uncommon advice for common challenges leaders face

Uncommon Advice on Common Leadership Challenges

16.6 min read

Jose Marrero

Management is important; leadership is indispensable. It is not marketing, research and development, operations, or strategy, but leadership that constitutes the utmost workforce multiplier.

Leading is not for cowards. It is for those who have commitment, compassion, and care about both the mission and their people. Now more than ever, and in a very critical way, leadership is also for those with moral clarity.

These are very tough times. The international and national dynamics and challenges are having a deep effect on people. There is an unprecedented thirst for hope. Human life has been extensively devalued. “Wolves in sheep’s clothing” continue to divide our nation and the world – and there is much corruption, destruction, and moral erosion.

The dark clouds of anxiety, despair, and uncertainty are also seen and felt in the workplace. With a greater reason, leaders at all levels face colossal tasks. From building effective teams to coaching; from communicating with employees with different personalities to active listening; from executing strategy to working with shifting priorities and, above all, bringing out the very best in employees despite uncertain times and a pervasive sense of entitlement in our society.

Imagine the following scenario. A young CEO invites his old friend and mentor, a retired CEO with four decades of experience in leadership, to have a “Coffee and Counsel” segment in a coffee shop. The young CEO is eager to listen to the advice from his mentor. Congruently, the seasoned and somewhat talkative mentor is quite enthusiastic about the invigorating opportunity to openly share his extensive wisdom with his mentee who, after all, he has not seen in years. The conversation goes as follows:

Mentor: So, you are leading! Where are you going? 

Young CEO: Mike, what do you mean? 

Mentor: You are leading, right? So, you must be going somewhere and leading or showing the way to your people. Where are you going? What is your vision?

Young CEO: Well…I tell you…we will be the best in this market. 

Mentor:  Phenomenal! But how? Can you give me more substance?

Do you have a vision statement? If nothing else, have you defined a “unifying purpose” for your organization? 

Is there something that will align the collective efforts, wills, and intelligence of your leaders and employees, ensuring they are on the same path? This will be the strategic glue of your organization.

Young CEO: Yep. We have a vision. Two of my best writers eloquently formulated it.

Mentor: That’s great, Bob, but can you communicate the vision to all employees in terms of what it means to them? Can you easily explain it? Otherwise, it will be useless and aimless.

By the way – don’t you think that more professionals should contribute to such a colossal and critical project? Your best writers formulated it. I get it. Now, if you want the best possible product, you must get more of your professionals involved.

The final product will be your organization’s “north star” for years to come. Without an effective vision, you and your people will be wandering in La-La Land endlessly.

Besides, neither you nor those eloquent writers have all the answers. Representatives from each department must participate in the process of formulating the vision. Choose people with broad expertise and experience.

Also consider the following: How is the vision going to affect customers? What impact would it have on stakeholders? Does it generate a keen sense of direction? More importantly, how is the vision going to affect your employees? 

Young CEO: Hey, I must confess, I believed that aiming at being the best in the market was a nice target. 

Mentor: That was a starting point, not a starting concept. I must ask again: How? Your people must know how to get there. 

I have to be honest with you – your people must also trust you. They must envision how the journey, however risky or daring, will take them to achieve the final goals that will also benefit them. Earn their respect. Consistently demonstrate that you know where to go and how to take them there. 

What do you think?

Young CEO: I get it. I want to hear more…

Mentor: Once you know where to go, what’s next? You will need gas to get there. Inspiration! Is your vision inspiring? 

I tell you what. Once you have a good draft, ask a handful of sounding boards to read it. Find out if they feel inspired by the vision. See if they feel an urge to act – what I call the “Let’s Do It” effect. Once you have a solid vision, ensure that your teams know their specific functions in light of that vision statement.

May I offer my “PACED” vision criteria? You can use it as a checklist.

Young CEO: Shoot.

Mentor: Here we go:

Purposeful: The vision purposefully focuses your people’s collective emotional and intellectual energy on a destination.

Actionable: It sets attainable goals.

Clear: It is easy to explain and understand.

Energizing: It generates enthusiasm. It inspires people. Remember the “Let’s Do It” effect that I mentioned.

Directional: It provides enough information to make decisions. It prioritizes work.

Consider each criterion. You want something that gets things done – not just a nice poem framed on the wall.

Once you have a PACED vision, translate it into the day-to-day language of your people. You want a well-defined direction that also makes sense to them and, I say emphatically, that is palatable or attractive to your people. 

Subsequently, ensure that your suborganizations are following the vision, instead of their own goals or priorities. Recognize or reward those who stick to the vision. Let them know that they are making a difference. Remember that you will get more of the behavior that you recognize or reward.

Young CEO: I have much work to do with my leadership team. 

Mentor: Okay but, I must remind you, integrate experienced professionals from all segments in the organization. Make them part of the process of formulating the vision. 

I don’t have all the answers, but I have learned enough from failure and from hard work in many organizations across the spectrum of functions. People assume that formulating a vision is a systematic or methodical effort. Not necessarily. 

You can use the same great writers to produce the first draft. That piece, of course, will be driven by their personal perspective. As a result, you have more reasons to polish it with other experienced professionals. 

It will not happen overnight. Be ready. You must give the team enough time to think, discuss, and even argue about words, phrases, and sentences before you go for the final product. 

It is not just wordsmithing; you want a document that will generate action, in the right direction, and at all levels. Challenging? You bet! However, it is worth the effort. 

Think about the following for a moment. Formulating a vision will generate multiple benefits for the organization. It forces you and your team to examine your mission, capabilities, challenges, and opportunities. It should motivate people to take an interest in your organization’s future. It makes you reflect on what you do and why you do it. One endeavor, but with multiple benefits.

Young CEO: Now, once we get it right, what’s the best way of communicating the vision? I ask because this has been a major issue for uncountable organizations.

Mentor: Use all means available to you. Posters, videos, handouts, newsletters – all of it. Repeat the vision during meetings. Before you and your people make decisions, ask, how does this course of action help us achieve our vision?

Make time to visit the front lines. Ask people if they understand the vision. Even better, ask them to explain it in their own words. You will be surprised.

Now, there is another type of communication: your actions. If you promote leaders whose priorities are inconsistent with the vision, you will be sending the wrong message to your organization. A very negative one indeed.

How can they feel compelled to follow the vision, if you are rewarding those who are ignoring it? The time, energy, and effort spent formulating it would be wasted. Not a good outcome.

Another point. You need enthusiastic communicators. People who communicate with their hearts, not just their mind, and can put energy and enthusiasm in their words, tone, and body language when they engage employees about your organization’s future. Enthusiastic communicators can give people hope. Do you know where I am going with this?

Young CEO: I can think of three of my senior managers who have that kind of passion. What you just explained makes me see how critical my managers are to the organization. 

Mentor: Undoubtedly! Aside from their gazillion leadership functions, and what I just addressed, your managers must be corporate translators. They must fully understand the corporate vision, mission, and strategies, then translate them into action. Nowadays, managers are not only expected to manage processes, quality, and time. They also must deal with the most complicated systems in the universe: people. 

You and I have heard the phrase, “Employees leave leaders, not jobs.” That is particularly true about managers. Let me read what the former Gallup CEO, Jim Clifton, stated in a letter to senior leaders:

“Here’s something they’ll probably never teach you in business school: The single biggest decision you make in your job – bigger than all of the rest – is who you name manager. When you name the wrong person manager, nothing fixes that bad decision. Not compensation, not benefits – nothing.”

That statement is indicative of the criticality of great leadership skills and the devastating effects that managers and, for that matter, leaders in general, have when they lack those skills.

Young CEO: After years of leading and managing, sometimes one can assume that we have learned it all. Consequently, we quit growing because we quit learning. 

Mentor: You bet! Don’t we deceive and sabotage ourselves? Complacency is one of our main enemies. We fall into the complacency trap and become arrogant because of all the experience and knowledge gained. Even when one has been leading and solving problems for decades, at multiple levels and in several organizations, these experiences do not bequeath special privileges or authority – they represent more leadership responsibilities and higher expectations. 

Arrogance and complacency can lead to gaps between management’s realities and those for the rest of the organization. Sad to say, but these disconnects are quite common in many organizations. Achievements and victories that generate arrogance and complacency are the route to future defeats. Stay humble. Humility is the window to multiple virtues. 

Young CEO: I am glad that you mentioned “virtues.” What do you think is the real essence, or root virtue, of authentic leadership? 

Mentor: That is a great question. Deep inside, authentic leadership is about love for people. I must add that sometimes it is more like tough love. Accountability is paramount. You do not have to like your people to love them anyway. 

I bet you do not like all your family members, but you love them. I know your dad was hard on you, leading you to attain goals you never thought you could. He used tough love. He was hard, but in retrospect you appreciate all he did for you – don’t you?

Young CEO: Indeed. You know he was my “life coach.” He exercised that tough love, not to impose authority or for his ego, but to shape me.

Mentor: That is my impression. In addition, he inspired you. You are proud of him – no doubt.

Here are other points along those lines:

Remember this, authentic leaders empower people, not their egos. Are your people authentically leading or just imposing their will to feel good about themselves? Do you have leaders who are people-obsessed or status-obsessed? Are they eager to make their people and the organization better, or eager to feed their large or fragile egos? Do they ask for help, or are they too arrogant to recognize they need it?

You and your leaders must put personal leadership first. That is, lead yourself first. Why? Your character drives how you treat others, which shapes the organizational culture and, ultimately, influences financial performance.

Do you have great managers or great presenters? Normally, at your level you will only see your managers presenting information, not leading their people. Consider that point and visit the “front lines,” where things happen.

Hold people accountable, but do not play the blame game. You and your managers must have the necessary intestinal fortitude to hold employees accountable, ensuring there are consequences whenever things fail to happen. 

At the same time, focus on correcting processes and protocols, not on blaming employees. That is what toxic bosses do. Try this instead. If there is an administrative incident, do not jump to blame people. Ask your team to review what happened and why it happened. More than likely, you will identify that there is confusion surrounding the outlined procedures.

Have an effective policy on “who” you hire, not just “what” you hire. In other words, assess the entire person and examine his or her character, not just the set of skills and experience that the candidate can bring to the table. There is a quote by Warren Buffett that says,

“…in looking for people to hire, look for three qualities: integrity, intelligence, and energy. And if you don’t have the first, the other two will kill you.”

Do not ask yourself, how do I make effective use of my time? Ask, what is most important? Identify what really matters, then move full speed ahead.

Coach and develop your people. One-on-one meetings take time. Yes! Nonetheless, they are an investment. 

Technical competence does not correlate to leadership competence. Nowadays, we promote technicians to leadership positions without the proper training. Companies place their best assets, their employees, in the hands of untrained individuals. Not a clever idea. 

Moral virtues generate financial gains. The late Dr. Fred Kiel and his team found that senior executives who show specific moral principles – integrity, responsibility, forgiveness, and compassion – generate more financial returns.¹

Ensure that your managers fully understand what you expect of them. It is not just the job description. You must explain your specific expectations, those that go beyond the generic description of the job they hold.

Remember that respect and trust are earned, not imposed.

Mitigate gossip; it is organizational terrorism. Only immature, ignorant, and incompetent people practice it. Gossip destroys the organization from within.

Ensure you have a culture that not only talks about transparency, but also lives it. Practice candid, constant, and multidirectional communication. 

If all employees can feel free to say, “Boss, that makes no sense,” when they see issues, you will have the benefit of hundreds of early warning systems that will prevent pain and accidents.

Here are some additional questions to mull over. (The mentor hands a note to the young CEO)

  • Do your employees feel safe coming to you or to your subordinate leaders?
  • Are people free to speak up or expected to follow the corporate party line? 
  • Is your communication multidirectional or just from the top? 
  • Are you getting honest feedback? Without it, there is no learning.
  • Who ensures that all employees have a voice?
  • Who is communicating with the stakeholders? How? How often?
  • Are open door policies supported with “open mind and heart policies”?
  • Does your organization recognize or reward the brave men and women who speak out to prevent accidents or foolish decisions? 
  • Are leaders willing to leave egos behind and ask: What am I missing? What’s your opinion?
  • Are you or your leaders surrounded by “yes men” or “yes women,” who will only inflate egos and tell sweet lies instead of the much-needed sour truths? 

Throughout history, brave and mature leaders have had the intellectual and moral fortitude to ask for help from sounding boards. Choose one. 

Yes men or yes women will just let you continue to make mistakes or follow the old ways of doing things. Let’s face it, if you continue to do the same thing that is not working, you will get the same results. Now, if leaders feel they need to know everything, and make well-informed decisions, then why in the world do they make open communication so difficult?

Treat communication as a tool to exercise great leadership, to engage your people, not just to share information. Is that too difficult? Perhaps. However, it is worth the effort. 

Young CEO: How would you describe the ideal leader? I would like to have a poster, with simple bullets that define the quintessential leader. This is the big pie in the sky; however, we all need to aim at perfection, even if we know we will not get there. 

Mentor: Hmm. Let me have a few days and I will email something close to that big pie in the sky.

A few days later, the mentor sends an email that reads:

Here is a list of some of the key virtues of the quintessential leader. See if the title would also help you for the poster you envision.

Authentic Leaders Wanted

We are seeking authentic leaders who…

  • Get top results with people, not at the expense of people.
  • Inspire others, not just instruct others.
  • Are truth-seekers, not truth-ignorers.
  • Give credit, not take credit.
  • Earn respect, not demand respect.
  • Are humble and compassionate, but not weak.
  • Focus on “we,” not “me.”
  • Are great learners, not “know-it-alls.”
  • Challenge people to perform outside their comfort zones, not within it.
  • View the employees’ skills as valuable to the organization, not as threats to their job security.
  • Align employees to work together to attain common goals, not separate them.
  • Reward team playing, not backstabbing.
  • Reward risk-takers, not penalize them.

You do not need to meet every single criterion. The main thing is to relentlessly pursue a higher level of leadership, aligned with the aforementioned attributes. It is about will more than skill. It is also about tenacity and audacity.

Are you up for the challenge?

About the author

Jose Marrero is the Director of Special Projects and teaches Applied Leadership and Critical Workplace Skills in the Economic Development Department, Columbus Technical College, Columbus, GA. The seminars that he designs, develops, and delivers focus on achieving long-term results in the workplace. He has taught uncountable customized seminars for several local, state, and international organizations – not only informing his audience, but also challenging, and inspiring them to advance personally and professionally. 

His 44-year professional career, 31 of which were spent serving in the US Army, includes assignments such as: 

  • Teaching at the United States Military Academy, West Point, NY
  • Commander at various levels
  • Strategist at the Strategy, Policy, and War Plans Division, the Pentagon
  • Operations Officer at various levels
  • Chief of Staff
  • Military Advisor to a US Ambassador
  • Senior Analyst at the White House ONDCP, Washington, DC — among other regular and special assignments.

Above all, Jose has proudly led Soldiers to perform meritoriously under uniquely difficult and challenging conditions. 

He has led various international negotiation efforts, culminating in agreements with foreign governments. In addition to drafting strategies, he has formulated and implemented strategic communication plans, and has prepared speeches and presentations for Executive Officials, General Officers, and Political Appointees.

He has authored over 16 articles. In addition, Jose is among the very few who have been awarded the Presidential Service Badge, for his service at the White House ONDCP.

Jose has been an avid athlete for most of his life. In addition to playing several sports, he taught martial arts, participated in boxing and wrestling, and completed three triathlons.

He is a member of the International Foreign Language Honor Society (Phi Sigma Iota) and earned his postgraduate degree from Vanderbilt University.


¹Examine Return on Character, by Fred Kiel (Harvard Business Review Press, 2015).

  • Quote of the Day

    “Leadership is the capacity to translate vision into reality.”

    — Warren Bennis