What Do Leaders Actually Do?

By Edward D. Hess,
Adjunct Professor of Organization and Management, and
Executive Director – Center for Entrepreneurship and Corporate Growth,

Emory University
Atlanta, Georgia



Leadership is what business people talk about. Leadership is what academics write about. But, in my not so humble opinion, there is too much focus on leadership theory and not enough focus on actually leading. What do good leaders actually do?

There are over 200 definitions of leadership. Modern theories of leadership include traits, transformational, situational, adaptive, motivational, spiritual, and servant leadership. Major leadership centers include the James MacGregor Burns Academy of Leadership, the Jepson School of Leadership, The Kravis Leadership Center, The Center for Creative Leadership, and The U.S. Army Center for Leadership.

Leadership theory is based on economics, psychology, sociology, ethics, philosophy, and religion. But leading is doing. Leading is acting. To lead effectively, leaders need 1) the right attitude; 2) a heightened sensitization to the impact of their actions and inactions; and 3) leaders need to manage the daily details of leading. If your objective is to lead, you need to prepare to lead, plan daily to lead, and then do it.

What kind of attitude do you need to lead? I believe attitude is dependent on your motivation. Why do you want to lead? Most people want to lead for the wrong reasons. Most people want to lead because leadership translates into more pay, more status, and more perks. People who lead for those reasons probably will be focused on keeping their job – not on leading and helping others. Leaders who lead for the wrong reasons may be less open, less honest, and less trustworthy than leaders who lead for the right reasons. Think about it – how would you react to a leader, boss, or manager who said, “I am here for myself. I need your help so I can keep my job and make more money than you do.” Or, “My main motivation is me – my advancement and my job.”

What is the right attitude? What are the right values? One should want to lead or one is chosen to lead because the expectation is that you will act in others’ best interests so as to make a meaningful contribution to the achievement of your organization and your followers’ goals. Leaders help organizations and employees find meaning in accomplishing something that is important to them. Leaders help. Leaders serve. Leaders coach. Leaders mentor. Leaders teach. And leaders think about, plan, and prepare to do this through hundreds of little daily acts, all of which when taken together, constitute leadership.

The right attitude is not a “me” or an “I” attitude. It is a “you” attitude. I want to lead because I want to help you achieve. I want to lead because I believe I can make a positive contribution to this company.

Many leaders get promoted to leadership positions because of outstanding past performance. Many are not prepared to lead. Many are not trained to lead. Many are not emotionally ready to lead. Figuring out whether you truly have the right attitude is work – thinking about yourself, your motivations, and your reasons for wanting or accepting a leadership position. This is not psychobabble. I submit that good, effective leaders have the right attitude. They are focused on their people for whom they are responsible- not themselves. Good leaders get the right attitude every day. Eventually, it becomes part of them and second nature.

Followers are very observant of leaders. Followers notice and react to your tone, your moods, your intended and unintended messages evidenced by what you do, what you do not do, what you say, what you leave unsaid, your smiles, your frowns, etc. Followers have expectations about leaders from how they should dress to what kind of role model you should be.

Being a leader is like being on stage all the time. Good leaders understand and accept this responsibility. They understand that their every word and act has impact. Leaders understand that followers look for cues, meaning, and evaluate them for consistency, reliability and trustworthiness. Your employees notice how you treat the waitress at lunch, how you speak about former employees, how you treat your spouse, what kind of jokes you allow, and how you react to bad news. Employees are also sensitive about how you respect them and their time.

One personal example: In one of my prior leadership positions, I was consumed one morning with a business problem. As I was walking down the hall, I noticed a bright young employee. I saw him but being self-absorbed and consumed by my problem, I did not speak to him; I just nodded. An hour later his supervisor came to see me – panicked. This young star – an “A” player – took my silence as evidence that I – the boss – did not like him. So he needed to start looking for a job. Wow, an unintended, very bad message resulting from my lack of sensitization and my lack of focus on my people.

Good leaders know that being a leader takes preparation every day and that it does not come naturally to most people. You have to work at leading. Leading is an active process. You do not just do it. It doesn’t just happen. You have to actively engage yourself in thinking about leading – the what you will do – when – and with whom.

Good leaders focus daily on key objectives and values and on what people, teams, or functions need the leader’s input – the who, what, why and where. Leaders are constantly processing information and reassessing where their focus is needed. Who needs help? Who is on target? Who is behind? Why? Who needs be to “hugged”? Who needs to be “kicked in the butt”? Who needs a thank you? Leaders survey their operations and spend time daily on those people, products, and customers where they can make a positive impact.

Good leaders think about how people react to them and seek better ways to make their points clearer and more direct. Leaders live leading. Leaders work at it until they get it right. Leaders are engaged in the process of leading and understand that leading is more than image, style, or charisma. Leading is the little actions – the details – the what you do from the moment you get to work to the moment you leave work.

Leaders stay focused on their most important goal or objective:

Leaders see mistakes, problems, or issues not as negatives, but as opportunities – opportunities to make a positive contribution – opportunities to teach, to help, to mentor, and to lead. Leaders also seek out opportunities to make their points – to emphasize key values – to emphasize over and over again what is important. Leaders focus on and manage the daily details of leading. Leading is acting. It takes preparation, planning, and thinking about the who and the what you need to focus on and the why. Leaders plan what they need to say, to which people, when, and why.

Leading is an art – not a science because it involves people. People with emotions, fears, hopes, dreams, jealousies, rivalries, etc. Leading is not theory. Leading is doing and being. Good leaders work daily at leading. Good leading means:


  • Having the right attitude each day
  • Becoming more sensitive to the intended and unintended impact of your actions
  • Preparing to lead each day down to the minute details of who, what, where and why.