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!


By John McKee

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...