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Small actions make great leaders

Small actions make great leaders


·June 23, 2022


I have my doubts about whether the conversation in the article ever happened, but I found it interesting that it fits almost perfectly into the model of effectively asking people to do things from Dialectical Behavior Therapy, an evidence-based therapy program.

The acronym is DEAR, which stands for Describe (the situation), Express (emotions), Ask, Reinforce (why should they do it). Really simple.

Describe: Gordon, I’m not a bit surprised that you thought the paper was rubbish. To be honest, I had the exact same feeling when I was writing it. I felt like I was rambling on and on.

Express: I’m always amazed when I read your papers because they’re so incredibly clear and lucid. That’s actually one of the reasons I wanted to work with you and why I was so excited when you offered me a position last fall. The results of our research could be extremely important, and I know that if the paper were well-written, it might make a tremendous impact.

Ask: The paper may be beyond repair, but I’m wondering if you might have any suggestions about how I could make it better.

Reinforce: I want to learn as much from you as I possibly can.

You can structure basically any "ask" this way, even a really brief one. I've found it really useful, especially when planning out in advance how I'm going to ask someone for something. Protip: A good DEAR can be 50-70% reinforce :-) In fact if I had made this hypothetical-paper-editing ask I would have moved the last sentence of the Express to the Reinforce to introduce the question earlier and backload the importance of the paper after asking for help improving it.


I think you also need to layer on that the described reality wasn't her own. It accepted the reality presented by her colleague with no sign of defensiveness.


The key aspect that allowed her to respond the way she did was humility. Humility - how is that taught? I can think of how I learned to be more humble and they all were hard trials not reproducible in the classroom; so far as I know anyway.


Humility has always come really easy to me. It's like a natural gift. I actually feel bad for people that seem to have more trouble with this.


Definitely agree with the article and thoughts. Little things also make the team feel valued and appreciated, quick thanks, short appreciation/feedback, etc. Feels good.

It's interesting having been on the side of being an employee with manager not acknowledging those things overtime it's wearing. But also tough for owner/manager to make sure to keep doing it too. Either way, a good reminder to keep the positivity flowing

Out of all these haterade comments, I don't see any having scaled a company or team. Don't read HBR if you don't want to improve as a leader, simple


Agreed. It feels like there's really a difference between leadership-as-a-buzzword or an self-bestowed empty title (in good faith, maybe what the comments are reacting to), versus true leadership that is so rare it can be experienced less than ten times in a person's career. Real leadership is something special, and feels like it's the kind of actions that were exemplified by the first story in the article.


I'll subscribe to HBR with that endorsement.


Yes, there is a disconnect with HBR articles and the real world. Just look at the leaders today. People like to attribute all the great qualities to leaders and call it leadership skills. But if you look at people at the top of the food chain, you will see a completely different picture. People can become top leaders while being selfish , brutal and emotionally unstable. Just look at people such as Donald Trump (was president, so definitely was a 'leader') , Xi Jin Ping, Putin etc. The list goes on and on. Ok, if you argue these people are not actually 'leading', they are not true 'leaders' , you're redefining words to make yourself feel good. These people are the actual leaders in the real world who have immerse influence in the world (positive or negative).




There are two types of "leaders". The ones you describe are authoritarians, who are basically self-centered psycopaths, using deception, power (unhesitatingly trashing or killing anyone who is inconvenient) and making everything transactional ("...but first I want a favor..."). Yes, this is "leadership" in the sense of seizing power and wielding it, but it is unsustainable and fundamentally uncivilized. Authoritarians are always present trying to steal power, but must also always watch their back, as everyone including their opportunistic co-conspirators will want to depose them. I do not call this real leadership.

Real leadership focuses around building on the intrinsic motivations of others, being more of an organizing force to help everyone achieve the goal. Maybe it is just wiser use of more the carrot than the stick, but a signal difference is how the real leader manages attention - does she or he guide all the attention to their teammates, or are they consistently taking credit for all accomplishments and focusing attention on themselves?

The focusing of attention of course creates a bias in that the authoritarians are self-centered and make themselves more visible, while real leaders turn the focus to teammates, so we are less aware of them, and of course the authoritarians exploit this bias. We all know of Jack Welsh who ruined GE and now even has a book about him pointing out how he ruined capitalism itself, but we know little of many unsung CEOs who quietly go about building great companies for their customers and employees.

A leader I worked with from the ranks of military leadership once pointed out to me that leadership, especially in the military is exactly the opposite of what we think. Yes, everyone can lead by giving out a lot of direct orders and punishment - and those 'leaders' fail inevitably and quickly, because they lose the trust and cooperation of everyone down their chain of command. So, when they give an order, the 1st officer just says "do what the chief says" instead of digging in and adding value (teaching, more detail on the commands, etc.), and generating that adding value all the way down the chain. The leader by edict & punishment gets mostly malicious compliance, and that unit degrades to failure. Real leaders, in contrast, lead by example and inspiration, with trust and getting everyone to add value down the chain. Another friend with mil experience similarly pointed out how good leaders almost never give direct orders, just suggestions. They do not want to give the direct order where if something goes unexpectedly then everyone is required to get into the mil justice system - it's better to leave leeway for improvements. I think it is also psychologically better to be implementing the chief's suggestion than following the orders.

Just a few bits of anecdata that I hope highlight the distinction...


Interesting to read about the military, thanks for writing

> authoritarians ... it is unsustainable

I'm afraid that with internet and camera surveillance, authoritarianism is getting more and more sustainable / stable?

Think about Xi, Erdagon, Putin etc -- there isn't really anyone who has a chance to challenge their power.

Was a close call just recently in the US, with Trump I'm afraid




I really enjoyed that!

I don’t really like getting hung up in “rank and privilege.” If I’m in a leadership position, it really means that I have the burden of Responsibility and Accountability for my decisions. The buck stops at me.

It’s always been important to me to cultivate relationships with my staff. It’s not just a command structure. They need to follow my orders, because they trust and respect me; just as I need to trust and respect my employees.

It’s much more about being human, than it is about being a “leader,” whatever that means.

I dunno. It worked for me. YMMV.


I think it's also due to the fact that if you are a leader in the right place, you have to deal with too many things anyway and the only way to survive is to delegate as much as possible. In order to delegate you need to treat people with trust.


You have the burden of responsibility, because you take it. Many people in charge don't and will gladly blame others as much as they can, yet get away with it because some management don't wish for integrity, but need a watchdog.


the best leaders i have so far worked for reminded me of a transistor: they could, with little but critically positioned decisions, influence the flow of effort much larger than themselves.


This is a brilliant way of framing it; I couldn’t agree more.


I love this metaphor.




this reads like linkedin fiction, it's the worst piece of rubbish ever. the author over analyzes an normal exchange of constructive feedback and makes Julie out to be a cunning manipulator then lauds it as a leadership achievement.


Articles in HBR are often best described as corporate fanfiction written by recently-graduated MBAs.

See also: 99% of business writing though. HBR might actually be on the better end of a really vapid genre spectrum.


You're right. It was total garbage. Your post actually describes the situation much more concisely and effectively. It really reframes the parable described on a way that makes it accessible to every person, whether they consider themselves a leader or not. Thank you for your contribution to discourse on this forum.


Made my day, thank you :D


Glad someone said it.

There are many ways to respond to someone who calls your paper rubbish. In this case, the recipient of the feedback agreed it was rubbish. They could have fired back a witty comment, a joke, or sarcasm, which may have broken the ice and caused the exact same outcome. There is no winning formula in those interactions which reflects "good leadership".

It's tiring hearing about all these strategies people use on each other in order to "win" some prize. In my book, anyone who uses pre-cooked tactics when talking to my face, is not leadership material.


I disagree strongly. Most people, if they're told their work is "rubbish", or trash, or garbage, or just bad, will react defensively and attempt to justify themselves and validate their work. "I was under time pressure", "It's not that bad", or "What do you know?" would be likely responses. A witty comment, sarcasm, or a joke are still deflections, and wouldn't cause the same outcome, because all of these responses persist the narrative of "me vs. you". The response here, acknowledging that the criticism is valid even though it wasn't diplomatic, is the key to achieving a good outcome. It reframes the discussion from antagonistic to cooperative.

It's also not a precooked tactic. One of the points of the article is that this kind of reaction isn't really teachable or learnable - some people have it and most people don't. The article strives to find the heart of the interaction and others like it to find ways to make it learnable, but it acknowledges that it doesn't achieve that.

It's weird that you're agreeing the article is bad when it's making the same fundamental point you are - good leadership isn't about canned approaches and there are no winning formulas, and someone's background has little bearing on their true leadership abilities.


> "there are no winning formulas"

Except the one they list: "Julie used five actions... Disarm; Appreciate; Fuse opposites; Appeal to values; Develop a growth partnership."

The article is not making the same point I did. It prompted discussion, which probably means there's nothing wrong with the article other than I disagree with its theories.

"Good leadership" is endlessly debatable. On one hand, a good leader might say "I love the smell of napalm in the morning". A different leader might expresses remorse and healing/strength for the troops who are witnessing the same event.

Like many around here, I've seen and participated in enough interactions in the workplace to have a good gut for what works, what is a waste of time, what is counterproductive. A leader who always smiles and even delivers bad news with a smile, for example, I would say is not a good leader. But someone else might argue the opposite, and insist that remaining positive is some kind of magic key.

I actually like the "rubbish" comment by the co-author. Cutting through the bullshit is a skill. We've been told the remark was because the man was "temperamental". That's hearsay. Perhaps the "it's rubbish" comment was ultimately more responsible for the good outcome than the 5-point action reply. We have no insight into the specific working relationship between these individuals to make conclusions.


> It reframes the discussion from antagonistic to cooperative

Well written,

Maybe a similar way of saying that, could be: finding the useful things in what someone said, and ignoring any rude undertones

At the same time, if one constantly needs to reframe antagonism, how long will it take until one starts looking for another workplace? Let's hope it was a one time thing


It’s HBR, what do you expect?


I agree with this, especially the part about working to build inner authenticity first. An abrupt remark isn't relevant to the success you may need help to produce. Being a jerk also isn't acceptable, though. There may have been a better followup story where the guy recognized he was being unconstructively critical. Maybe it got cut.

If your mind understood this story, the same narrative style is used in the classic book, "How to Win Friends and Influence People" by Dale Carnegie.


The whole point of the story is how irrelevant the abrupt remark was in the broader context of the higher purpose they were both trying to achieve. Why did he react that way? Maybe he is a jerk. Maybe he had a bad day. Maybe he was frustrated because the paper was truly terrible.

We don't know, and it doesn't matter. What matters is the end product accomplished the higher goal that they both wanted.


HBR has constantly produced mediocre content on leadership. The last good bits were when Clayton Christensen was alive.

Maybe just me but between these articles, the audiobooks, and the YouTube videos, HBR has really lost me as a regular reader.


Would you mind including more details about why this comment applies to this particular piece? I feel like a comment like this shows up every time an HBR article lands, and I rarely see the criticism fleshed out to be meaningful in any way.

Sometimes commenters seem to only have read the headline. With HBR, it seems like some people only read the URL.


I have read many HBR articles & purchase-able HBR content on leadership over the last 10 years. Every once and awhile you’ll come across an author who has especially gone down the path of exaggerating leadership tendencies.

This article reads like a conversation that was largely made up.

The examples of leaders not being “good students” is far fetched and very exaggerated given 27 years in prison can change any man or walking many miles to loan a book to study by candle light might just be a better teacher of leadership than any formal means.

It then talks about energy and action with some random definitions and framework. These can be summed up as character traits than some fancy words like disarm or fuse opposites.

Like imagine a leader out on the battlefield or in congress using this framework:

> Every action starts as an inner action — directing your intentions, feelings and thoughts to activate the right energy within. You can then engage in the outer action of using the right facial expression, tone, and words in your dealings with others.

It feels like a robot leader who has to go through a series of if statements to produce the right action. It’s just dumb to even think about.

Finally it summarizes saying

> This “small steps, big leaps” approach may in fact be how Gandhi, Lincoln, Mother Teresa, Mandela and others went from being ordinary people to extraordinary leaders.

After using these characters as counter examples having no training, it tries to tell the reader they used this framework all along? Bullshit.

I just see these same articles over and over again on here and they have little to no actual substance to them. I’ve since moved on.


Yeah, comments underneath this are similar.

Doesn't make sense, it's a fairly short article that starts with a story and how to resolve it, adding some explanation as well. Very good formula.



There are many ways to resolve situations. In this one, both parties apparently agreed the paper was "rubbish". The problem that needed resolving was the paper, not the interaction.

And since they were co-authoring said paper, why on Earth would the "rubbish" man not want to help? She could have simply said "can you please help fix the paper, you are a co-author after all?". And he most likely would have helped.

There is no connection to leadership from her actions that I can see. Only the one an article wishes to make up.


Some manager is trying to juke the stats for their next career step. They choose quantity over quality, numbers bigger, line goes up... Promotion! The after effects (decline) are the next fools problem


I think this article came to me just when I needed it. I've been struggling whether to frame the services I offer as emotional conflict resolution, communication, or leadership, and after reading this article, I feel a lot more at peace that these skills may swirl together. I agree with the author that I've found it hard to distinguish which skills are being employed, because many are in such short interactions.

I also feel a lot more confident in that the person in the story seemed to mostly be saying how she was feeling and how she imagined the other person was feeling—which is the core of the work I do.

I feel a lot more hopeful and excited that no matter what I call the services, they may help people, and I wouldn't have found this article at this time were it not for HN. So, thank you, HN friends.


A lot of this resonates with the idea of surface acting vs deep acting (see relevant section here:


I think there's some wisdom in this, but am annoyed that the article was basically one giant shill for the author's consulting company.


Great leaders excel at picking the right people for the job at hand, giving them a clear objective to accomplish with matching incentives, and otherwise stay the hell out of the way.


I'd make the distinction that you're describing great managers, not great leaders.