The Signs Of Provocative Leadership

by  Chip Bell  |  Leadership Development
The Signs Of Provocative Leadership

It was an amusing game at a leadership retreat, especially after a few adult beverages. The instructions were simply describe leadership as a highway sign and tell why.

There were the comical ones like One Way or No Turns, or Rough Road Ahead”. But the one that stumped us all was Speed Limit 24 MPH.

When the laughter stopped the explanation that followed was more than a frivolous detour. In fact, it was downright sobering.

“Leaders need to be provocative,” said the aberrant participant. “Influence is already baked into the word itself. But to be effective a leader’s influence needs to be noticed and considered. It needs to provoke some action or attitude. Who would miss a provocative speed limit sign that had an unexpected number on it?”

The game – especially the off-the-beaten-path answer – was the subject of the following morning’s workshop. What should be the nature and practice of leadership in order for it to be effectively practiced?

My first commanding officer in combat in Viet Nam was a no-nonsense, battle honed, badass who accepted nothing short of excellence. He was not inclusive; he was decisive. He was uninterested in my morale. “Go talk to the chaplain,” he would say. He was deeply interested in the mission.

He was a true warrior and expected all in his command to be likewise. His principle: Leaders lead. Be the first boots on the ground and the last boots off. He was a great leader and I would follow CPT Jack Hamilton to the end of the earth.

My first boss in the professional world was a bright, charismatic leader who melded a diverse group of officers into a superb partnership. Our unit was famous for innovation and forward-thinking practices. He forged an environment laced with trust, respect and collaboration. He was a great listener and curiosity-driven conversationalist.

He demonstrated courage and responsible risk-taking, even with a boss famous for his strong, power-driven style. His principle: There is unity in strength; strength in unity. Take care of the whole. He was a great leader and I would follow Chuck Cooley to the end of the earth. Hold that thought…

The Trouble With A Formula

I was recently in a meeting with the leadership development director of a large manufacturing company. The topic was the company’s leadership development training program. He was boasting about the number of leadership theories he taught in the training program.

“They get a good blend of Hersey-Blanchard’s Situational Leadership, Kotter’s Change Management, Kouzes-Posner’s Five Leadership Practices, Collins’ Level Five and many more.” I realized he was giving me the table of contents of a college textbook on leadership theories.

The bad boy in me wanted to tell him leadership was not a theory or model. Just ask Jack or Chuck. Models may explain but it is principles that guide. We feel safe with formulas. It is comforting to know we can explain away ineffective leadership behavior with simple labels like EQ or ESTJ or 9/1.

Participants sit through classes chock full of models and instruments with a few clever games thrown in and come out a trained leader. It is easy for the trainer to train; it can be a waste for the learner if the test is competence that can be replicated, applied, and mastered in the line of fire.

Before I deployed to Viet Nam as a newly minted lieutenant, I had the opportunity to go through leadership training as a part of Infantry Officer Candidate School at Fort Benning, GA. The centerpiece was a set of filmed battlefield situations in which a leadership decision was required for success.

At the crucial decision point the film stopped and the words on the screen read: “What do you do now, lieutenant?” What followed was a discussion about leadership principles relevant for the role, responsibility and setting. There were no formulas, models or diagrams to remember, just principles.

The Crucible For Principle-Centered Leadership

Jack Hamilton would have been a failure had he applied his combat-relevant principles to the unit lead by Chuck Cooley. As much as I learned from Chuck, I cannot imagine his collaborative style working in the thick of combat. Leadership is more than situational; it is cultural.

The culture of a group of Army Rangers is totally different than the culture of a staff unit in a financial services company. Each culture harbors a set of principles, written or implied, that guide leader beliefs that influence leader actions and practices. What provokes in one culture only perturbs in another.

Captain Michael Abrashoff is the former captain of the USS Benfold, the ship the U.S. Navy acclaimed to be the best-run ship in the Navy.” He writes in his book, It’s Your Ship:

“On my first day aboard when the chow line formed for the traditional Sunday lunch on the deck of the ship I went to the back of the chow line,” says CPT Abrashoff. “It had been a tradition that all officers went to the front of the chow line and then sat together in a different area of the deck. After getting my meal, I sat with the enlisted personnel. It signified to every sailor on board that I was there to support them, not the other way around.”

The following Sunday, every officer went to the back of the chow line and sat with the enlisted personnel. His principle: Leaders use their actions to affirm that all people under their command have unique contributions.

We could probably find the basis of CPT Abrashoff’s decision in Robert Greenleaf’s service leadership model. But the guide for this leader was not a model but a principle; one that could be understood and replicated by others simply by the message sent through the leader’s actions.

Start a conversation in your organization about what it means to be a leader at Acme. What is the organizational mission? What are the core values and how are they manifested in fundamental principles for leaders?

When the late Stephen Covey suggested, “think win win” or “seek first to understand, then to be understood” he was suggesting a principle, not a theory. So, what do you do now, leader?

Have you had a leader whose adherence to principles provoked in a good way?
Photo Credit: Fotolia sakda2527 (modified)

About The Author

Articles By chip-bell
Chip R. Bell is a renowned keynote speaker and has served as a customer loyalty consultant to some of the world’s most famous brands. He has authored a number of national best-selling books including “The 9 1⁄2 Principles of Innovative Service.” His newest book is the just-released, “Kaleidoscope: Delivering Innovative Service That Sparkles.” He can be reached at  »  View Profile

What People Are Saying

John E. Smith  |  17 Nov 2015  |  Reply

Hi, Chip … as usual, a fascinating and provocative post to set our brains working.

I enjoyed your review of how different leadership approaches work in diverse contexts and really resonated with the principle you included in the second example: “There is unity in strength; strength in unity”. Nicely stated and takes what we often hear (“Strength in unity” alone) to a whole new level.

While I did not see combat, my military background also includes those leadership situations and that dreaded question “What do you do now, Lieutenant?” Unfortunately but predictably, my response were usually weak and sometimes just did not fit at all .. but they made me think about what I could do in a real situation.

I think you make an excellent point about moving past reliance on models to identify and live with principles. The models tend to come and go, at least in my experience, and may only reflect the popularity of a particular book or person at a given time.

Principles tend to be longer-lasting and more useful.

I have no particular example to offer, but you are making me think much deeper about my own leadership this morning and that is a very good thing.


Keith Arendall  |  23 Nov 2015  |  Reply

I enjoyed reading your post. I am familiar with all of the Leadership theories that you mentioned and I try to work with them.

My question is this:
What is the difference between a theory and a principle? Are principles how you carry out the theories?

Thank you

Chip Bell  |  24 Nov 2015  |  Reply

This is my take. A theory is a generally accepted explanation of facts…like gravity…that provides understanding; A principle is a statement of truth…like win-win wins…that provides guidance. What are your thoughts.

Kelly  |  17 Dec 2015  |  Reply

Very good read, Chip. I’ve had the opportunity, and blessing, to serve in leadership roles in civilian and military appointments, and I’ve found it very interesting how, to your point, leadership boils down to simple truths. Knowledge gain, or leadership training, that help with ‘what to do when’ can be helpful. For me, as a leader, it boils down to, can I meet my people where they are, and can I get them to see and realize their potential.

Thanks for the post!

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