The Litmus Test for Leadership


Those of us who are looking to improve our leadership skills can easily get overwhelmed by the sea of options when trying to decide what advice to follow. A search on for "leadership" will bring back 155,000+ results and even if you refine your search ("business leadership" for example), you will still be staring down the barrel of over 23,000 choices. Most of us must rely on a good recommendation or are drawn to a particular title, book cover or familiar author in order to further narrow our selection. This challenge is compounded once we settle on our final decision and it becomes time to actually consume the information.

The best advice in the world is useless if it's not what I consider "practically actionable." Meaning that if it's too difficult or lengthy to remember and implement, regardless of how incredible it is, it will quickly become "some good points" that we do very little with. Trying to remember AND implement 10-45 laws of something or 100 best tips or rules of anything is impractical and often impossible.

Leadership needs a backbone to build off of before you consider layering on additional concepts and skills.

In his book David and Goliath, Malcolm Gladwell articulates a very simple truth: "When people in authority want the rest of us to behave, it matters - first and foremost - how they behave." This shouldn't be hastily tossed into the lead by example category. As Gladwell explains, "This is called the principle of legitimacy, and legitimacy is based on three things:

  1. Voice - The people who are asked to obey authority have to feel like they have a voice - that if they speak up - they will be heard.
  2. Predictable - There has to be a reasonable expectation that the rules tomorrow are going to be roughly the same as the rules today.
  3. Fair - The authority has to be fair. It can't treat one group differently from another."

If your intention is to hone your leadership skills, I urge you to start from the ground up. First establish your core leadership values and work to engrain them in your DNA. This will give you the proper foundation for every leadership role you find yourself in. For me, it was deciding that all things leadership would be put to the "legitimacy" test. This is when my perspective completely changed. It was as if the grayness of my personal leadership philosophy had suddenly become black and white. I no longer found myself trying to decide if a particular situation was at "level 2 or 3" from a recent book or matched "rule #17." Clarity and awareness are both incredibly powerful. I now had both.

Repetition is the mother of retention - and for me, the only way I will consistently practice a new behavior is to have it staring me in the face until it sticks. The words VOICE, PREDICTABLE, FAIR are boldly written on the top of the giant white board within eyeshot of my desk. For the last 9 months I have been running every perceivable leadership situation I find myself involved in through these 3 criteria; both proactively and after the fact. This not only goes for the sales team I am responsible for leading, but in the father role with my 7-year-old daughter along with leaders I witness interacting with others.

What has adopting this litmus test provided?

  1. Incredible clarity for decision making in leadership situations
  2. The ability to make significantly faster leadership decisions
  3. The ability to quickly spot a great leader with certainty
  4. A framework to coach others through poor leadership experiences
  5. A true north to build the rest of my leadership journey on

The most powerful and successful concepts are simplistic at their core. I encourage you to give your own leadership a 30-day "legitimacy" test and review the outcome. Regardless of whether you ultimately adopt these or some other core values for yourself, you should build a proper foundation by getting clarion clear on your personal leadership's true north.


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