Ed Toner

The Practice of Leadership

I have always thought about leadership in the binary.  I believe only two types of leaders exist, those who react to issues and those who can envision and then articulate forward direction.  When invited to present on the topic of “Leadership”, I normally speak about two different styles of leadership: Transactional Leadership and Transformational Leadership.  A reactive type of leader is prone to a transactional style, while a visionary leader tends to inspire transformation.  Considering my fixation on the topic, it’s fitting to have a blog about my observations on the practice of leadership.

Full disclosure, I might be writing a tirade against sensational leadership books; you know the ones with titles like, Learn to Become an effective Leader and 10 Steps to Leadership Strategy. I have not read them.  I think it is because leadership is gained through experience, not from a book (or a blog).  I share stories about my experience with you, knowing that I prefer to observe other leaders (rather than read about what others’ have observed). The behaviors I don’t like, I avoid, and I try to emulate those that I admire.  Maybe good leaders take responsibility to put knowledge into practice.



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My leadership career, many of you know, began right after college and in all of those years, never have l thought -- What would all of those books say to do in this situation?  I relied on a consistent set of values, and I have evolved from practice and experience. My method is “organic” at best, and an “experiment” to say the least.  The way I see it, you can privately practice getting better at many skills in life, but you can only learn how to become a good leader in public.  This impasse put me in many an uncomfortable situation over time, but it was inevitable; some mistakes result in very humbling experiences.  Maybe the difference between good and bad leaders is that the good ones can recognize their own mistakes, correct them and keep going.



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I observed some basic traits while practicing good leadership, and here are the traits that I like. (Whether these are already well-renowned leadership traits, I do not know.  Remember I did not read the book.):

  • Good leaders are always decisive when dealing with conflict. Decisiveness is the most important trait to develop. An issue or conflict does not resolve itself.  Maybe some leaders choose to ignore these because they find the situation difficult or upsetting to deal with.


  • Good leaders lead with enthusiasm and provide a compelling vision.  The art of leadership is motivating people naturally through this energy.  Recently, I have been concerned that we could hit a sophomore slump in the tail phases of consolidation and I have been thinking proactively of ways to keep us motivated to maintain our gains. Maybe some leaders need more practice motivating themselves about what they're doing, even, and especially, after a big win.
  • Good leaders know to set deadlines and meet them. They acknowledge the importance of gathering as much information as possible, but the organization must move forward. Maybe some leaders get stuck in analysis paralysis.


  • Good leaders will live with and own the consequences of their failures. However, they place importance on including a network of trusted advisors in decisions to ensure they have support for any decision they make. The more ownership in the decisions, the more effective the result will be. Maybe some leaders forget to build a reliable support system.

I will leave this with one final anecdote. Early in my career, I led a team that supported a retail chain of stores and I always asked my hiring managers to find candidates with good “people skills”.  I felt that we could teach people the technical skills, but customer service was the lead qualifier.  Maybe leadership skills are the same, something you bring with you and simply enhance over time. 



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