The only three things you need to know about Leadership

When I was 23, I attended a 5 day course on Leadership and Management. Being fairly new to the world, I lapped the information up, taking notes fervently and hanging off every word the demi-God-like facilitators shared, usually accompanied by surprisingly neat flipchart writing. And I’m glad I did, because over the past few years I read numerous books, blogs, and articles on leadership; watched countless videos by great speakers given their views on the issue; and been on a few more training courses that promise to provide ‘new tools for your kit bag’. Every single one points back to the three main lessons I learnt during that glorious summer week in 20xx… 

Rule 1 – Know your people, Know your People, Know your People

The difference between managers and leaders is that Managers understand staff, and leaders understand people. For managers, process is king, being functional and efficient and knowing who your staff are, where they should be, and what they should be doing. Leaders understand their people: Why do they come to work? What motivates them? Are they a morning, afternoon, or evening person? What’s important to them in their life outside of work? Where are they heading in life? What do they want and need from you? If they won the lottery, what would they do? Where would they go?

Great leaders act with their team in mind. You may have had a busy weekend working and come 9am Monday morning are ready of offload all of your thoughts and plans, but everyone else may still be waking up, and not appreciate a full-on diatribe the second they walk into the office. They also understand how their team will react in different situations. A regular example is when a boss is heading off on a well-deserved holiday and proudly proclaims: ‘I’m away, but you know what I’m like, I’ll still be checking my BlackBerry!’ Do their employees think:

a) What a great boss! So dedicated to her job, there if we need her, and has really impressive time management skills to be able to do that and still relax with the family.

b) Doesn’t she trust me? Does she think that I can’t cope? That the world will stop if she’s away for a week? That makes me feel worthless.

Understanding your people as people, not staff, allows you to make more informed decisions which are tailored to the person, to frame your questions and requests in an effective way, and to ultimately get the best out of your team.

Rule 2 – Situational Leadership

So you’ve spent time getting to know your people, know your people, know your people… Now what? Ken Blanchard’s brilliant ‘Situational Leadership’ model has the answer.

A mistake a lot of would-be leaders make is to think their style works with everyone. Sometimes they get lucky and a large section of their team responds positively, being a perfect match for their way of working, However more often than not the team will have vast fluctuations in performance, with flashes of success and the odd outstanding performer, but in a largely dis-engaged and ineffective group.

Therefore, great leaders, having got to know their people, are able to adapt their style depending on the situation and person. When people approach a new task, they may be highly knowledgable, relatively confident, or doing it for the first time – and therefore respond to different leadership accordingly. Crucially, the same person may be highly competent in one task, but not at all in another, meaning that great leaders need to use different styles for the same people. The ability to seamlessly switch between these leadership styles is the difference between good managers and great leaders.

The below Ken Blanchard diagram explains this far better than I ever could:

Rule 3 – Team, Task, Individual

John Adair developed his Action Centred Leadership model while lecturing at Sandhurst Royal Military Academy and as assistant director and head of leadership department at The Industrial Society. Put simply, Adair demonstrates that great leaders spend their time evenly in three areas – focussing on achieving the Task in hand, the management of the Team, and the development of Individuals.
Most managers tend to focus wholly on the task because it’s more tangible, working through the correct process to achieve whatever needs to be achieved by the set deadline. However, often this is at the detriment to team morale and individual engagement, leading people to ‘work to rule’ and suppressing creativity.

By taking a ‘helicopter view’ and committing the time to develop a strong team spirit and understanding, it becomes far more likely that the task (and future tasks) will be achieved successfully – potentially even going beyond what was originally expected. And by getting to ‘know your people’, a good leader can make sure that the right people are focussing on the areas in which they’ll be most effective – whilst keeping them engaged and motivated, encouraging them to think more broadly, and driving themselves to achieve further success.

It’s a simple, but brilliant approach – and one that can turn an average collection of people into a great team, and an average manager into a great leader.


So there we have it, the only three things you need to know about leadership – and these can apply outside of the ‘business world’ too. I’d argue that great football team captains know their people, adapt their style for the person, and take a holistic view of the situation.

There is an argument that leadership can’t be taught, but I believe that true leaders are born knowing they need to learn more. Perhaps the only truly natural element is the ability to be inspiring, but then everyone finds inspiration in different places…

Visit and for more information on Situational Leadership and Action-centered leadership.

For more information on ‘Knowing your people’, put down your BlackBerry, move away from your email, and go have some conversations.


I really hope you enjoyed this article. If you did, I’d love you to subscribe to my blog at to get new thoughts sent to you on an infrequent basis, and find me on twitter @johnJsills.

12 Thoughts

  1. Near article: too often organisations get stuck in process. ‘The difference between managers and leaders is that Managers understand staff, and leaders understand people. For managers, process is king’, i like it…

    There is a gap between process and excellence [] and it needs great leaders to help bridge it.

    Your words about how leaders understand people resonate strongly with me, i tend to think that these days they also have to understand the changing dynamics of society, the new social contract between employer and employee that can no longer assume engagement. It’s a contract that has to suit both parties, and leaders need both generosity and humility to be effective in this space.

    Ref Situational Leadership – i agree that it has something to offer, but the real challenge is in training it effectively. Often it remains abstract: i think that social learning approaches (alongside social gaming approaches) can really help with embedding. I feel it’s less about the theory, more about developing your personal language around the styles. Agility in this context is a skill that has to be devleoped ‘at the coalface’, and our organisational ability to support this type of learning is key (effective peer to peer coaching, narrating of personal learning, communities of practice etc). There’s a long conversation there… 🙂

  2. Reminds me of the best lesson I learnt…… Don’t treat people how you would like to be treated, treat them how they would like to be treated.

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