This is the chapter, “Leadership Moments” from The Leadership Nexus: Aligning Thought and Action by Tom Desch and Beverly Bradstock. Reprinted and edited for our blog by permission. Desch and Bradstock also co-authored The Leadership Nexus assessment. (Photos: Adobe Stock)

Leadership is not a quality, nor is it an event. It is the ability to recognize those moments when we have the opportunity to act in a way that positively affects the needs of the people and situations around us.

Each day we are presented with multiple opportunities for this kind of action. Many of them small, a few are larger, and a small number are truly critical. Recognizing these opportunities and acting on them in appropriate, helpful ways is what makes a leader great.

These are what we call Leadership Moments. Leadership Moments are decision points, moments in the course of a day when you have the opportunity to decide to lead or not. They are times when you can choose to dive back into what has always worked for you, or struggle to try something different. These Leadership Moments have three characteristics. They:

  • most effectively help resolve an immediate situation,
  • assist the team members in their personal and professional growth; and,
  • advance the needs of the team and the organization.

Each of these three characteristics is important in its own way. But when they work together, they provide a powerful expression of positive leadership.

The first of these is an effective resolution of an immediate situation. For example, a team member comes to her supervisor, again, with a complaint that her co-worker is spending company time talking on the phone about an ongoing family problem. As a result, she is unable to get her work completed and it then falls to this individual to get it done so that she can carry on with her own work.

What is the decision point for the supervisor? Does she half-listen to her team member because she has heard this complaint several times before and, after talking to the individual involved, was assured that it wouldn’t happen again? Or does she engage her active listening skills and realize that she needs to take a different kind of action in order to manage this more effectively so that it actually stops?

It is so much easier to just make the situation go away. But is this the most effective solution? Probably not. Instead, perhaps it is time for the supervisor to have an engaged conversation with the offending team member about how her family situation is creating problems for other members of her team, and that the two of them need to identify some creative solutions so that she can go back to being an effective team member.

This is the kind of decision that can be easily ignored, at least for a period of time. But it almost always grows into a larger problem that will take considerably more time, energy, and focus to solve the larger it gets. Finding a final resolution to the current situation ensures that it will not happen anymore. The team members both get what they need, and the supervisor is finally able to put to rest an ongoing problem that is undercutting the team’s performance.

The second element of a Leadership Moment is that it assists the team members in their personal and professional growth. In the previous example the supervisor has the opportunity to attempt a resolution that respects the team member’s problems at home and simultaneously helps her grow in her ability to set appropriate boundaries around work and home and to find creative solutions that will actually help resolve them.

The leadership opportunity for this supervisor lies in her ability to use this family problem as a vehicle to help her team member grow and to learn how to more effectively balance her personal and professional lives.

The third characteristic of a Leadership Moment is that it advances the needs of the team and the organization. Finding a more robust solution to the problem above contributes to the development of the team member while also getting back some of the work time that has been lost to the ongoing crisis.

As a result, everybody wins: the team member finally discovers a way to resolve the larger family problem, the team gets back some of its work time and focus, and the company is no longer paying an employee for time not spent on company business. Additionally, the team has now grown stronger, and the leader has enhanced the respect for her that she needs in order to succeed.

Character may be manifested in the great moments, but it is made in the small ones.

Winston Churchill

Leadership Moments in size and scope

We mentioned earlier that these Leadership Moments come in a variety of sizes. So, learning to recognize them is key. But what do they look like in real life? And how do you know when one of them is staring you in the eyes?

Small leadership opportunities come along frequently. They are often found in the daily interactions we have with team members, co-workers, or peers. They are generally not a big deal in the overall scope of things—the opportunity to be fully present when someone is talking with us, the opportunity to make eye contact with a team member instead of looking at the phone or completing an email.

It is these small things that often matter the most, because they serve as a form of glue or contact cement for the relationships a leader has with team members. Why is this important? Because this is the very characteristic that binds workers together in the pursuit of a common goal. Without it, team members or departments have no real reason to support each other.

What do medium-sized Leadership Opportunities look like? They will typically impact a larger number of people, or they will be of greater importance to the department or organization.

For example, a recent change in company policy has resulted in a series of operational changes for the team. It isn’t a huge shift, but it does take some of the more senior staff members out of their comfort zones and requires them to perform a set of tasks in a different way. This isn’t mission-critical, but it can be disruptive. How does the leader manage the discontent of these staff members?

Clearly, there are a number of different ways to handle a situation such as this. The important thing is that the leader recognizes that this has the potential to create larger problems if it is not handled effectively. The resolution will likely impact employee engagement, employee satisfaction, and overall productivity. Handled well and all three of these go up. Handled poorly, or not handled at all, and one or more of them is likely to drop.

An effective leader is conscious enough to see the longer-term implications of a situation like this. With this consciousness comes a recognition that letting it drag on is not a good option. And it may also come with a recognition that addressing conflict can be uncomfortable and difficult, especially when it is with people we know well.

Large-scale Leadership Moments don’t come along all that often. But when they do, everyone knows they are important. The scope of these opportunities tends to be very inclusive, impacting entire teams, departments, even organizations. What is not always so clear is the role the leader will play in it.

Leaders not only need to understand what they bring to their jobs—they also must understand what their jobs demand of them. It is in these large opportunities that this recognition of the needs of the position emerge most clearly. What is important here is that leaders understand what these demands entail while also recognizing what skills they need in order to ensure success.

An example of one of these large-scale opportunities is the event we detailed at the beginning of this book. The internet goes out in a remote location, threatening the ability to get work done for everyone at the facility. The leaders involved in resolving the situation each needed to understand their separate roles, the roles of their teams, and the needs of their individual clients.

Failing in this resolution means a significant loss of revenue, client respect, and future business. But, as we saw earlier, it is possible to resolve the situation and still fail to lead effectively. A win-lose solution (resolve the internet problem but perpetuate a system in which the wrong people are solving it) will manage the short-term problem. But it can also unintentionally lead to a recurrence, and it will not teach the individuals involved (both team members and customers) who should most appropriately be involved in the solution.

A win-win solution (which this team eventually employed) resolves both the short-term outage problem and the long-term communication and empowerment issues. In this case, the Managers learned how to step forward as soon as they discover a problem, work with their Director to ensure the most effective solution, and then go to work handling it. In the meantime, the Director communicated up the chain of command how the problem will be solved, who will be solving it, and what the time frame will likely be. The higher-level leaders then communicate to their worried counterparts what is being done and reaffirm their confidence in both the solution and the individuals implementing it. Win-win.

The key is recognizing Leadership Moments

In general, it isn’t necessary for a good leader to spot every one of these Leadership Moments. It IS important to be alert and to recognize enough of these moments to impact the team and the organization in the most positive direction possible.

In short, it is WHAT a leader does with these moments that determines his/her effectiveness. Effective Leadership Moments are characterized by a conscious set of thoughts that trigger a deliberate set of actions.

Practicing the ability to recognize and act on Leadership Moments is a characteristic of a growing, developing leader. We know that changing everyday thought processes has a direct impact on performance. Try keeping track of your workday thoughts and see what you would like to change. Given that a normal human being has somewhere around 6,000 thoughts per day, there are plenty of opportunities to take advantage of even a small percentage of them.

Practicing new behaviors can lead to the discovery of a new sense of accomplishment as skills improve. This is what leads to a substantive change. Getting more comfortable with an improved ability to act out of a higher level of leadership makes it easier to think the thoughts that higher level leaders think.