Action! for leadership is communication

Terry came into my office looking pretty upset. Just a few weeks before I had made him team leader of our biggest production team and I had heard through the grapevine things were going a little rough. One of his team had already come to me to complain about his “dictatorial” style.

Despite his youth, Terry had been a fantastic team member and unquestionably committed to the success of the organization. I didn’t think anyone truly resented his promotion. But if people were starting to complain this early, then I knew I had to work with Terry on his communication style. It was going to be a long process. And I had the tough job of convincing him to change in this next meeting.

“Dr. Lauber, they’re just not listening. I’m telling them what to do, but some of them pretend they don’t hear, or make comments as soon as I leave. I don’t think I was born for leadership.”

“Terry,” I replied, “you’ve heard me say many times ‘leaders are made, not born.’ I know you have a great vision of where the team should head, and we’ve worked hard together on benchmarks and measurements of your team’s progress. I think you are doing very well in the Lights! and Camera! areas of leadership. But let’s concentrate on Action!, the communication part of team leadership. Sometimes big differences in how we’re perceived as a leader occur when we change some very simple things, like how we ask people to do things.”

Terry didn’t seem too thrilled to hear this. And the next 15 minutes were spent illustrating how he could have been perceived as “dictatorial.” I pointed out that he was talking to his team as if he was a military commander or a sports coach. And, yes, perhaps most of the movies and role modeling he’d seen on leadership demonstrated this, but it is just one of many leadership styles. I suggested instead that in our technology-driven, creative-media production team, he should start all of his requests with a softer, very congenial request, and only “firm up” his language if necessary.

I told him over time his experience and judgment would improve and he would discover when the firmer tone was necessary, but since he was nearly the same age as most of the people on his team, a collaborative, collegial tone to his requests might “grease” their delivery. I also reminded him that as the leader he was responsible for balancing the team needs against the needs and desires of each individual. Resistance to an instruction didn’t always have to be stomped out. He had to listen and sometimes make the call about whether an exception to the rule had to be made. “In the end,” I explained, “it is always better to have a team member choose to help instead of feeling forced.”

Second, I told him communication is a two-way street. Only in military and sports movies did it look like leaders simply barked commands and everyone suddenly charged into battle with shouting and single-minded effort. In the real world, communicating is a back-and-forth process. For example, he needed to find out if each team member heard and understood his request just as he meant it. I told him he would have to get good at listening and following up on people’s body language or quizzical looks. This might be difficult at first.

“Don’t worry,” I said. “Experience will teach you when things are most likely to get fouled up during the communication step so you’ll become increasingly alert to feedback at just the right times.

“Finally,” I said, “you will have to learn how to deliver your instructions in your own style so they sound like you.”

I tried hard to convince him there was nothing wrong with him. His leadership style was still under development. It might go in a thousand different directions. Perhaps he would be a joking, slightly sarcastic boss; perhaps a formal and polite leader. But it would come, naturally and organically. All it took was practice, and time. Right now he needed to concentrate simply on finding a way to communicate without sounding military.

We agreed to keep meeting. And I said I would help him with his phrasing and word choice. “But,” I finished, “you must work to constantly improve. You want Terry the leader of five years from now to be substantially different, and better than Terry the leader of today.”

He left and, truthfully, I remember wondering if he was going to quit. I hoped he didn’t. I thought Terry had great potential and we sorely needed experienced, committed team leaders like him.

To finish the story, Terry and I talked often about how to communicate with his team, and over the next two years he became better at leadership and eventually held one of the top leadership positions on campus.

Terry’s communication style softened considerably over time and he discovered it was a better fit for the type of leader he truly was. Not surprisingly, it was also better for the style of team he was leading. Most importantly, I believe Terry sees himself now as a “leader in development.” He asks for feedback more than any young person I’ve ever known. So I know Terry will succeed.

The world will, I believe, find ways to reward leaders, young or old, who constantly try to improve.

This article appeared in the Indiana Gazette on Sunday, Sept. 2 and online on Tuesday, Sept. 4, 2012 at


Focusing On Right Measures

Imagine you are sitting in the control room of a television studio, directing your first TV show.
In front of you are 10 different screens all showing different things. Some are live-camera shots, some are graphics or cued commercials. One is the live TV show you are in the process of shooting. Which monitor do you think would draw most of your attention?

If you answered the one showing the live show, you would be correct. Every one of the new team leaders I have trained over the years watches the live TV screen more than any other monitor.

Second question: Which screen should you be watching more than any other? Perhaps surprisingly, the correct answer is not the one showing the current show. You should be watching the screen of the camera angle you are going to show next, as we say, the shot you are going to “cut to.”

Sound odd? Isn’t it best to watch the output of the show to make sure it is going well and has the quality you need? Makes sense, but in reality, no. By the time that shot is up on the live TV feed it is practically too late for you to do anything about it. It’s live. You may want to put about 10 percent of your attention on the live feed to make sure nothing disastrous is happening on-air. But that shot is the outcome of your process. It’s essentially out the door.

New team leaders are surprised to learn that it’s the shot they are about to put on the air that should demand most of their attention. The upcoming shot is the one they can improve, and therefore, use to increase the (immediate future) quality of the show.

Similarly, without leadership experience, many of us think the output of the team is the most important thing to focus on. But nearly all leadership training makes a distinction between “lead” and “lag” measures. As part of the “Lights! Camera! Action!” leadership training I provide, this difference is fundamental to the second part of the training: “Camera!” Where should a new team leader focus his attention? What should be measured and how should feedback be given?

To start, “lag” measures are what (non-leader) team members instinctively think of as the most important measures. They are the outcome measures. They “lag” the efforts of the team and are the products that go out the door. Lag measures are usually obvious. They are articulated in team goals, rewarded by performance measures and observable to nearly everyone.

“Lead” measures, on the other hand, are arguably more important. Lead measures are the intermediate outcomes that “lead up to” the lag measures. If done well, they logically and causally lead to good (lagged) outcomes. Notably, they are usually not observable to outsiders, or perhaps to other team members. But they are still under the team’s control.

For example, if you are running a restaurant, you want your food and personnel costs low. This will lead to greater profits (an outcome/lag measure). In a factory, minimizing production time and inventory costs will lead to greater productivity or costs per unit. Eventually, these will lead to greater profits. In a TV control room, focusing attention on the shots that are about to appear on camera will lead to a better show on the air.

Team members promoted to new leadership positions usually aren’t aware they need to shift their attention and focus their leadership camera on these lead measures. Frequently, they don’t even know what they are. Thus, the “Camera!” work of developing leadership talent is to break down the team process and discover, define, record and report the intermediate measures that lead to team success.

I’ve mentored hundreds of students through their first TV experiences and I’ve discovered it is possible to break the natural habit of watching the “lag” measure. But it doesn’t come easy. Breaking our preconceptions can be hard, particularly if that habit is something so well-learned in Americans. Namely, watching TV.

This article appeared in the Indiana Gazette on Aug. 19, 2012 at

Setting The Lights

I sat behind Chris, the 19-year-old freshman in my TV/film production class, waiting patiently. This was his first time in the director’s chair and I knew he would be nervous. Every one of the hundreds that had sat there before him had been nervous.

As the wait began to grow uncomfortable, I slowly leaned forward in my chair and reminded him of the three things, and only three things, he needed to concentrate on as a new leader of a complex, skill-driven team: “Lights! Camera! Action!” Chris digested the words and remembered what he had to focus on. Slowly he took a deep breath, let his hands fall comfortably to the top of the script, and gave his first command as the director of a TV crew: “Roll tape.” He had taken charge. The show would go on.

Because there is a great deal that can go wrong on a TV show, as in any complex, challenging environment that requires the simultaneous coordination of team members with different skill sets and different responsibilities, the show did not go perfectly. But Chris did well and I clearly remember his expression at the end of it. He had enjoyed it and wanted to do more. Not every student has felt that way after their first experience at team leadership. Many want to run away. Fortunately, some do not.

The Lights! Camera! Action! approach to leadership training uses a familiar phrase to make the principles easier to remember. It pulls heavily from the film-making/TV metaphor though it is applicable to all forms of leadership. It begins by narrowing the new leader’s attention to just three skills. I’ve narrowed initial training to these because they are unique responsibilities of the team leader. Even star performers usually have not had the opportunity to develop these talents.

The first skill, “Lights!,” refers to the responsibility of the team leader to set the goals and vision for the team; to “light the way.” Team members are not burdened with this and have rarely led a goal-setting exercise or been responsible for a team’s final decision. However, choosing a worthy goal and path to get there can be done very well or very poorly. Training is required and most new leaders lack the confidence and experience to do this well on their first try.

Unfortunately, many new leaders will focus on “setting the lights” as a right and forget it is also a responsibility. After months or years of having to follow where others have directed, they may be eager for the chance to chart their own course. But their view of the landscape may be myopic and short-sighted. They may not be aware of other team members’ or team units’ issues and concerns. Proper training in goal-setting and visioning always includes broadening one’s vision and perspective, and communication activities designed to gather information and get buy-in when possible.

Additionally, many new leaders are not comfortable with how goals and paths should be presented. Team members look to leaders not only for information but also for confidence and hope. Team leaders need to make goals seem both worthy and achievable. They need to model the proper attitude and willingness to work. And they need to communicate effectively throughout every level of the organization.

Chris went on to direct hundreds of TV and film productions. Eventually he was one of the first Indiana University of Pennsylvania students to win a national Telly Award for an entirely student-produced TV show. He now works in the film/TV industry in eastern Pennsylvania.

For Chris, as for all of us, the journey of a thousand steps begins with just one step, as does the journey to a future Emmy Award. But focused training and guided self-discovery can make the journey more productive and even more enjoyable.

This article appeared in the Indiana Gazette Aug. 5, 2012 at