Are You a Thermometer or Thermostat Leader?

When it comes to leadership, are you a thermostat or a thermometer? Mark, my friend and colleague, posed that odd question to me this week. He went on to explain the difference between the two.

thermometerA thermometer reflects the temperature of the environment. It simply reacts to what’s happening around it. If the temperature is hot, it tells you so. If it’s cold, the thermometer reflects that reality as well. It’s a dumb instrument in the sense it doesn’t contain intelligent, multipurpose functionality. It has one purpose and one purpose only.

A thermostat, on the other hand, regulates the environment. It sets the desired temperature of the room and actively works to maintain it within a given range. If the temperature rises above the goal, the thermostat signals the air conditioner to crank up and cool the room down. If the temperature falls below the goal, the thermostat causes the heater to turn on in order to warm the room up. The thermostat is intelligent in the sense it’s always monitoring the environment, and if the temperature gets too hot or cold, it decides what to do to correct the situation.

Thermometer leaders react to their surroundings. When the tension gets high and people are on edge, these leaders are often seen losing their cool. They become irritable, harsh, demanding, critical, impatient, and maybe even lose their temper and yell or curse. Thermometer leadership doesn’t inspire trust and commitment with people, it erodes it.

thermostatThermostat leaders, however, constantly have a pulse on the morale, productivity, stress level, and environmental conditions of their team. When the temperature gets hot because the team is under pressure of a heavy workload, resources are scarce, or pending deadlines are causing stress, they cool things off by acting as the calming influence with the team. They take time to listen to the concerns of their team members and provide the necessary direction and support that’s needed to help the team achieve its goals. Thermostat leaders also alleviate pressure on their team by mixing in some lighthearted fun at opportune times.

Likewise, when work is slow and people are prone to just go through the motions, thermostat leaders get their teams refocused on the vision, purpose, and goals of the team. Because they are actively monitoring the environment of their teams, they know when the team needs to be challenged with new goals and priorities, or when they just need a friendly kick in the pants to stay focused on their current initiatives.

Thermostat leaders build trust and confidence with their followers, whereas thermometer leaders erode trust. When times get wild and crazy, people want to see their leaders react with calm, focused, and determined leadership. They want them to set the tone for how the team should react during tough times and navigate the rough seas ahead. That’s a tough challenge for leaders because they are team members themselves and are subject to the same, and often times more and different, stressors of those experienced by the team.

So, how would you respond to this question? Are you a thermometer or thermostat leader?

54 Comments on “Are You a Thermometer or Thermostat Leader?

  1. This is an eye opener. Leaders can’t afford to switch off and wait for the environment to dictate, but they are proactive. I love this piece.

  2. Don’t be a non-doer thermostat who try to cool things off by acting as the calming influence not by taking load off actively. Teams hate such leaders, no fun or cheers work in tense situation, just plain work works. Leaders need to go hands on with what their team can do in critical situations, otherwise no use either thermometer or thermostat, makes no difference.

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  4. Thanks, Randy, for this great post. What a brilliant metaphor for emotional intelligence. What’s powerful about it is that if someone is a thermometer they can learn to become a thermostat leader. And, from my perspective, developing greater Social + Emotional Intelligence is the way to get there.

    • I couldn’t agree with you more Jamie! Developing social and emotional intelligence is crucial for leaders in order for them to have the self-awareness to manage in a constantly changing environment.

      As always, I appreciate you sharing your brilliant insights!


  5. What a GREAT ANALOGY of these two words. We see these words so often and translate this to the workijng envirnoment, AWESOME! Thanks!

  6. I appreciated the simple and powerful imagery you used in this article. Perhaps the thermometer deserves a second look. Thermometers take subjective feelings (“it’s hot”) and quantify them (97 degrees). This function could prove invaluable depending on the type of organization you are working with.

    A thought experiment: drop two groups of tourists in an unfamiliar environment. Give one group a tour guide. Give everyone in the other group a smartphone with google maps and yelp. The tour guide could be seen as a thermostat: guiding the group toward whatever end he deems desirable. The smartphones could be seen as a thermometer: it simply gives information to the group and lets each individual regulate his/her own behavior. Who’s to say which approach is superior?

    How can this analogy add to our definition of good leadership as put forth by Conley? Leadership doesn’t always mean dictating outcomes or even direction (roughly analagous to the “thermostat” leader). Sometimes effective leadership comes in the form of empowering the individual with the data and tools she needs in order to be successful on her own terms (roughly analagous to the “thermometer” leader). Knowing yourself and your organization is paramount before choosing your leadership approach.

    • In your discription of a thermometer leader you state that “Sometimes effective leadership comes in the form of empowering the individual with the data and tools she needs in order to be successful in her own terms.” ( roughly analogous to the “thermometer” leader)
      Correct me if I’m wrong but that sounds like a thermostat to me. Empowering someone still is a firm of setting the tone as a thermostat sets the temperature.

  7. Randy, thank for sharing this through the leadership carnival this month! I love the analogy and think the next generation of this thought process is leaders who know their people so well that they know how and when to regulate the environment to maximize results. They know the why behind setting things to be “warmer” or “colder” because it optimizes results and they do it room by room, or person by person, instead of the whole house or organization all on the same degree.

    • I love the way you extended the analogy and I agree with you completely! Thanks for adding your insights Mary.


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  9. We all must ensure we make the transition from thermometer to thermostat leadership style for this is one of the leadership qualities required to excel in the 21st century work environment. Thanks for post

  10. I coach girls high school basketball. Gave this to the entire team to read. I think coaching staff got as much out of it as girls. We as a staff will make a conscious effort to be thermostats and not thermometers this year.

    • Thank you Coach! I’m so glad you found my article helpful.

      I coached youth baseball for over 15 years so coaching has a special place in my heart. My youngest son plays basketball and is about to start his senior season in high school.

      Good luck to the Lady Crusaders!


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  12. I like this article. It talks of the need for one to be a pro-active leader as compared to being a re-active one. I remind myself daily of this and i find it very helpful in the situations that i undergo in my work place and life generally. Thank you

    • You’re welcome Mark! I’m glad you found it helpful. Setting the tone, or temperature, for our teams is a big responsibility.

      Thanks for commenting,


  13. The thermostat/thermometer analogy was originally attributed to Martin Luther King Jr in his Letter from the Birmingham Jail. “The church was not merely a thermometer that recorded the ideas and principles of popular opinion; it was a thermostat that transformed the mores of society.”

    MLK took the time to stop and reflect on what the church was doing in impacting the world.
    We can take the same concept – stop and reflect where our actions and attitudes are taking our staff and office dynamic.

    • I didn’t know MLK Jr. originated that analogy but it makes sense. It’s appropriate for the church as well as our individual leadership philosophies.

      Thanks for adding your insights Otto.


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  16. It is an excellent idea to relate things in such a way. It has give an opportunity to search myself as where do I fit in. I think I am in the middle of both 🙂

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  18. Simply superb!!!! This is my 2015 quote of the year for my team ” Be a Thermostat & not a Thermometer” – Simply awesome!!!!

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  22. This is great wisdom to bring into parenting as well, or just into family life in general. I’m working to be the thermostat that my teenagers need me to be. Even though I can be a bit of a thermometer myself, I am blessed to be married to an excellent thermostat! Thank you for sharing this!

  23. What a fantastic question to ask someone when beginning a working relationship. Knowing which instrument they share similarity is important to know. Thanks for sharing. Glad i found this.

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  25. Im a thermostat leader in real life. But need to get back in the game. Motivation and encouragement comes from the corevalues of the company. Nothing can break a team with a common platform. In todays society this is more important than ever.
    Strenght and adroitness in the true leader combined with wellfundated corevalues are the best recepie for

  26. Well If I was to say I would be a thermometer. Only because you get much more faults with thermostats. With a thermometer yes simple and it does the job everytime and all the time. Where as a thermostat u’ll have obstacles in the way. Such as wiring were you communication not getting through, the customers turning the dial to different settings not keeping up. May also give false temperatures. Meaning what to them feels right is right?

  27. I’m a thermometer but through my project mgt training gradually learning to be a thermostat. Can’t be a good pm with thermometer qualities. Can I?

    • Hi Banke,

      I think to be a good project manager it’s important to set the tone for your project team. If you’re a “thermostat” in that regard, then your team will take their emotional and energetic clues from you.

      Best wishes,


  28. Great article! It’s still very relevant. Something that all leaders should take into consideration.

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