Taking Advantage of Those “Leadership Moments”

Taking Advantage of Those “Leadership Moments”

After the Deepwater Horizon explosion that killed eleven men, BP CEO Tony Hayward infamously said, “I’d like my life back.” This was the beginning of the end for Mr. Hayward, who was fired from his position a couple of months later. We have all seen this before – how some leaders will rise to the occasion while others falter when a crisis hits. Deepwater Horizon was indeed a terrible crisis, but not all crises that leaders face will be this significant or far-reaching. In fact, Kouzes and Posner (2017) suggest that managers perform potentially at least twelve “leadership” acts every day, that is, behaviors where we are trying to positively influence others for the good of the team and the organization (as well as for the leader’s own good).

These leadership moments are analogous to what Jan Carlzon, former CEO of Scandinavian Airlines System (SAS), described as “moments of truth.” In that context, he was referring to the contacts between a customer and a company representative. Similarly, I view the interactions between a leader and his or her followers as moments of truth, where the outcomes of these interactions can lead to a more positive path and ultimately a productive and effective relationship – or its opposite. Viewed in this context, there are many such interactions that leaders have during the course of the day; these are the day-to-day moments that provide opportunities for them to demonstrate their leadership. They don’t have to be big moments, but the cumulative effect is to build their leadership and influence.

In fact, you don’t even have to be a “formal” leader or a manager to show your leadership and demonstrate leadership behavior. But you first need to be aware of these leadership moments and adapt a leader mind-set. Of course, this is easier said than done. Unfortunately, many of us don’t necessarily carry this view of ourselves as leaders, perhaps because of the following:

  • We have “implicit leadership theories” or prototypes of what a leader should look like, or how a leader should behave. For example, research has shown that individuals who are extroverted and show dominance tend to be selected to leadership positions more frequently than others.
  • We associate leaders with larger-than-life characters and charismatic figures. When we generally talk about leaders, our minds immediately jump to such larger-than-life figures. These may be political leaders like JFK, spiritual leaders like Ghandi, military leaders like MacArthur, or business leaders like Steve Jobs.  If our image of leadership is shaped by these individuals, then we might in fact conclude that these are tough shoes to fill, and in no way could we ever attain the stature and success of these individuals.
  • Those who perform extraordinary acts in times of crises. Some of these are ordinary individuals who show courage in the face of danger (like the five passengers who tackled a gunman who opened fire in a French train earlier this year). Others are leaders who summon the will and brilliance to face reality and make bold decisions, such as Intel CEO Andy Grove’s decision to abandon the chip business and shift toward microprocessors, or IBM CEO Sam Palmisano’s decision to sell the IBM hardware to focus on services.
  • Our own identity. Professor Sue Ashford of the University of Michigan points out that when MBA students are asked to write descriptions of who they are, only 16% mention the word “leader.”

Recently, I came across the Heath brothers’ latest book, “The Power of Moments” (Heath and Heath, 2017), in which they analyze why some experiences become so memorable, and how leaders can capitalize on what they call “the power of moments.”  I find their framework very useful in suggesting to managers how they might capitalize on these leadership moments. I have paraphrased their descriptions of the four elements of such defining moments here.


These are moments that stand out from the day-to-day. Think about the interactions you have had with others, including managers who have supervised you, and what stands out to you about some of those interactions. For one lab worker I once interviewed, it was the time when the CEO of the company, while visiting the lab, shook his hand for the remarkable work he had done on a project, and personally thanked him for his contributions. A short time later, he received a letter from that same CEO acknowledging his value to the organization. The lab worker had this framed and to this day the framed letter hangs on his office wall. He also received a bonus that year, but he does not even remember how much the bonus was. As the Heaths point out, there are many such moments in organizations that you can “elevate.”  

My take-away: Look for those opportunities where your leadership actions will have the most positive impact. There will be many such potential opportunities every day, e.g., thanking an employee or expressing gratitude for a job well done.


This is like an Aha moment when something clicks and you start to do something differently. The Heaths suggest helping others (they focus primarily on mentors) with challenging or stretch goals. This is also what good personal trainers and executive coaches do. They encourage people to get out of their comfort zone to try something different. In one of my coaching assignments, I was having a conversation with a high-potential executive who had been struggling with his behaviors especially with his peers and superiors. They saw him as argumentative, dismissive of their concerns, and arrogant. When I asked him if he recognized this in himself, he acknowledged this. He certainly did not intend to come across that way, but his style was very much ingrained in him from his days as a consultant with a top-tier consulting company. It was difficult for him to simply alter his style. We started to work on specific behaviors to improve his collaboration skills (including active listening and building on what others said), and I encouraged him to continue reflecting on the impact of his style. However, the great insight for him came when he along with his wife visited his family over the holidays. Over several days, he began to see his father as exhibiting similar behaviors, and how turned off people were to him. His father had also grown very embittered and cynical. At one point, his wife turned to my client and asked him whether he wanted to end up like his father when he was older. During our next coaching session, I could sense a renewed dedication on my client’s part to change his behavior.

My take-away: During your one-on-ones with your direct reports, discuss their goals and what barriers (especially internal barriers) might be getting in the way of achieving these goals.  Challenge them to get out of their comfort zone, while also making sure you reinforce your support for and confidence in them.


These are moments which managers can capitalize on, especially when their team has achieved something special, like at the end of a successful project, or when a research team learns that the results of a clinical trial they had been working on were positive. The Heaths suggest that because we “underinvest in recognition,” we need to find those moments to provide others with special recognition. My take-away: make celebrations a big deal. Spend the extra money to go for a team dinner or party after the end of a successful project. When she first became CEO of Pepsi, Indra Nooyi celebrated her first successful year with her team with a team dinner in which she invited all of the team members’ spouses. She had also written each of them hand-written notes thanking them for their support of their spouses.


These are moments that enable a team to bond together; they are often when the team is struggling to accomplish a difficult task, and then succeed. Managers can also create “shared meaning.” Some of the most cohesive teams I have seen are among project teams that were faced with high-pressured deadlines and the feeling of exhilaration when the deliverables were successful. These teams had built up a camaraderie, some of which have lasted for decades.

My take-away: Get to know your team members better by finding out something more about them than what you know at work; create a common purpose (with their involvement) and a goal that will challenge and inspire them.

An executive I was coaching recently took on a new leadership role in another company. During his first meeting with his team, he had everyone go around and share with each other something about themselves, their family, their past experiences, and something about themselves that not many know. The team was totally energized by this simple exercise. Even though they had been working together as a team for at least four years, they had never known much about each other and this activity helped build connections and trust.

Professor Bob Quinn (Quinn, 2005) also writes about moments of greatness for leaders, and I would characterize what he calls the “fundamental state of leadership” as pre-conditions for getting into these moments. In other words, these are the things that help us get ready and prepare us for creating these “leadership moments:”

  • Moving from being comfort-centered to being results-oriented.
  • Moving from being externally-directed to being more internally-directed.
  • Becoming less self-focused and more focused on others.
  • Becoming more open to outside signals or stimuli. In other words, leaders need to focus on what they want to achieve versus doing what they have been comfortable in doing (results-oriented).
  • Worry less about social pressures (internally-directed).
  • Putting the team’s needs before yours (focused on others).
  • Paying more attention to the environment (becoming more open to outside signals).

Heath, C. and Heath, D. (2017). The Power of Moments. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Kouzes, J. and Posner, B. (2017). The Leadership Challenge: How to Make Extraordinary Things Happen in Organizations (Sixth Edition). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Quinn, R. (July-August 2005). Moments of Greatness: Entering the Fundamental State of Leadership. Harvard Business Review.