3 Secrets of Great Leadership in 3 Seconds

by  Alan Derek Utley  |  Leadership Development

I recently had the honor of participating on a graduate school alumni panel. This was my chance to give back, by sharing some advice with the incoming students of the various graduate programs offered by the business school.

Standing in front of a room full of future M-somethings, I answered questions about why I pursued an MBA, how I made the most of the program, and how my degree prepared me for the role I have today.

Most of these questions were shared with me in advance, so that means I had prep time to craft what I hoped would be thoughtful answers.  Half way into it, I thought things were going well.

But then, the discussion moderator, Peter, threw the panel members a curve-ball.  He announced that he had an impromptu question for each of us.  What was he thinking?!  There’s nothing quite like a little improvisation in front of a few dozen eager graduate students, with their eyes locked on your position.

Leaving me very little time to produce a response, Peter asked, “Alan, what advice do you have for aspiring leaders?”  Peter directed this question at me in particular, because he knows that I spend a lot of my time thinking about, talking about, and trying to teach leadership to both students in an academic environment and business leaders in a corporate setting. Surely one should expect me to have a great answer, right!?

I jokingly responded, “That’s a great question, Peter.  Do we have an hour to really dig into it?”  I hoped it was not obvious to the audience that I was only buying time with this initial response while I thought up my real answer.   With a straight face, Peter said, “I’ll give you two minutes.”  This was serious business.

In my favor, everyone laughed.  But, when the laughter died down, they just stared at me, waiting for an answer.  My mind churned quickly.

Advice for Aspiring Leadersadvice

In three seconds, here’s what I came up with:

  1. Be the best follower you can be
  2. Be authentic
  3. Learn how to get work done through others

I elaborated:

1.  To be a great leader, one must first be a great follower.   I say this because I believe many of the qualities that are desirable in a leader are the very same qualities we look for in our followers.  So, there is a thin line separating the two, and if you can’t be a great follower, you may ultimately struggle as a leader.

Visit the post, Follow by Example, for more of my thoughts on what it takes to be an effective follower, and why I think they’re important.

2.  I’ve seen new leaders try to act like some ideal image of a leader they have in their minds.  But what happens is they become robotic or hollow in their attempts to be something or someone they are not.  And people end up seeing right through it.  On the other hand, when leadership comes from an honest place, informed by your unique self, it tends to result in the sort of authenticity that inspires people to act.

Visit the post, Playing the Part of Leader, to explore five techniques for ‘being a leader,’ not just ‘acting’ like one.

3.  We often get promoted into leadership positions because we’re good at being individual contributors.  Then when things get tough as the leader, we have a tendency to fall back into our comfort zones and do the very same things that got us promoted in the first place. But that’s not our jobs anymore, and the unfortunate result is twofold: One, we’re not doing our new job.  Two, we’re preventing other people from doing theirs. Our new leadership job is to direct, guide, coach, mentor, and develop others. Yes, we still have to get the work done, but we need to do it through others.  And when we do that, we get to watch them succeed, and we celebrate their many accomplishments.

Visit the postBeing Leader-ish, for other signs that we may not be fulfilling our true leadership roles.

So those are my 3 secrets of great leadership in 3 seconds.  I know these aren’t the only secrets out there, and they may even hardly qualify as secrets. In the end, though, I think it is a decent list, because these are important reminders for all leaders, new and experienced.

The M-somethings seemed to like it and that’s what mattered for the moment.

What if you only had 3 seconds to come up with 3 secrets of great leadership?  What would yours be? Time yourself, write them down, and share them below.

And, go!

Originally posted on  Re-posted with permission.


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About The Author

Articles By alan-utley
Alan Utley is a Regional HR Director for one of the world’s largest vacation businesses. By night he dabbles in executive coaching, blogging, and public speaking and is proud to serve on the management faculty at a major university. In his own words, Alan is a “world-class wannabe expert in all things leadership and careers.” Connect with Alan at and on Twitter @AlanDUtley.

What People Are Saying

Mike Henry  |  31 Dec 2013  |  Reply

Great post Alan. Thanks.

I think mine would be:
1. Accept responsibility;
2. Do what’s best for the team;
3. Be willing to screw up.


Alan Derek Utley  |  31 Dec 2013  |  Reply

Thanks Mike. Those are good ones, and I’ll bet it only too you *two* seconds to come up with them. I’m a fan of the advice to “be willing to screw up.” That is very freeing and allows for innovative things to happen when you can learn from screw-ups. Happy New Year!

Prash Chopra  |  03 Jan 2014  |  Reply

Thanks for a great blog!

Mine would be:

1. Inspire
2. Enable
3. Show by example

Alan Derek Utley  |  05 Jan 2014  | 

Thank you Prash! Good ones.

CAPT Jeff Plummer  |  31 Dec 2013  |  Reply

Good post with a simple message and teaching point. Thanks for the associated links; will share with our exec staff. From the U.S. Navy’s Command Leadership School:

1. Responsibility
2. Authority
3. Accountability

. . . and the understanding of how they relate to one another.
Have a great 2014!

Alan Derek Utley  |  01 Jan 2014  |  Reply

Captain Plummer, thank you for sharing these three from the Navy. In my experience, the military has much to offer as far as learning leadership is concerned. Thank you for all you do to serve our country. – Alan

Thanh Tran  |  01 Jan 2014  |  Reply

Thanks Alan. My top 3 would be:
– Affection: influence and coach your followers
– Attention: pay attention and close interact with your followers
– Appreciation: appreciate what your staff are doing since you can not do everything all alone by yourself

Alan Derek Utley  |  02 Jan 2014  |  Reply

Than Tran,

Thank you for offering your three. These are right on, and I love the alliteration. “Attention” speaks to me because I find that difficult sometimes. Paying *good* attention can be one of the most difficult things we do; all the more reason why it is so important.

Thank you!

Kenna Griffin  |  02 Jan 2014  |  Reply

No. 1 seems important to me too, but not for the reason you wrote. I have benefited greatly from having amazing mentors during every stage of my professional life. I have learned so much from following these special people about the type of mentor I want to be. Since mentorship is something we pay forward, being a good follower only makes sense in this context.

Alan Derek Utley  |  02 Jan 2014  |  Reply


Thank you for highlighting the undeniable importance of a good mentor. I have personally seen and embraced the value of mentors in my career, as well. I hope that I am learning from them and am able to pay it forward often.

Thank you,

Melissa Cherry  |  02 Jan 2014  |  Reply

Alan, those are brilliant observations. Did you really think those up on the spot because I spend quite a bit of time thinking about leadership yet I can pretty much guarantee you that my thoughts would be hardly worth remembering much less writing down if I were put in a similar situation. ;-)

Each point is profound in its own way and the first one is kind of a corollary to one of my thoughts in a book I’m currently working on, which is; Never hire someone you wouldn’t work for. It has a counterintuitive feel to it but makes perfect sense when you really explore the idea.

Alan Derek Utley  |  03 Jan 2014  |  Reply

Melissa, you might be surprised what you can come up with when the pressure is on. Just go with your gut, as they say. I love the idea to never hire someone you wouldn’t work for. I agree. And to extend the idea further, I try to hire people who are simply smarter than me. I want people around me that can make me and my organization better. Good luck with the book. I’ll keep an eye out for it.

Paul LaRue  |  02 Jan 2014  |  Reply

Alan, I really appreciate the simplicity here. As leaders for today, we need to boil thoughts down to their core essence if we are going to be effective ourselves and mentor the next generation. In this instance, you’ve done both. Thanks for sharing this experience!

Alan Derek Utley  |  03 Jan 2014  |  Reply

Paul, thank for your kinds words. I actively have to remind myself to keep things simple because I do tend to overcomplicate / overthink. Glad you think I’ve hit the mark on this one. And I agree; simple is better. Have a great day!

Mark Silet  |  04 Jan 2014  |  Reply

Good post Alan. I like the three secrets you chose – especially considering it was on the spot.

While my answers would not be all that different from your own, I would have to go with:
1) Be credible
2) Be authentic/trustworthy
3) Empower and inspire those around you.

Alan Derek Utley  |  05 Jan 2014  |  Reply


Thank you for offering your three. It is interesting to see the parallels between the two lists.


Lisa Fischer  |  12 Jan 2014  |  Reply

I tried to list mine as fast as possible as if under pressure:

1. When your team is succeeding, it’s about they did right.
2. When your team is failing, it’s about what you didn’t do right.

(Just stumbled upon your blog. I’m going to keep reading more.)

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