In competitive sports, coaches use a number of tools to influence an athlete’s performance. Diet is certainly one; athletes are placed on regimens designed to maximize muscle growth, fast-twitch response, and stamina. Training routines are formulated with a goal of consistent repetition for a baseball swing, a basketball player’s jump shot, or the quarterback’s throwing motion. And finally, there’s the playbook: the comprehensive guide of what to do and when. It’s a treasured collection of knowledge and it’s the format used by Steve Gladis in his recent book, The Agile Leader—A Playbook for Leaders.
Gladis is no stranger to leadership literature or practice. He holds a number of leadership roles in the Fairfax, Virginia, and Washington, D.C., communities; has spent time as an FBI agent and Marine Corps officer; and has authored 15 books on leadership and communication. He is president and CEO of the leadership development firm, Steve Gladis Leadership.
As an experienced football official, I found Gladis’s approach to this book enticing. There’s not an official around—or a sports fan for that matter—who could resist the title of the book, or the Xs and Os, coach’s whistle, and football that adorn the cover. But be forewarned, this is not simply a playbook. It’s a story. This is a fictional romance novel business story involving a former college quarterback, Luke Hopkins, and his challenges in leading a national sales team.
In Gladis’s words, as Luke embarks upon this journey, “he runs right into the jaws of conflict, resistive culture, and company politics that all leaders must navigate to be successful.” Luke finds that his first year in a new position is fraught with challenges so he decides to seek leadership advice from his former coach, only to find out that he died two years before. In a series of meetings with the late coach’s daughter, Allison Danforth, the two of them embark upon a detailed journey through a manuscript written by her father before his death entitled The Playbook for Leaders.
As the story unfolds, Luke and Allison examine the playbook and its application to the leadership issues faced by Luke. Luke then begins structuring his own playbook. In the end, he pens 10 lessons that ultimately lead him to leadership success as his relationship with Allison grows stronger.
- The Trust Triangle: character, competence, and caring.
- Lead by example: integrity. Leadership is caught, not taught.
- Seek out understanding: of self and others.
- Understand politics: regulate the power see-saw at work.
- Have tough talks: name, frame, game, same, tame, and retain.
- Learn how others respond differently to the same world.
- Leaders create string cultures that create great companies.
- Use the coach-approach to get lasting results.
- YCDLSOYA! You can’t do leadership sitting on your ass!
- Leadership = ability and agility
The real value of Gladis’s work lies not in the story of Luke and Allison (he reveals their fate on page 70 if you wish to read ahead), but rather in chapter 15, “The Agile Leader’s Playbook.” It is here where the practical value of Luke’s playbook is unveiled to today’s public manager. Gladis not only expands on the one-line entries in Luke’s playbook, but he also makes direct reference to events in the Luke and Allison story where these lessons apply. While all of the explanations are valuable, a few of these points are worth mentioning here.
The Trust Triangle: Character, Competence, and Caring
Gladis draws from his previous work, The Trusted Leader as he outlines Aristotle’s three key questions that provide the foundation for public trust of a leader (specifically members of the Senate, in Aristotle’s writing): Is the leader honest and of good character? Does the leader know what he or she is talking about? And does the leader have the best interest of others in the audience at heart? Gladis notes that “yes” answers to these very simple and powerful criteria will populate the trust triangle: good character, good sense, and good will. All sides of this triangle are necessary.
Seek Out Understanding: Of Self and Others
Gladis does an exceptional job in this section of challenging leaders to do what is truly one of the more difficult parts of leadership: understanding oneself. Those familiar with the Johari Window may recall the quadrant called the ‘‘blind spot” wherein one is confronted with “not known to self but known to others.” It is precisely this that Gladis challenges the reader to confront as part of self-awareness and self-regulation.
Understand Politics: Regulate the Power See-Saw at Work
Sound familiar to the public manager? Gladis uses this lesson to warn leaders to be adaptive. Quoting from Ronald A. Heifetz and Marty Linsky’s Leadership on the Line (Harvard Business Press, 2002), Gladis reminds us that leaders must pay close attention to their own superiors, investigate their own flaws, keep supporters close, and keep opposition even closer (here this reviewer shows due respect to Vito Corleone of Godfather fame). Most importantly, leaders must orchestrate conflict by adding and dialing back pressure at appropriate times given the situation.
Use the Coach-Approach to Get Lasting Results
Makes sense doesn’t it? Gladis distinguishes nicely between consulting and coaching, where consultants have all the right answers but coaches have all the right questions. Coaches ask what’s going on, what outcome the person wants, and what’s the impact of the problem. More importantly, coaches hold people accountable and ensure that people realize some measure of value from an encounter. As Gladis writes, most people have the answers within themselves. The good coach and leader can find those answers through effective questioning.
YCDLSOYA! You Can’t Do Leadership Sitting on Your Ass
Awfully hard to resist this one. Here we get a glimpse of a private Gladis family moment in which the author’s father dons a silver tie clip with a derivation of the lettering YCDLSOYA. The young Steven inquires as to its meaning, the elder Steven answers, and the mother glares—priceless. Yet Gladis’s message here is palpable: leaders must be out and about to find out what’s going on, to find out what should not be going on, and to find out anything related to what’s going on.
If you’re expecting a dense, academic leadership text, this is not the book for you. There are no leadership models and no in-depth theoretical explorations. Still, this book is a valuable tool for public leaders, especially those who like a little storytelling. Through the fictional portrayal of Luke and Allison’s budding romance, the reader witnesses fundamental changes that occur at WelPharmCo, where Luke serves as the vice president of sales.
Though Gladis says nothing in the story that would lead one to believe this book is geared to the public manager, the connections are clearly there. Luke is faced with many of the strains and struggles of the public manager today. He has an extremely political environment on his hands, both internally and externally, which he must effectively navigate to meet his sales goals. He struggles with a culture that some of his staff consider stagnant, insular, and with little opportunity for advancement. He has a well-meaning staff, with their own demons, and who are looking for clear and consistent leadership. Finally, he has countless meetings to attend, pressure from board members (we call them Congress!), and unrealistic organizational goals with few resources. Sound familiar?
Patrick S. Malone, PhD, is an executive-in-residence and director of the AU Key Executive Leadership Program in the Department of Public Administration and Policy at American University in Washington, D.C. Contact him at email@example.com.