As an international leadership coach, I am familiar with hundreds of leadership models and know there are many ways to define “leadership.” A Google search for the word yields hundreds of millions of results. Missives have been spoken and written on the topic by the likes of Mahatma Gandhi, Abraham Lincoln, Winston Churchill, and Ernest Shackleton. Peter Drucker, Ken Blanchard, Jim Collins, and Peter Senge (and many, many others) have all conducted extensive research on what makes an effective leader. New leadership gurus, it seems, are crowned every day.
That doesn’t mean, however, that there are no universal principles. In 1993, the cultural anthropologist Dr. Angeles Arrien developed a new leadership model that provides clear guidelines for effective behavior across cultures and circumstances. Her theories are outlined in her book The Four-Fold Way: Walking the Paths of the Warrior, Teacher, Healer, and Visionary. For her research, Arrien lived among indigenous peoples and studied how change-agents drew their power and wisdom. She found that no matter what their culture—peace-loving or warlike, matriarchal or patriarchal, agrarian or nomadic—all effective leaders followed the same four principles:
- Show up and choose to be present
- Pay attention to what has heart and meaning
- Tell the truth without blame or judgment
- Be open to outcomes, not attached to them
These four principles have guided my own leadership and coaching style for more than 20 years. They provide an effective foundation for those who wish to build personal authority, be more effective with groups, and increase their followership—and they have astonishing staying power. Most effective leaders find little inspiration in competency models that focus on helping leaders overcome their own weaknesses. Even strength-based models tend to offer leaders a laundry list of behaviors that are overwhelming and hard to prioritize. This model, in contrast, works regardless of language, corporate culture, or cultural background. It offers straightforward, simple principles that are easy to remember.
Show Up and Choose to be Present
Arrien argues that choosing to be present is a way of extending respect. The word respect comes from the Latin word respicere, which means “the willingness to look again.” By being present, a leader agrees to take a new look rather than staying stuck in one view. In this way, a leader listens with the intent of being influenced rather than listening as a way to gather data to build an argument. This requires the discipline of detachment and flexibility to turn away from distraction and pay attention to what matters.
The concept of choice in this first requirement is an important distinction. Even in the face of innumerable external distractions, a leader can always choose to be present and pay attention. To assess yourself as a leader on this fundamental practice, consider the following questions:
- Do I choose to stop what I am doing to simply be present?
- Do I consciously turn away from my myriad distractions?
- Do I show respect through my willingness to take another look?
On hard days, if there’s just one thing leaders can do to shift their energy, it should be to choose to be present.
Pay Attention to What Has Heart and Meaning
Good managers pay attention to their people. They take the time to notice and reinforce when things are going well and acknowledge when things are hard. Check in with a simple “How are you doing?” and then listen carefully to the answer. This isn’t hard to do and it doesn’t take much time, but such attention is invaluable. Paying attention to “what has heart and meaning” means first understanding our own personal conviction and then listening for and understanding the same thing in others. In her book, Arrien says:
“Where we are not strong-hearted is where we lack the courage to be authentic or to say what is true for us. Strong-heartedness is where we have the courage to be all of who we are in life. The word ‘courage’ is derived from the French word for the heart, coeur, and etymologically it means ‘the ability to stand by one’s heart or to stand by one’s core.’”
For a leader, the questions this prompts are many:
- Do I know what is true for me? Do I know what is true for the person I am talking to?
- What am I willing to stand by? What are others willing to stand by?
- Am I paying attention to what has meaning that is not being said?
- Am I saying all that needs to be said at any given moment?
Listening with the heart is a subtle action, but one that creates a strong foundation for a really healthy working relationship.
Tell the Truth Without Blame or Judgment
Telling the truth seems easy enough—until, of course, it isn’t. Being fully honest means being open to judgment, and considerate of the circumstance. Being honest does not mean telling the truth at all costs. The outcome must be worth it. Arrien says:
“Communication that carries integrity always considers timing and context before the delivery of content. . . . Direct communication—giving voice to what we see without blame or judgment—means we must consider the alignment of appropriate word choice, tone of voice, and body posture.”
An effective leader must be direct in stating the truth, practicing detachment, objectivity, and use of a neutral voice (one that doesn’t carry emotional weight) in order to effectively “tell it like it is.” Some leaders, especially humble ones, can be a little skittish about designating themselves as the one with enough information, intelligence, and authority to tell the absolute truth. Often telling several different possible truths at any given moment can work better—unless the truth is staring you in the face and there is no equivocating, which is rare.
Leaders may ask themselves:
- Have all angles been considered?
- Am I saying everything that needs to be said?
- If not, what is keeping me from doing it?
- How can I do so appropriately?
One aspect of telling the truth without blame or judgment requires a level of authenticity which in turn requires that leaders reveal themselves. But the degree they do so will depend on the surrounding culture. Some say such openness should be very calculated and measured. Others say that it is easier to build trust when leaders “let it all hang out.” Each leader will have to experiment and decide for themselves, but in doing so, there are again some universal principles.
First, leaders must reveal enough of themselves to be relatable to those they lead. They must be willing to express vulnerability, sadness, or joy as is appropriate to the situation. Leaders can and should show emotion—both positive and negative—but they must also exhibit an observable demonstration of self-control. Secondly, a leader should never publically show contempt or derision for a follower. This rule holds true across cultures: a leader may give positive feedback and praise in front of others or privately, depending upon the situation and the individual, but should always give negative feedback, criticism, or correction in private. Finally leaders are called upon to pay attention and respond to a massive amount of incoming information, so it makes the most sense to choose to respond to what has heart and meaning—to explore and expand on ideas that will make the most emotional impact
Be Open to Outcomes, Not Attached to Them
In American football, sometimes the quarterback calls an audible. He goes up to the line of scrimmage, sees the other team in a position he wasn’t expecting, and then adjusts by unexpectedly calling a new play. In business, a leader has to be willing to do the same thing, deciding on a shift in strategy at the last possible second after seeing all options and obstacles arise.
Leaders often emphasize the importance of setting up accountability and support, then applying fierce discipline to achieve the ends in mind. We set “SMART” goals that are specific, measurable, actionable, reasonable, and time bound, then break down all the needed actions and apply ourselves. We go, go, go, and we grit our teeth and thrash around when things don’t go the way we want. And through that action we get information—facts that inform us of what is real, and somewhere along the continuum between “stop right now, this is a terrible idea” and “this is exactly right.”
To stay open to outcome, it’s important to recognize that sometimes we set the wrong goal. And if we pay attention to the information coming in, we might find something more effective—more magical—than the goal we have set. So a leader has to be open to the notion that something could come along that’s an even bigger priority than the earlier goal—and be prepared to call an audible.
Leaders need to continuously check themselves:
- How important is the goal?
- Is the cost too high?
- Is this (still) the right thing?
You can decide what you want to create, but nothing is going to work properly if your desire is out of alignment with what the world, your customers, the economy, or the markets are telling you. So you have to listen and look for signs. They are always there.
We can’t expect leaders to constantly monitor themselves on how they rate on competency scales. But we can provide them with these four basic steps to use as a code—knowing that if they work hard to stick to them, they can’t go too far off course.
Leadership is the ability to display courage in times of trouble, to envision direction and change, and to create an environment in which all may flourish. Human beings the world over will respond positively to people who are wise, grounded, and care deeply for their people. Arrien’s research indicates these four practices—being present, attending to heart and meaning, telling the truth without judgement, and being open to outcomes— can substantially contribute to a leader being perceived as thoughtful, authentic, and powerful. With leadership principles that effectively transcend cultures, leaders are better prepared to forge the right strategies and reach a critical mass of support to make the most meaningful impact.
Madeleine Homan-Blanchard, a Master Certified Coach, author, and speaker, has been a coach since 1989 and is a cofounder of the Blanchard® Coaching Services. She is responsible for consulting with companies that want to establish a coaching culture, designing large scale coaching implementations, mentor coaching, and coaching for senior executives.