Great Leadership – simple to define…really hard to do


Most leaders I speak to these days appreciate that “Just do it, because I’m the boss” doesn’t work very well. In a knowledge economy and service businesses where smart people have the option to leave, JFDI is either dead or dying.

Leaders I usually work with find a more collaborative approach quite natural. However I’m also very fond of those who are honest enough to confess they’d prefer to be completely in control of absolutely everything…but are learning to live with it! 

But what do you do when you do when the chips are down? When you need to influence others to “do it your way”, maybe because a tough, unpopular action is needed for a business to survive or thrive? 

Well, the short answer is…It’s’s not quick or easy. And I guess that is obvious – otherwise everyone would be doing it!

Science and research have some answers. But a straw poll around the kitchen table with your family or in the bar with your friends will probably tell you the same thing. 

If you ask: “If someone asked you to do something that might physically harm you or you were really frightened of, how would they need to make you feel in order for you to even consider trying it?” 

I have found that 99 times out of 100 (once you have debated “How risky?” “Is it life or death?” “But would you do it for a million pounds?” etc) that the same 2 things come up:

“I’d have to really trust them and their motives for asking me to do it,”  

“They’d need to convince me they knew what they were doing and would stay strong and calm, even if I was panicking or things went wrong”

People are people (not a quote from science but still wise words!). So if trust and convincing people you would stay strong matters where risks are personal and make your palms sweat, why should it be any different at work? 

As humans we are wired to avoid things we would rather not do and will go to great lengths to convince ourselves we don’t need to (see the blog on habits for more about why) So in order to stand even a fighting chance of landing an unpopular decision or unwelcome change, people need to trust you on 2 levels:

1) Trust you as a person – do they believe you have good intentions towards them?

2) Trust in your competence – do they believe you are strong enough to act on those intentions?

Science and research suggests that great leaders who get the brilliant results in the fastest time get a “Yes” to both questions. Really quickly. And they are successful because they then have more time to spend on the business of getting more things done. 

Researchers think that the key to this is that some of our human wiring is really old – paleolithic – so c.2-3 million years old. But that this wiring still functioning and powerfullly influences our thinking. 

For our cave dwelling ancestors, choosing the right person to be led by, might have been a matter of life and death. Quite literally. Their survival would have depended on being able to choose quickly the person who was most capable of physically protecting or providing for them. 

Those who choose well, lived and got to pass on their genes. Those who didn’t, died and didn’t get to pass on their genes. So most of us alive today have those genes and this evolved behaviour. 

So even though we don’t live in caves and are making these decisions in a high tech office or over a networking coffee, we are still beholden to that old wiring. 

And even if we are 45 and highly experienced, it is probably unrealistic to assume that 45 years of even the most impressive professional success can over-write habits that were 3 million years old in the making. 

Most of the time we make decisions about who to trust in a split second – because it’s old wiring that controls that decision. And back in the day, any procrastination meant we got eaten. 

BBC’s Horizon had a fab programme where neurologists showed how even the authenticity of our laugh affects who we trust in that split second. Our brain can sense a fake laugh. And it makes the part of the brain light up which triggers a reaction of “Don’t trust them- hide/run!”. A genuine laugh fires up the part of the brain which triggers “Oh, I’d like to be part of their group”. 

We can’t fake what we feel. And it is instant and instinctive. We want to think we make rational choices based on weighing up logical arguments, but really our subconscious brain has already chosen who we want to follow and is now looking to prove itself right about that choice to trust or not trust someone. The decision has already been made. You just don’t realise it yet.

Imagine the time saved if you could get an instant “Yes” to both the “Trust:Intent?” and “Trust:Capability?” tests? 

But this equally explains why someone who has been promoted because they are really competent can struggle to get a team aligned behind them? Or why you have a really well intentioned leader who can’t seem to stretch performance? 

It’s because you need both things to lead well. You can’t lead to your potential if you pass one test but not the other.

So when people don’t do things to your standard when you are are not there to “supervise” or can’t seem to make decisions without you being there to help, you may have to face an uncomfortable truth. Maybe their subconscious gave you a big red Britain’s Got Talent “X”  to one of those fundamental Trust Intent/Trust Capability” questions…

And because this all goes on at a subconscious level you probably didn’t notice what you did or didn’t do to get the “X”

And whilst you might get feedback around the edges, your team would probably never tell you straight. 

Imagine feeding back to someone more senior than you (who you did not trust!) that your gut instinct is not to trust either their personal intentions or their competence!…Mmm maybe not! But I bet you’ve never had that feedback either!

The news gets worse before it gets better…

Back to the research. Different experts describe these 2 key traits or dichotomies of “good intentions” and “strong capability” using different terms, but all broadly find the same thing.


Stanford psychologist Deborah Gruenfeld describes the 2 traits as Approachability AND Authority – “I will move towards you because I trust your intentions and I’m happy for you to be in authority because you know what you are doing and will be strong enough to do it”. 

Harvard’s Amy Cuddy talks about the dichotomies as “Warmth” AND “Strength”. “I warm to you because I trust your intentions”, I will follow you because you are strong and have the capability to protect me when things get tough”. 

Others who have translated this into practical advice describe “Support” AND “Challenge”. So “You support me so I trust your intentions and I expect challenge from you because it reinforces you are strong and knowledgeable”

In principle this all makes sense and separate research aligns. But this is really hard to get right in practise. This is quite simply because those 2 things are really hard to do at the same time. Hence my intentional use of capitals. In fact, let me re-phrase:

Our body and mind find it almost impossible to do both of these things at once.

Deborah Gruenfeld gives the example that that to be authoritative, you need to project your experience and your knowledge as being greater than that of your team. To some extent this leads to distancing yourself from them. Then to be approachable, you need to get closer to them and demonstrate genuine warmth and empathy – really valuing your relationships with people and hearing their perspective – even though you may know more. Difficult to do.

Amy Cuddy and the Harvard team point out too that there is a hormonal thing going on too – feeling “warm/supporting people” generally means we are secreting a hormone called oxytocin. And feeling “strong/being challenging” generally means we are secreting testosterone. 

The bad news biologically is that these 2 hormones are not very good at co-existing in the body – Some evidence suggests that releasing oxytocin cancels out some of the testosterone – and vice versa. So in effect the existence of one may neutralise the power of the other! 

So not only is it hard to be both warm and strong in practical terms, it would appear our bodies might have a biological issue with it as well! It’s a bit like being on a see saw. When one is high, the other is probably low. You can be “OK” at doing both together, but it feels impossible to have both ends of the see-saw on the up at the same time.

Leading people in tough times and getting them to do things they don’t want to do is not fast, easy and may not feel  “natural” because:

1) Being a good leader is really hard because it requires you to do 2 different and potentially contradictory things at once

2) It is not likely that you can expect yourself or other people to “get over themselves” or  “grow up” and get over these needs being met because, the needs are based on inbuilt wiring that is millions of years old 

So what can you do. That’s a long answer. It’s possible but you will probably have to do some things intentionally that don’t come easily. 

A short easy way to start though is to take a “first things first” approach. Researchers think that the 2 dichotomies have a pecking order. Trusting the person has to happen first. Simply, if people don’t warm to you, they probably will look for reasons not to find you capable. 

Saying you just don’t trust someone isn’t quite hard to justify and to define. But saying you have concerns about their experience or skills seems a more logical reason to question their decisions and not to do what they ask. 

If you don’t gain genuine trust, you don’t pass GO. Work on other people trusting you personally and your intentions towards them FIRST. 

So before you start planning your big speech where you want to be impressive and establishing your credentials, think more simply about how your team could warm to you? Are you “real” and authentic in your dealings with them? Are you “likeable”?  

Maybe you are reading this and thinking about someone you want to help to become more effective? And as you start to explain that the “soft” stuff of trust and likeability is not “soft” at all – it is the stuff of caveman survival, you can almost hear the response of “I’m not here to be liked, I’m here to be respected?”.

Perhaps quietly point them to the study done at Harvard where people were asked to rate their previous leaders across 2 scales – whether they liked them and whether they thought they were effective leaders. The study created a database of almost 52 thousand leaders. Of those 52,000, only 27 who were “disliked” were also rated as “effective”. By my maths that means only 0.05% of the people who were not liked, managed to convince people they were good at their job. 

I’m not sure people proclaiming they are “not here to be liked” and “don’t have time for that soft stuff” would actually want those kind of hard odds? Particularly when we all know that “what do you think of such and such?”comes up daily at the coffee machine or over lunch. And can make or breaks careers, progression and reputations, regardless of HR talent processes.

People who are “not there to be liked” may well not feel the need to take action if someone answers with “I don’t like them that much”. But they probably would care very much if they knew there was a clear correlation with people also saying “I actually don’t think they are very good at their job. 

This correlation comes down to the same desire for “evidence” – if we don’t like or trust someone and it is intuitive, that feels a bit wishy-washy so we will look for “evidence” that we are “right” to have that view. And surprise, surprise, we can find evidence for what we believe to be true.

You might find your personality lends you to either strength or warmth more easily than the other. That’s OK and very normal in my experience. But it’s what you do with that knowledge that counts. A later blog will deal with “tactics” to help you be more challenging or more supportive – quickly and whilst still being “you”.

But for now. Ask yourself what your intentions are towards your people? Do you genuinely care if they are happy at work? Do you really want them to be promoted and maybe take their skills with them? Would you protect them if they tried and failed? 

Would you trust you? 

Do you like the “You” that you brought to work today?  

If the answer is “No” or even “I’m not sure”, your team can probably sense it a mile off. 

And if they have sensed it, their brain will not be able to help looking for evidence that it makes perfect sense to question or delay what you have asked them do. 

It will feel absolutely the right decision to spend time covering themselves, rather than taking a leap of faith and getting on with it.

So for now, put on a genuine smile. Put your phone down. Go walk around. Spot what makes your team’s eyes light up. Find ways to like them as people. Sure, it’s time away from your massive “to do” list. But it might unlock more performance and potential than you can imagine. 

We have a “tea break” training session on high trust:high challenge that gets great feedback. If you think it could help you, give me a shout at