Click here for mentoring and coaching.Your Leadership Checklist

Even outstanding leaders struggle through career stretches during which they feel off track. It can be hard to spot the specific problem when you’re in the middle of it. But successful leaders develop techniques for recognizing their vulnerabilities and making rapid adjustments.

Seven Leadership Checkpoints

Leaders should regularly ask themselves questions that target seven areas, according to Robert S. Kaplan, in a Harvard Business Review article:

1. Vision and Priorities, 2. Managing Time, 3. Feedback, 4. Succession Planning, 5. Evaluation and Alignment, 6. Leading Under Pressure, 7. Staying True to Yourself

Coming up with good answers is far less important than taking the time to ask yourself hard questions and honestly examine your strengths and weaknesses.

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1. Vision and Priorities

Many business leaders fail to ask themselves two important questions:

How frequently do I communicate a vision and the priorities for my business?

Would my employees, if asked, be able to articulate the vision and priorities?

It is difficult to lead people if they lack a firm grasp of where they’re heading and what’s expected of them. Unfortunately, many leaders neglect to explain their vision in an easily understood manner.

Employees want to know where a business is heading and the areas on which they need to focus. Many managers either unintentionally under-communicate or fail to articulate specific priorities that would give meaning to their vision.

Ask yourself:

How often do I communicate a vision for my business?

Have I identified and communicated three to five key priorities for achieving this vision?

If asked, could my employees articulate my vision and priorities?

2. Managing Time

How do you spend your time?

Your answer plays a major role in the execution of your vision and priorities. Time is your most precious asset.

Sadly, many leaders cannot accurately answer this question. It’s vital for them to track their time so they can gain a realistic, honest assessment of how their time is allocated. You may be surprised to find a disconnect between your top priorities and how you actually spend your time.

Ask yourself:

How am I spending my time? Does this match my key priorities?

How are my subordinates spending their time? Does this match my business’ key priorities?

Coaching Tip

3. Feedback

Many managers are afraid that criticism will demoralize employees, discussions will become confrontational, or frank conversations will result in their not being liked. This prompts many to postpone giving feedback until it’s time for annual performance reviews.

This is a big mistake. People are more receptive to learning about themselves when feedback is offered throughout the year, as situations arise.

It is much more challenging to get honest feedback from subordinates. You must cultivate a network of junior professionals who are willing to be direct with you. Equally important is what you do with the feedback. If you act on what others tell you, you will improve your own performance, boost trust and keep the feedback loop open.

Ask yourself:

Do I give people timely and direct feedback to act upon?

Do I have five or six junior subordinates who will tell me things I may not want to hear—but need to hear?

4. Succession Planning

If you aren’t identifying potential successors and developing their leadership abilities, then you are contributing to business and personal stagnation.

When challenging and testing people, you must frequently delegate more to them. This frees you to focus on critical strategic matters facing the business. Failure to actively plan for succession means you do not delegate sufficiently and become a decision-making bottleneck.

Ask yourself:

Have I, at least in my own mind, picked one or more potential successors?

Am I coaching them and giving them challenging assignments?

Am I delegating sufficiently?

Have I become a decision-making bottleneck?

5. Evaluation and Alignment

Your business is constantly changing. So are your customers. Depending on your industry, this may be rapid—or extremely rapid. If you don’t change along with the business environment, you may become seriously out of alignment. What got you here today won’t necessarily get you there tomorrow.

Have you checked to see if the design of your organization still aligns with key success factors for your business? Effective executives regularly seek advice and fresh perspectives from people who are less emotionally invested in their business.

Ask yourself:

Does the design of my company still align with key success factors?

If I had to design my business from scratch, how would I create it? How would it differ from the current design?

Should I create a task force to answer these questions and make recommendations?

6. Leading Under Pressure

A leader’s actions during stressful times have a profound impact on the firm’s culture and employees’ behaviors. Successful leaders must be aware of their personal stress triggers and reactions.

Pressure is a normal part of doing business, but it affects people differently. What may evoke anxiety for one individual may not bother
someone else. As a leader, you are watched closely. Emotions are contagious—even more so when they come from the leader.

Ask yourself:

Which events create pressure for me?

How do I behave under pressure?

What signals do I send to subordinates?

Are these signals helpful, or do they undermine the success of my business?

7. Staying True to Yourself

Successful executives develop leadership styles that fit their business needs, as well as their personal beliefs and personality. While many leaders ask themselves about the former, few analyze the latter.

Companies require leaders who can express strongly held views, rather than mimic the party line. Don’t tiptoe around significant issues or foster an atmosphere that encourages employees to do so.

Ask yourself:

Is my
leadership style comfortable? Does it reflect who I truly am?

Do I assert myself sufficiently, or have I become tentative?

Am I too politically correct?

Does anxiety about my next promotion or bonus cause me to hesitate when I want to express my views?

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Does Executive Leadership Education Work?

Although the executive education debate still rages on whether leadership is learned or innate, there is no doubt that the subject is being taught.

In October 2003, BusinessWeek reported that 134 companies from 20 nations spent $210 million to enroll 21,000 employees in executive leadership programs. Since leadership development is not an event, that's a significant investment in classroom activities that may or may not produce company leaders or even better managers.

Beginning in October 2005, the University of Michigan Executive Education Program (rated third in open enrollment behind Harvard and Pennsylvania's Wharton programs) is offering a 3-day "Becoming an Exceptional Coach" for $4,350. Compare that classroom training with six-months of weekly personal executive coaching for only $7,200 to create a positive leadership mindset and a positive work environment.

A survey of 3,000 leaders and associates in 117 organizations reports that 63% plan to increase spending on leadership development programs that 75% of HR executives surveyed don't give a high quality rating to.

The paradox of spending more on what's not working is due to leadership development being seen as a classroom event. Yet, you don't fix people by sending them off to training. Managers need ongoing coaching to get in the habit of being good leaders.

The survey reported that two-thirds of the respondents said leaders at their company exhibited at least one potentially fatal flaw or "derailer"--a personality attribute that interferes with leadership effectiveness. Derailers are more personality-oriented than skill-based and are more difficult to change than teaching someone a new skill.

For all the money spent on them, we still don't know if leadership programs work.

Bottom Line: Leadership development is self-development. Learning how to not micromanage, not be overly concrete, not fail to explicitly state expectations and other unproductive interpersonal behavior only happens through the increased self-awareness gained in a personal coaching or mentoring relationship.

“The crux of leadership development that works is self-directed learning: intentionally developing or strengthening an aspect of who you are or who you want to be, or both.” Primal Leadership by Daniel Goleman, Richard Boyatzis & Annie McKee (Harvard Business School Press)

Sources: Leadership Paradox by Warren Bennis in October 1, 2004, CIO/Insight and Assessment of the state of corporate leadership by Bridgeville, PA-based Development Dimensions International

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