What Do Good Leaders Actually Do? (Part II)

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

Emory University
Atlanta, Georgia



In September, we discussed that good leaders (1) understand themselves and their motivations; (2) learn to be very sensitive to the impact they have on people and how followers observe, notice and calibrate their leader’s consistency and reliability – whether they walk the talk; and (3) good leaders manage the minute daily details of their leading – the who, what, why, when and where of leading.

This month I want to talk about three additional attributes of good leaders:

4) Good leaders STAY GROUNDED;5) Good leaders STAY FOCUSED; and6) Good leaders ENCOURAGE DIFFERENT VIEWS.

Good leaders stay grounded; they are into the details of their business and are on the “front lines.” Good leaders do not lose touch with customers or their employees.

Good leaders understand the fragility of success and how their success results from the outstanding performance of their employees. Success does not go to a good leader’s head. Good leaders resist and fight arrogance, hubris and the trappings of success.

Too many business leaders spend too much time talking and dining with consultants, investment bankers, lawyers, and accountants. You did not become successful that way and you will not stay successful that way. You must allocate a significant portion of your time to being on the front lines – getting the facts first-hand, assessing the market, assessing customer needs and complaints, and assessing the competition first-hand. And yes, talking with your employees and getting their ideas on how to do things faster and better.

In the high growth days of Wal-Mart, Sam Walton sent every executive out into the field four days a week to learn first-hand what was selling, who was buying, and how store leaders were being innovative. Good leaders are in the field often, eat with the “troops” often, and never lose sight of the fundamental fact that business is really pretty simple – meeting a customer’s needs through highly motivated employees. Good leaders understand that they have two constituencies they must serve: employees and customers.


Sydney Finklestein of Dartmouth Tuck School of Management in his new book Why Smart Executives Fail details the findings of his research which shows that the failure of most businesses is a result of one of four major business change efforts:

1) A major new venture; or 2) A M&A; transaction; or 3) A major change effort; or 4) New competitive challenges. The four events named above increase your chance of failure greatly. Good leaders understand the risks and difficulties of major change. Good leaders understand that some of these big deals or change efforts result from executive boredom. Opening that geographic expansion – diversifying your business – buying a company – entering into a big joint venture – is in many cases nothing more than a way to escape executive boredom and to do something exciting and challenging.

Good leaders face the facts; they know that running an operationally efficient and excellent business means repetitive execution and repetitive execution can be boring. Good leaders keep themselves and their people focused and find a way to make the daily repetitiveness fun. The job of a good leader is to make work fun and meaningful.


Finklestein, in his book, Why Smart Executives Fail, also states that business failure results from “flawed executive mindsets that throw off a company’s perspective of reality” and because of “delusional attitudes that keep this inaccurate reality in place.”

Businesses generally are built by people with similar values and views. In the recruitment process there is a strong bias to hire someone you like – someone like you.

Good leaders understand that diversity of experience and diversity of opinion are good – a good test of reality. Good leaders create an environment where critical debate can occur. Good leaders test their views of reality often.

As Bossidy and Charan stated in their book Execution “You need robust dialogue to surface the realities of the business.”

I have told several CEOs that they should hire an Executive VP of Reality Therapy whose job would be to debate, test, and critique the underlying key market and business assumptions and to make sure the CEO is getting a complete and realistic picture of the market, customers, competitors, and his own organization.

Good leaders encourage critical debate and good leaders reward the courageous offering of well-reasoned differing opinions. Good leaders continuously test their views of reality.