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Effective Leaders: The 12 Elements of Effective Leadership Style

Aug 06, 2014

Everybody has an opinion on what leaders should do. (Even me: here, here and here.)

So what do effective leaders really do? How do they actually spend their time?

Harvard professor John Kotter decided to find out. He shadowed 15 high performing executives, interviewed them, and talked to their subordinates. This took months.

What he got was an accurate look at how effective leaders spend their day, the patterns behind what they do and how they do it.

Via John P. Kotter on What Leaders Really Do:

1. They spend most of their time with others. The average GM spends only 25% of his working time alone, and this is spent largely at home, on airplanes, or while commuting. Few spend less than 70% of their time with others, and some spend up to 90% of their work time this way.

2. The people they spend time with include many in addition to their direct subordinates and boss. GMs regularly go around the formal chain of command. They also regularly see people who often appear to be unimportant outsiders.

3. The breadth of topics in these discussions is extremely wide. The GMs do not limit their focus to planning, business strategy, staffing, and other “top management concerns.” They discuss virtually anything and everything even remotely associated with their businesses and organizations.

4. In these conversations, GMs typically ask a lot of questions. In a half-hour conversation, some will ask literally hundreds.

5. During these conversations, the GMs rarely seem to make “big” decisions.

6. These discussions usually contain a considerable amount of joking and kidding and concern nonwork-related issues. The humor is often about others in the organization or industry. Nonwork discussions are usually about people’s families, hobbies, or recent outside activities (e.g., golf scores).

7. In not a small number of these encounters, the substantive issue discussed is relatively’ unimportant to the business or organization. That is, GMs regularly engage in activities that even they regard as a waste of time.

8. In these encounters, the executives rarely give orders in a traditional sense. That is, they seldom “tell” people what to do.

9. Nevertheless, GMs frequently engage in attempts to influence others. However, instead of telling people what to do, they ask, request, cajole, persuade, and intimidate.

10. In allocating their time with others, GMs often react to others’ initiatives. Much of the typical GM’s day is unplanned. Even GMs who have a heavy schedule of planned meetings often end up spending a lot of time on topics that are not on the official agenda.

11. Most of their time with others is spent in short, disjointed conversations. Discussions of a single question or issue rarely last more than ten minutes. And it is not at all unusual for a GM to cover ten unrelated topics in a five-minute interaction.

12. They work long hours. The average person I have studied works just under 60 hours per week. Not many work fewer than 55 hours per week. Although some of their work is done at home, while commuting to work, or while traveling, they spend most of their time at their places of work.

Kotter points out that many people would be critical of the above schedule.

It doesn’t seem to be how effective leaders should spend their time (unplanned, not talking to key people, disjointed conversations, etc.)

It doesn’t look like the leaders in the movies.

This pattern of activity looks like a scattered and unsystematic way to achieve goals — yet it’s very consistent among top executives.


Because book theories about leadership are often created in a vacuum, not from the realistic POV of a leader.

The above style and schedule helps real world leaders overcome two of their biggest challenges:

Via John P. Kotter on What Leaders Really Do:

  • “Figuring out what to do despite uncertainty, great diversity, and an enormous amount of potentially relevant information.”
  • “Getting things done through a large and diverse set of people despite having little direct control over most of them.”

Being an effective leader means getting accurate, relevant information can be difficult because you’re never on the front lines. And then taking the right action can be difficult because it always is done through other people.

Imagine fighting a boxing match but you’re not in the ring, you’re in another room. Someone needs to come tell you whether you were hit, how hard, how painful it is.

Then you need to tell them where and when to hit back.

Then you need to wait to hear from that person whether the punch landed and was effective.

And it’s always a game of “telephone” because people convey information differently and sometimes downright inaccurately. (Oh, and some of your employees aren’t very good at their jobs.)

The above style allows leaders to casually gather the information they need and get objectives accomplished without blindly making rash decisions or alienating subordinates.

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This piece originally appeared on Barking Up the Wrong Tree.

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