for them.”
  • “I know he’s got issues outside of work, but I should have made a bigger impact.”
  • “I’m so sorry, I couldn’t pick up your phone call, I was taking my son to school.”
  • I feel so guilty, I just haven’t had enough time for my kids this week.”
  • “I’m sorry to let you down (she hadn’t), I’ll do better next time”
  • “I just wish I could do more.”
  • “I’m so tired.”

My Wish for You

  • Give yourself the same compassion and understanding you give those you lead.
  • Know that sometimes people will take too much, you don’t need to serve takers
  • Know that tomorrow’s challenges bring more opportunities to serve.
  • Know others appreciate you more than they say.
  • Know that you’re more helpful than you think.
  • Know that others are wrestling too.
  •  Know you will fail, and that’s okay.
  • Know you can’t help everybody.
  • Know that your best is enough.
  • Know that you’re not perfect.
  • Know that life has seasons.
  • Know that it’s okay to rest.

* Photo by Larry Kohlenstein

Trickle Down Intimidation

Mark shuts the door and begins the emergency meeting. What he’s got to say isn’t easy, but these guys can handle it. That’s why they “get paid the big bucks.” He minces no words. Stock prices, competitive pressures, time to get it together. NOW. The intimidation factor is high. Fix it fast or else.

He would NEVER speak this way to the front line. He’s an inspiring speaker and the troops love him. He trusts his leaders will translate the message to the front line well.

Grace leaves Mark’s meeting a bit shaken, but the message is clear. Time to call an emergency huddle with her direct reports. They were in the midst of executing plans to address key issues, but she worries it won’t be fast enough. She needs to show progress NOW. She feels her job is on the line.

She doesn’t usually take the fear and intimidation route, but she needs to get her team’s attention. Plus, her team can handle it. They’re seasoned leaders and they understand the pressure. She would never NEVER speak that way to the front line. She trusts her team will translate the message well.

Bill leaves Grace’s meeting a bit shocked. “Wow,” he thinks. “She NEVER acts this way. She doesn’t even seem to want our input. She just told us what to do.” Bill’s concerned his team leaders won’t buy into her plan. After all, it’s been a crazy couple of months and they’re all about to tip over.

But the situation is serious, Time to be a good soldier and just salute. He’s scared too. His mortgage is still underwater, and his daughter is headed to college next year. This is no time to stand out as a naysayer. He would NEVER let the front-line see his stress. But, he trusts his managers will get the message and translate it well.

Bill calls a meeting of his team leaders and lays it all on the line. It’s an execution issue and they need to fix it now, a little bit of intimidation can’t hurt. He needs the team to know he’s serious. He hands everyone a report with the names of everyone below goal.

“I want you to fix this, by holding one-on-one coaching with everyone on this list today. Then report back to me on each person. I want to know if it’s a will issue or a skills issue.” Bill knows he’s being a bit rough. He would NEVER talk that way to the front line. But he’s got good team leaders who know how to handle this stuff. They’ll figure out a way to coach to the right skills and do something fun to motivate.

One of Bill’s team leaders, Kathy, gets the outlier report and hears his message loud and clear. She leaves the meeting and then…

Intimidation Amplifies as it Rolls Down Hill

The same leaders who carefully craft inspiring messages for the frontline, may be undercutting their efforts by inadvertent trickle down intimidation. Fear is contagious. Leaders watch the level above them and take their cues on how to act and what to say.

They also fill in the blanks.” If THIS is what they ARE telling me, then what they AREN’T sharing must be even worse.”

“Hmm…this behavior made these guys successful. I want to be successful too, I’d better toughen up.”

Each leader puts their finger prints on the message, and the light touch of intimidation, becomes a frightening slap at the front-line. The folks closest to the work do as they’re told, afraid to share the ideas that would solve the problem.

Be careful not to inadvertently delegate your translation. Treat your team like you want them to treat others.

Say what you mean in the way you want it to be heard at the front-line.

Inspiring Servant Leadership In Kids

Simon says, following the leader, being line leader at school, many of the messages we share about leadership are simple: “I’ll tell you what to do, and you do it.” And if we’re feeling particularly cranky, “because mommy (or daddy) says so, that’s why” may even slip through our lips.

Hardly examples of servant leadership.

We must teach our children early and often about REAL leadership. They must see that servant leadership requires serving, transparency, building up, and helping others to grow.

In Search of Kid’s Servant Leadership Stories

I’m looking to talk to children and youth serving as servant leaders across countries and contexts. I’m equally interested in hearing from grown-ups dedicated to inspiring servant leadership in children and youth.

The tricky part is servant leaders are humble, and may not want to toot their own horn. This is about spreading the word of possibilities and techniques. Bring on the confident humility that will change the world.

Please contact me at to share your stories. Thanks for helping us grow the next generation of servant leaders.

What Makes Leaders Different?

Leaders don’t fail because of skills. Mark Miller, author of The Heart of Leadership, explains that most leadership failures are a matter of heart. I asked Mark for his advice for leaders working to grow other leaders: How do we help aspiring leaders to develop heart-based qualities?

A lot of it comes down to mentoring suggests Mark:

“Listen a lot. Work to understand their goals, aspirations and troubles. Never set the agenda, let it come from them even if it doesn’t feel practical.”

He also shares the most important characteristic is encouraging them to think about others first. “Until they’ve mastered that, none of the other important leadership characteristics can be fully developed.”

The Heart of Leadership is an easy-to-read story of a growing leader, supported by mentors and insights along the way. He explores what makes leaders “different” than other good people with integrity and other strong characteristics. He talks about leaders having HEART.


H – Hunger for Wisdom (leaders are on a constant quest to know more)

E – Expect the Best (leaders are optimistic, and have high expectations of themselves and others)

A – Accept Responsibility (leaders own the result of their team’s actions)

R – Respond with Courage (leaders say, do, and act with integrity, even when it’s difficult)

T – Think Others First (leaders serve others, and put other’s needs first)

“Most men and women who struggle with leadership have issues of the heart.” Help leaders dig deeper and explore those areas.

What Do You Think Makes Leaders Different?

And now for some LGL community fun. Mark has generously given me 20 copies of the Heart of Leadership to share with the LGL Community. I’ll send a free copy to the first 20 commenters who share their perspective.

What Makes Leaders Different?

You can read the first chapter for free by clicking here. You can also find the Heart of Leadership on Amazon and in bookstores everywhere.

10,000 human beings

10,000 Human Beings

Before you make your next leadership decision, stop and think: What’s the impact on the human beings in this scenario?

Fred’s Story

Fred (not his real name) has a beautiful habit. Every time we discuss a strategy, policy, or project, he stops and asks about the “human beings.” His words are transformative. Fred doesn’t speak of “resources,” “headcount” “people” “employees” or even “team members.” He talks about humans.

Fred Asks…

  • “How will this change impact the human beings in that center?”
  • “Will this system be hard for 400 human beings to learn in 3 days?”
  • “What information do these human beings need to be successful?”
  • “How much time can we give these 800 human beings to look for a new job?”
  • “How will those 12 human beings react to our decision.”
  • “Is this the right thing to do as a human being?

Lessons From Fred

It’s not semantics. It’s people. Words change conversations– every time.

I’m entrusted with 10,000 human beings, not human resources.

I must…

  • slow down
  • ask better questions
  • learn who they are
  • tell them more
  • inspire
  • lead better

We must…

Pause. Think deeper. Put ourselves in their shoes. Think about our friends in similar situations. Personalize our leadership. Be a human being leading human beings.

Jesus on Leadership: Leading By Example

One of my favorite leadership classics is Jesus CEO by Laurie Beth Jones. It’s an intriguing read on servant leadership. And so, as a Christmas Eve offering, I share some thoughts on Jesus as leader.

Laurie Beth reminds us that in addition to everything else, Jesus inspired sustained results through very human leadership techniques.

1. One person trained twelve human beings who end on to so influence the world that time itself is not recorded as being before (B.C.) or after (A.D) his existence.
2. This person worked with a staff that was totally human and not divine, a staff that in spite of illiteracy, questionable backgrounds, fractious feelings, and momentary cowardice went on to accomplish the tasks he trained them to do. They did this for one main reason– to be with him again.
3. His leadership style was intended to be put to use by any of us.

So what did Jesus do as a leader?

Here’s a start, what would you add?

  • He had a strong internal compass
  • He had a strong vision
  • He challenged the status quo
  • He looked out for the underdog
  • He attracted a diverse team
  • He trained his successors
  • He had a plan
  • He spent time in his leadership “wilderness” 
  • He served others 
  • He recognized hidden talents
  • He took accountability
  • He held others accountable
  • He said thank you
  • He reminded others to say thank you
  • He took risks
  • He celebrated
  • ??
  • ?

As leaders we learn by example, from watching other leaders in their journey. Jesus gave us a powerful example.

Merry Christmas.