Earning a License to Lead – Could You Pass These 5 Areas?

If you had to take a test to earn a license to lead, would you pass? When it comes to leadership, do you know the rules of the road, what all the traffic signs mean, and how to lead in inclement weather? Sadly enough, we probably require more training and knowledge for someone to drive a car than we do for them to lead people!

Now, just as getting a driver’s license doesn’t automatically make you an excellent driver, passing some imaginary leadership exam wouldn’t qualify you as an outstanding leader. However, it would at least signify that you have a basic level of knowledge to lead safely and not harm others (I see a Dilbert cartoon in here somewhere…). Here’s five critical areas where I think people need to have a basic level of competency in order to earn a license to lead:

1. Building Trust — If you know me or have read anything on this blog, you know that I’m a trust activist (a phrase recently coined by my friend Jon Mertz), and I believe that learning to build high-trust relationships is the defining competency of successful leaders in the 21st century. Being a person of integrity, competence, compassion, and reliability are all crucial elements of being trustworthy. Establishing trust in relationships is the ticket of admission for being a leader, it allows you to get in the game. Once you’re in the game you have the potential to make some great plays if you can do the other things in this list, which by the way, continually build and sustain trust in your leadership.

2. Setting clear goals — Whether it’s communicating a clear vision on the macro-level, or establishing specific goals and actions on a micro-level, good leaders understand that their people need a clear idea of the direction they’re heading and what they’re supposed to do. You’d be surprised at the number of leaders I speak with that express frustration over their people not performing up to expectations and readily admit that they haven’t established or communicated those expectations in the first place!

3. Flexing leadership style to the situation — One size doesn’t fit all when it comes to leadership. Depending on an employee’s level of competence and commitment on a given task or goal, leaders need to use a style that matches the needs of the employee. There will be times where leaders need to be more directive in their style when employees need specific instruction, and other times leaders need to use a more supportive style when the employee knows what to do but just needs a little reassurance. Treating everyone the same in all circumstances is not being “fair,” it’s being one-dimensional.

4. Listening — Just as a good driver pays attention to conditions of the road, pedestrians, and other drivers, top leaders pay attention to how their employees are doing by being a good listener. It’s amazing what you can learn about people by simply listening to them, but being a good listener takes effort. You have to learn to concentrate on what’s being said (or not said), being present in the moment and not letting your mind drift, checking your understanding by asking questions or paraphrasing, and listening to understand and be influenced rather than just waiting to make a counterpoint.

5. Giving feedback — Ken Blanchard likes to say that “Feedback is the breakfast of champions!” For leaders to develop their people into champions, they have to be comfortable in giving both positive and negative feedback. Generally speaking, it’s a whole lot easier (and fun) to deliver positive feedback. Everyone likes delivering good news! It’s a completely different story when it comes to delivering negative feedback. Most of us fall prey to sugar-coating negative feedback or being overly general and vague when discussing it with an employee. I’ve learned in my leadership journey that I do a disservice to the employee, and myself, when I sugar coat feedback. People often don’t pick up on the subtle clues we use when discussing tough situations so it’s better to deliver the feedback with candor and care so the employee knows exactly what they’re doing wrong and how they can improve.

These may be the “Big Five” when it comes to understanding the basics of leadership and earning a license to lead other people, but I know there are many other competencies that deserve to be on the test. What else would you test for before granting someone a license to lead? Feel free to join the discussion by leaving a comment.

14 Comments on “Earning a License to Lead – Could You Pass These 5 Areas?

  1. I would add “Lead by Example” as another requirement. I’ve learned that this is absolutely essential in leadership. If you’re not willing to roll up your own sleeves and do what you ask of others, your chances of getting followers are slim to none.

  2. These are great “Big 5” actions to live by. All in all, it is about being “aligned” from the inside out and outside in. Leading with purpose. Leading with the right presence. Great principles, as always, Randy! Thanks. Jon

  3. Randy,

    Love the idea of getting a “License to Lead” and your “Big Five” categories that would be on the test!

    And while I believe I would pass the test, your post helped me think through the degree of excellence I exhibit on each of the categories and how I can bring my leadership to the next level. In any one moment, the degrees may be different based on what is going on – and staying focused is the key for me. I believe that “The secret to an efficient process is a deep genuine focus on people.” And your categories help leaders do just that!

    As a Feedback Enthusiast, I completely agree with #5 and have seen and experienced the pain leaders go through when delivering negative feedback, which is why I have given “Feedback” extra special care in my consulting practice. What is missing in organizations and teams is an authentic feedback framework, where:

    “The best way to make sure that feedback is given and received in a meaningful and productive way… is to train all managers in how to give it, and all employees in how to receive it.” – Branham, Leigh. The 7 Hidden Reasons Employees Leave: How to Recognize the Subtle Signs and Act Before it’s Too Late, AMACOM, New York, NY, 2005

    I would add that we need to train all employees on how to give it to each other and to their superiors. That creates an connected environment that thrives!

    Happy to find your blog and happy to keep following!


    PS: Ken Blanchard’s quote, “Feedback is the breakfast of champions!” is very dear to me… and when he endorsed my new book, I was thrilled!

    • Hi Sonia! Thank you for your wonderful insights!

      I especially appreciate your emphasis on having a deep, genuine focus on people. A hallmark of having a high-trust relationships with someone is the ability to freely give and receive feedback, and it’s not possible to get to that point if you don’t have a genuine interest in each other.

      Take care,


      • Thanks, Randy! And having a “genuine interest in each other” can only happen when we slow down and get to know each other – time is such a precious gift and it paves the the way towards a high-trust collaborative relationship.

        Looking at how I spend my time aligns with each of your “BIG FIVE” Categories!

        Glad to see we are connected!

        Yours in growth,

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  5. I would be more methodical and careful if I had to issue a license to someone to lead in my life. It brings the great responsibility involved in this to the surface for me. I have been careless in the past with entering into partnership with someone that looked like and talked leadership, but once we got into real work and real activities together, the reality was much different than what I wanted or needed. Not only do we each need a checklist of the general leadership qualities like this Big Five – but we all need to create our own personalized list of what qualities our personal mentors need to have so that we can use this to license the right people to be leaders in our lives.

    More recently I selected someone much more carefully and I would give her a license to lead… in fact… I did.

    Thanks for your post.

    • Great points Lori. It’s smart to not bestow the mantle of leadership on someone too hastily and it sounds like you’ve experienced that personally.

      Thank you for your insightful comments.


  6. Pingback: Earning a License to Lead – Could You Pass These 5 Areas? | Spark The Action | Scoop.it

  7. Wonderful article… minor nit-picky grammatical change “Here’s five critical areas” … “Here are five critical areas” — thank you and cheers!

  8. Pingback: Choosing Mentors You Want to Work With | LoriSortino.com

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