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A Conversation with John Baldoni


Last updated 11/1/2012

John Baldoni is an internationally recognized executive coach, speaker, and author. In 2012, Leadership Gurus International ranked him #10 on its list of the world’s top leadership experts. His latest book, The Leader’s Pocket Guide: 101 Indispensible Tools, Tips, and Techniques for Any Situation, has just been published by AMACOM. AMA spoke with Baldoni recently for an Edgewise podcast. The following is an edited version of that interview.

AMA: You’ve written other books about leadership. The Leader’s Pocket Guide is literally smaller in scale. What compelled you to write this type of book?
John Baldoni: It really came about from my executive coaching work. This book is dedicated to the many men and women I’ve had the privilege of coaching. And while I’ve had a small part in their career development, they in turn have had a huge impact on my learning and development as an executive coach. So this book is really a sharing of the lessons I’ve learned. Many of the essays come from conversations I’ve had with my clients. Although I don't betray confidentiality by any means, they’re themes and topics that we talk about in coaching. I thought it was time to get a lot of stuff down in one collection.

AMA: The book focuses on three areas of development: self, colleagues, and the organization. What does self-development involve?
JB: I think today managers are very focused on doing what’s best for their team, and that’s good. But you really can’t be an effective leader if you don't take care of yourself. For example, critical thinking is a key leadership skill. It’s very important for leaders to be able to weigh options. Sometimes I hear from senior leaders that their folks and their team really aren’t thinking critically. And it’s not because of any lack of intelligence; it’s more out of a sense of expediency and urgency.

In addition, every leader needs to have a certain degree of presence about him or herself. Presence draws people to you. And your role as a leader, of course, is to bring people together for common cause. So you must project a presence that is both accessible and welcoming, but at the same time, authoritative and backed by conviction. This is the way you build trust. So those are some of the areas for self-development.

AMA: It’s one thing to manage one’s own staff; that’s a traditional business relationship. But what advice do you have for leaders who are working with colleagues over whom they have no direct authority?
JB: I think leading one’s peers is the most difficult form of leadership, because as you said, you have no line of authority. What you do have is the power of your presence, the power of your ideas, and the power of you.

In fact, this topic actually led to one of my previous books called Lead Your Boss, which is about leading from the middle as well as leading your supervisor. I recall hearing Jim Collins of Good to Great fame talking about legislative leadership versus executive leadership. He said that John Kennedy was an example of executive leadership, which is what our president does. But then he talked about legislative leadership, which is leading one’s peers, and that’s something that Lyndon Johnson did when he was majority leader in the 1950s.

There are three critical elements to being able to lead from the middle and lead one’s colleagues:
1. Competence: You have to be able to do your job well.
2. Credibility: Other people believe you can do the job well.
3. Confidence: Not only must you be confident in your ability to do the job and to lead others; other people must have confidence in you.

So, competence, credibility, and confidence. Those are mantras I use to give people insight into how to influence others and bring people together. This is really important, because I firmly believe that it’s the men and women of good intention in the middle who actually get the work done, who actually implement the initiatives. It’s not the CEO. It’s not the C-suite that is getting the work done. And very often they’re the first ones to tell you that. The ideas from on high, if you will, are implemented and driven through the organization by people who can persuade and lead their peers.

AMA: What advice can you give to people about building their leadership brand within their company? And why is this important?
JB: The word we often use about brand is “authenticity,” and that’s a nice HR word or organizational behavior word, but brand is really what it is. So, what is a brand? A brand is perception—how others perceive you. Are you trustworthy? Are you credible? And ultimately, do people want to follow you? So your brand is really a reflection of your authenticity, the real you. And that authenticity—your brand—is earned. It’s never given. It may come with a title because people want to get along with their boss, but it must be nurtured and reinforced by doing the right thing, saying the right thing, and backing it by example. It’s essentially the projection and your connection with people who are your followers or who have entrusted you with leading them.

AMA: How important is it to find that leader you can follow or that mentor who can help put you on the right path? What should you be looking for?
JB: Sometimes, in tough times, we lament a lack of leadership, and certainly there might be that in the political spectrum. But I see no lack of leadership in our culture, in our society, and in our organizations. I see a lot of well-intentioned men and women who are doing heroic things to make a positive difference in the lives of the people they lead. So I would look for somebody who cares about doing what’s right, the right thing, doing things the right way, and not because it’s easy, but because it is what the organization needs doing.

I think those people exist at every level. We have front line people in an organization who are natural leaders. We have our teachers, coaches, and community volunteers. You’ll find them everywhere. It’s people who walk the talk. Very simply, they lead by example. They may actually be very quiet people who don’t talk much about what they do, but you follow their example because they’re making that positive difference one at a time in their organizations as well as in the people they lead.

I’m often asked—especially when I speak to collegiate audiences—which leaders I admire. And, you know, it’s always a who’s who of the historical figures: Franklin Roosevelt or Winston Churchill, or corporate leaders like Alan Mulally at Ford or Anne Mulcahy, formerly at Xerox. But I also flip it back to them. I tell them, “You know, you have role models in your own life—ideally your parents.”

Learn more about The Leader’s Pocket Guide: 101 Indispensible Tools, Tips, and Techniques for Any Situation.