The Alchemy of Leading

Here in the Wasatch mountains, 2020 arrived with fresh snowfall and the promise of more powder to come in the first few days of the new year. For those who traveled here for the Christmas and New Year holiday in hopes of an idyllic winter vacation with heaps of snow and cozy evenings around the fireplace, their wish came true. For me, the holidays have been a delightful mix of spending time with friends and family, reviving a tradition of skiing on Christmas morning, and with the arrival of the New Year a healthy dose of reflection—not just of the past year, but of the past few decades.

There is a temptation at the turn of a new year, and especially a new decade, to turn reflections into broad observations about past trends and grand predictions for the future. For me, 2020 marks 30 years of practicing, studying, and thinking deeply about leadership. Across those years, I’ve been fortunate to serve in leadership roles within eight organizations ranging from multinational companies to startups. Many roles spanned the globe, adding richness and texture to my experiences that were both exhilarating and humbling. Along the way, I honed my skills and understanding, working with amazing people at the Center for Creative Leadership, Harvard Business School, and The Aspen Institute, and then later earning a doctorate in leadership.

More than ever, organizations depend on teams to deliver growth, innovation, and competitive advantage.

I recount the above to make the point that, as experiences accumulate, the temptation to expound upon them grows. I started composing this article as a year-end retrospective and prediction about leadership trends in the new decade, then paused. I have a strong bias to give people insights that will be useful in their day-to-day work. So instead, I offer what I’ve found to be highly effective practices, a sort of alchemy for leaders that helps identify and transform people into exceptional team leaders. I elaborate on them below in the hopes that, whether you are responsible for the success of new leaders or an aspiring leader yourself, these insights will help make the journey more productive and fulfilling.

Recognize People’s Habits

Last week at one of my favorite local cafés, I noticed there was a new barista/server, Jenny. I know from past conversations with the staff that, like many small businesses, there isn’t a formal training process. That can make the learning curve frustrating and stressful for a new team member and hurt the quality of service. It didn’t take long to see why this café is so popular. At every turn, the people with more experience seamlessly and organically took responsibility for supporting Jenny. One staff member, Jenna, was especially conscious of helping Jenny do her best.

As the café was getting ready to close, I asked Jenny about her experience being new. Without hesitation, she said, “I love working here! Everyone takes time to help me.” What Jenna and her peers did was shared leadership in its purest form. They’ve made “helping others be successful” into a habit. If you look carefully, you can see that same behavior in many places. From children working on a school project to adults in the workplace, some people have developed the habit of helping others do their best and be their best in pursuit of a common goal.

Before you consider someone as a top candidate for a people-manager role, ask yourself if you have seen that person consistently behaving like a leader, paying particular attention to selflessness, and helping others do their best.

Then, ask other managers if they’ve seen or heard the same. When it comes time to fill a role, make sure that people who make a habit of helping others be successful are on your list of candidates. As a bonus, you’ll prevent future headaches by eliminating from consideration people who are seen as ‘high-potential’ through self-promotion or who position themselves for advancement at the expense of others.

Focus on Relationships

Today’s emerging leaders need and want coaches, not bosses who command the troops.

A few years ago, I helped set up a new go-to-market organization within a large tech company. Soon after the roll-out, people on one of the country sales teams began to complain about the responsiveness and support from both the country service people and people at the regional headquarters. The new division manager’s initial response was to increase the number of meetings, clarify roles, and implement several new processes. While there was some improvement in communications, the criticisms intensified to the point of being unhealthy. When we dug deep for the root cause, it became apparent that a newly appointed team leader in the country was the source. His toxic behavior infected his people and metastasized into other teams, causing a rapid deterioration of trust among the people. Performance suffered, and turnover increased. Once he was reassigned and returned to an individual contributor role, the criticisms and bullying stopped. Rebuilding trust was challenging, but with the poison neutralized, there was a significant improvement in people’s relationships and performance.

More than ever, organizations depend on teams to deliver growth, innovation, and competitive advantage. Yet, when results fall short of expectations, the conversation and actions often focus on adding processes and controls, versus looking at the relationship dynamics.

Healthy, trusting relationships are a common denominator among every extraordinary team. Place a high priority on leaders developing the ability to see and address toxic behaviors early and using those insights as coaching opportunities. That skill is essential when building and sustaining the trust that increases engagement, reduces risk, and inspires peak performance.


Dr. Jeb S. Hurley
Dr. Jeb S. Hurley
Dr. Jeb Hurley is an accomplished executive and entrepreneur who is a leading expert on team dynamics and high-performance leadership. Jeb guides leaders in understanding and influencing human behavior to deliver better results and greater wellbeing. He is co-founder and CEO of Xmetryx, Inc., the creator of TrustMetryx software, and Co-founder and Managing Partner of Brainware Partners, a team dynamics consultancy. Jeb is a two-time author and holds a Doctorate in Organizational Leadership.

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  1. Very well structured, educational article that reflects the current trend.
    There is no doubt that a true leader, especially when it comes to team leaders, cares about “his own people”, knows them deeply, is present, helps them grow. The best team leaders focus on people’s strengths. They want to (really) help others succeed. They have patience, understanding and take advantage of every opportunity to help their team grow and develop. Even when they are wrong, they know that it takes time, other attempts and other errors to improve. Not only does it give stability and confidence, but it also offers the motivation that allows people to face the most demanding situations and look to the future with optimism and conviction. Showing hope is crucial.
    When it comes to coaching, however, it should be stressed that a leader can carry out this fundamental function if he has the necessary skills and is committed to discussing how to achieve a goal, provide constant feedback, offer support, do field training.
    In fact, coaching is effective only when expectations are communicated transparently and the manager is able to remove the worries, doubts and anxieties that limit the performance of collaborators and lead to poor results. To facilitate the achievement of the agreed objectives, there is also the ability of people to take responsibility and that of the manager to delegate, trust them and at the same time give a daily example of the values, vision and corporate mission, through their actions.