Most leaders die with their mouths open

Many leaders feel that they can't improve results because of external issues such as the economy or a lack of resources. They are wrong, according to executive leadership coach John M. McKee.

Case Study 1: "Maybe I'm not speaking slowly enough. But it's more likely that my team simply isn't capable of executing what I want done. I think it's the latter. I may need to make some wholesale changes around here."

Case Study 2: "John, of all the things you can do for me, the most important is to help improve my communication skills. Some days it seems I can spend the whole day trying to get my managers focused on priorities."

Case Study 3: "Herding cats. That's my job! I've got a lot of smart people who have the skills to succeed, but trying to get them to move in one direction is nearly impossible."

Each of the above comments was said to me by leaders I was asked to help. Each of their companies wanted to save them and help them succeed. However, they'd run into resistance and reached for some outside coaching to try to get these people moving ahead.

I think the two easiest issues faced in management are communication and personnel. Why? Because, to a great extent, they can be fixed entirely by those involved. Unlike issues such as the economy, lack of technology, or imprecise market understanding, most leaders can "fix" issues involving human beings if they really want to. However, sometimes they make it harder than it needs to be.

Here are three of my favorite tips any leader can use to improve communication problems and team performance:

1. Quit telling/Start asking: The best bosses accept that they don't have all the answers. They use a lot of open-ended questions that start with: How, Where, Why, When.

When I meet a leader who thinks (s)he knows more than the collective team, I know there is a big problem. Either that person is full of himself or the entire team needs to be replaced. Not surprisingly, it's usually the former.

2. Get balance. Share it: Some leaders can be very effective at work and still have a great personal life.  The best leaders do that and help their team members to do the same. Here's a strong message from a guy who ran a tech organization that previously had high burnout rates. He said:

- First of all, look after yourself: If you're not sleeping well or not looking after your personal life, your performance is going to be reduced.

- Second, look after your loved ones: If they're not happy, you can't be happy. They are the most important beings in your life.

- Finally, when you're here, give me 100%. I know you have the talent and drive to do the job, but I need you to deliver the goods. If not, I can't keep you around. This is a tough business, and each one of us needs to be delivering on expectations.

3. Drop the jargon: The finest leaders in any organization talk like normal people. We "get it" when they communicate with us.

Ever notice that a big compliment about a great person is something like, "She's like someone you could go out for a drink with -- no airs about her." Because they're not trying to impress us with lingo and complex terms to show how smart they are, they come across like real people. So we're more inclined to respond to their requests.

If you're having trouble "motivating" the troops, take a listen to your own style before you invest in a business consultant to "fix" things.

Summary: Most leaders, when they get taken out, are still blabbering about all the reasons that prevented them from getting their jobs done. Don't die with your mouth open.

Here's to your success!



John M. McKee is the founder and CEO of, an international consulting and coaching practice with subscribers in 43 countries. One of the founding senior executives of DIRECTV, his hands-on experience includes leading billion d...


"The beatings will continue until the morale improves!" So goes the old axiom. It's one thing to tell a player "not to miss", and quite another to tell them "to score". The end result is theoretically the same, but the actual outcomes are radically different. Quality people require leadership and not management. If you have to sheriff rather then shepherd, something is fundamentally wrong with your paradigm.

tonymoore42 2 Like

Good leadership is simple, but not simplistic. Too many solutions sound good (simplistic), but ignore the few levers that make a good leader. First, the term leader implies followers. A good leader is ANYONE who has the ability to get others to willingly follow in a desired direction. Good leaders can be found at ALL levels of the organization. For example, If there is a leadership vacuum in any particular function, a subordinate may quietly step up and covertly fill the vacuum -- saving the function in spite of weak supervision and management. What are the levers? First, a good leader must provide unambiguous and measurable directions ("This is your target for the next hour [day, week, etc.]"). A good leader tells workers what must be produced, by when, and to what standards. Then the leader steps aside and lets work happen (monitoring progress through frequent, but brief, work reviews). Second, if workers don't know how to produce the desired product to standard, or if monitoring reveals that workers are lagging the expectations, the leader provides coaching ("Here, let me show you how to...") either directly or by delegating the coaching task to a star performer. Third, if the workers do not have the necessary support (required inputs, raw material, the right tools, access to help when needed, freedom from distractions, frequent feedback on progress, etc.), then the leader will immediately take steps to remove or mitigate these barriers to provide the workers with a supportive environment. If that is not possible, then a good leader will modify the expectations to make them reasonable given the barriers. If that is not possible, then a good leader, supported by good leaders higher in the organization, will consider aborting the project. It takes guts to do that; It also takes brains to realize that such action will preserve important corporate resources for projects that are more likely to be successful. And, it takes skill to get others to come to the same conclusion -- in a good company, early warning is rewarded and data driven decision making is SOP. And, fourth, a good leader provides positive leadership. Positive leadership strives to catch people doing the right thing and freely expresses approval and appreciation. You must be sincere in (as Dale Carnegie would say) in your praise and approbation -- workers can identify false praise faster than the lie can be pronounced... and the liar will be resented for it. Clear expectations, coaching, frequent feedback, and a supporting environment will get most employees to do what you want the first time -- and perhaps for a few more times after that. But, what sustains desired performance is consequences. Consequences are that which happens to the employees when they do as you expect -- or don't do as you expect. A positive leader provides LOTS of positive consequences (pats on the back, attaboys, privileges, etc.) for desired performance. And, they look for barriers EXTERNAL to the employee when they don't get desired performance (see above). They do NOT assume that the employee is malingering, stupid, lazy, or lacking in esprit de corps (see Case Study 1, above). Finally, there is a skill to providing positive consequences. Sadly, few organizations teach their supervisors, managers, or executives these skills, much less expect it of their employees. Providing positive consequences appropriately isn't difficult or expensive to learn or do. But, if it's not done, then you should not be surprised if your employees are not willingly giving you 100% -- even when you aren't around.

NickNielsen 1 Like

We're all adults (chronologically), and most of us are professionals. Ask us how changes will affect our work. Listen to what we have to say; we may not be in management, but that doesn't mean we don't know the business. Discuss possible alternatives that could lead to the same results, with less impact. Explain the business reasons for work changes. One major tip: [i][b][u]PLEASE[/u]![/b][/i] This is IT; don't use sports metaphors! If I hear you start talking about "getting the ball over the plate" and "basic blocking and tackling", you've lost me. I zone. Immediately. I'm already doing the basics; your job is to provide me everything we need to meet the customer's requirements.


You make two very good points. Well said! Frankly, most managers (and "motivational" gurus) completely miss the point about sports metaphors, which is that they are either well managed -- or not. A second major tip I might add is to stop wasting money on banners and posters that exhort me to work harder, safer, faster, better, or whatever is the fad of the day happens to be. The posters only irritate good employees -- for a day or two -- and then are ignored. Spend the money saved by training managers to ask, listen, discuss, and explain!

Old Timer 8080
Old Timer 8080

Honestly, that is what I think of the motivation tripe in some companies. This usually results in a %50 employee turnover in six months.... Especially when DEMOTIVATION posters start showing up in the cubes.... ( yeah, I know about Godwin's Law )


Four most important words in leadership (Tom Peters)...What do you think?


When will we start using more common sense in business? It's not that hard if you think about it, but if you care about yourself more than you care about others life becomes more difficult for you then it needs to be. Decision making is easy, you either choose the right way or the wrong way. It's up to us as leaders to understand what the right way and the wrong way are. Good article, make the problem seem easy to fix. In is :)

sissy sue
sissy sue

Since a manager manages people (that's obvious), it only makes sense that the strongest skills a manager can have are strong communication skills and good judgment of people. Unfortunately, too many people who are good at "chatting up" upper management and who are enamored of the latest business fad or jargon are the ones who are promoted. Too many businesses are too fond of the military paradigm, where the "leaders" bark orders and the lower echelon obey them. This builds resentment, and causes the "lower echelon" to give their less-than-best effort. After all, why stretch yourself for someone who only wants you to be a drone?

DSG7 1 Like

Where I work, we have a director that is effectively the antithesis of this article. He will come up to you and ask you to do something, along the lines of "can/could/would you be able to..." (which is so often followed by the expectation that you WILL that I don't consider it "asking" any more), with little or no other direction than a stuttering, mumbling explanation with not just jargon (often misused), but literally made-up portmanteaus to sound like he knows what he is talking about. Any attempts at asking for a written instruction leads to something worse than scrawl on the back of a beermat. Emails on tasks, following the "scrawl-on-beermat" style, are typically one-liners consisting of jargon ("Can you begin movement with the cross-compare on samples?" - no description of desired deliverables and format thereof, timescale, etc.) He comes in at 9am, maybe 10 (when most of the staff are contracted to begin work from 6am-8am) and often stays until 1am in the morning, after doing very little during the working day; I come in on mornings to several emails sent after everyone has left. Many of his requests are made in the half hour leading up to the end of the work day, so the tasks get pushed to the next day because there is no time (unless I stay behind). Also, these same tasks are usually required the next day, or worse, requires more time than has been allowed from being made aware of the task to the deadline (i.e. a 2 day task asked for the day before requirement, or requesting an order for samples that will take minimum 4 days to arrive before in-house modification which will take 3 days, for a presentation in 4 days). Finally, after one particularly dire meeting with a potential customer, where the customer picked holes in his jargon-filled pitch because they *had a degree and 10 years experience* in the field in question, leading to a lost sales opportunity, when asked if he thought he had done well in the meeting or if he could improve in any way, he said "No, the meeting went well: I don't think I need to improve". So, he tells people what they should do and, in very sensational cases, what they should expect to happen (with the inference that if it doesn't happen the way he wants, its wrong and you have to do the task again), has unbelievable time management leading to an eccentric work-life balance, and cannot give sufficient or concise direction for tasks. I wish he would read articles like this, and more importantly learn from them.


You don't have to tolerate this. Without knowing a lot more about the situation (is it likely the boss will get some help or be shown the door?) IMHO you have two choices; change the situation or leave. As it is you cannot be giving your company your best and the company is also failing you. If the company you work for is this ineffective at creating a culture with great leaders (or at least competent ones) you are doomed anyway. There are a lot of really great leaders. Find one and/or become one.


As a fond saying goes, "If the troubles at the top, then there's nothing you can do". The gentleman mentioned here is a director, so if his leadership behaviour can be enhanced by managing upwards to that level, then it suggests to me that the respondent would wasted in that firm and could assume a new career as a leadership coach. But taken as an individual stakeholder who needs to be managed and engaged among a pool of hopefully more competent and beneficial stakeholders may give some avenue of respite, but I suspect that he would have to yanked back somewhat by the other directors, and not everyone has the luxury of being able to adopt a range of sponsors for a project. I do agree with your point on great leaders, find one and/or become one. At the least this director should help you improve your outlook from a position of what not to strive for as a leader.

CareerCoach 3 Like

It's a fact of life that many places work late nearly every night. While this can be a great tactic to complete a defined outcome, it's a really bad strategy on a day to day basis. Unless you offer amazing compensation or benefits; team members will bolt at the first chance.

dougl 1 Like

Long periods of long hours can really wear you down. Once I was close to a team that had a large deliverable due by a set date. Management decided that long hours from everyone on the team would get them there with ease. I watched team morale and productivity drop off after several weeks of 60hr weeks. This was despite OT pay and a good base of benefits. Why? As the article stated, the people couldn't maintain themselves or the important relationships outside of work. They became tired, cranky, and just put in their time. They accomplished their goal, but at a price. The team suffered turnover of talented people as a result. Big lesson to be learned there.

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