On Good Leadership

On Good Leadership

When groups of people come together, the need for leadership arises. Unfortunately, many groups do not enjoy good leadership. What is that? It’s like obscenity, as described by the U.S. Supreme Court: Leadership is hard to define, but you sure know it when you see it. Lately, I’ve been around a few groups that could use better leadership and the enjoyable sense of teamwork that comes from it, and, by gosh, it’s time to dig in and fix that.

How many times have we all witnessed someone elevated to a leadership position—supervisor, owner, chief, officer, whatever—only to be forced to bear the brunt of a failed opportunity to become a good leader?

A basic question is, is leadership an innate character trait or can it be taught? In a (very) few people, it may seem to be a natural trait, but for the rest of us mere humans, leadership just isn’t a thing we magically do well. It is a rare thing, to encounter a good leader just because he or she is bestowed with a title. But the very good news is, yes, leadership can be taught. Absolutely, it can.


NOLS Headquarters


Sadly, the opportunity to learn the skills of good leadership is often cut off. It just isn’t viewed as necessary or important. Think how often groups are sabotaged by that dreaded promotional result, the Peter Principle, in which people rise to their levels of incompetence. This phenomenon occurs in business, politics (lord knows!), service industries, families—groups of all sorts.

Happily, lots of leadership development books and courses are available. Lately, I’ve been focused on a place called NOLS, which has been teaching leadership for more than 50 years. This amazing school, for which the “L” in the name stands for “Leadership,” has a carefully considered curriculum on leadership. Founded in 1965 as a wilderness education school, NOLS’s leadership model has spread far and wide, to business schools, the military, corporations (the current Board chair co-founded Netflix), even most of the NASA space shuttle teams.

The original model at NOLS was (and still is) a 30-day wilderness expedition. It gives students ample time to learn and practice skills that include the complex subject of leadership one element at a time, until they become able to connect all the pieces.

But because not everyone can swing 30 days away from their daily lives, NOLS has developed courses that also still deliver in adjusted ways: NOLS students of various-length courses can and do build skills and take them back to the boardroom, the emergency services and military, the schools and businesses of our daily world. Maybe–no, surely– they make better work and play places for their people through improved leadership.


NOLS flamingo art installation


NOLS uses what it calls the 4/7/1 model, a framework with seven leadership skills, four leadership roles, and one signature style. An 80-page leadership education book helps prepare instructors to teach this important and complex topic; I can only describe it here with the broadest of brush strokes. The seven skills involve a “holistic skillset that need to be applied situationally and in combination with each other”: interpersonal communication, self-awareness (many leaders fall apart on theses first two...), competence, judgment & decision-making, vision & action, tolerance for adversity & uncertainty, and a NOLS thing called “expedition behavior.” These last two are especially crucial for those at the head of any group.

The four leadership roles raise the ante for successful leadership, but one commands particular focus:“active followership.” Good leaders need to have the support of their teams. Everyone has to work together “for the betterment of the group and its goals.” The other three roles should also command a group’s attention and effort: designated leadership, peer leadership, and self-leadership. Just because a person is the nominal leader doesn’t imply a successful situation, even for gifted leaders; everyone in the group has a role to play—and perhaps when we assess failed situations we should remember it’s not always the fault of the person at “the top.”

And what about that one signature style? That’s your thumbprint on the team and its success. Each of us is a leader to some extent within the groups to which we belong; the person with the title of “leader” cannot possibly lead you and the others without everyone being willing to pay attention to this element.

Yes, it’s complicated, which is possibly why so many people just wish for good leadership. Good leadership demands an investment of time and money, communication and a willingness to make changes as needed. (Another good resource with excellent food for thought: Simon Sinek, “Why Leaders Eat Last,” found at youtube.com/watch?v=ReRcHdeUG9Y)

Is your group ready for good leadership?



In this in-depth talk, ethnographer and leadership expert Simon Sinek reveals the hidden dynamics that inspire leadership and trust. In biological terms, leaders get the first pick of food and other spoils, but at a cost. When danger is present, the group expects the leader to mitigate all threats even at the expense of their personal well-being.

Why the U.S. Congress Should Go To NOLS

Why the U.S. Congress Should Go To NOLS

Road Trip!

Road Trip!