For subscribers only

A Human Resources Wake Up Call: The Leadership Obligation

Layne McDonald. Ph.D.

Leadership consists not in degrees of technique but in traits of character. — Lewis H. Lapham

When we perceive the simple center in the complex, we can change our world in powerful new ways. 

Albert Einstein perceived the simple E=MC2 in the complexities of physical reality and changed the history of the 20th century.

Big Daddy Lipscomb, the Baltimore Colt's 300-pound all-pro tackle in the 1960s, perceived the simple center of what was perceived to be the complex game of football. "I just wade into players," he said, "until I come to the one with the ball. Him I keep!" He changed how the game was played. 

Likewise, despite its complex activities, human resources should have a fundamentally simple mission, yet it is a mission that HR professionals neglect. I call that mission the Leadership Obligation of helping the organization recruit, keep, and develop good leaders. 

Without good leaders, few organizations can thrive over the long run. What characterizes a good leader? A good leader consistently gets results in ethical and motivational ways. Because they interact with all business functions and usually supply education and training for those functions, human resource professionals should be focused primarily on recruiting, keeping, and developing leaders that get results. Any other focus is a footnote.

Give good HR teams the benefit of the doubt when there are strained cultures, copious amounts of unhappy associates, and changes that were not allowed to be shared until they happen. These three situations can create a powerfully perfect work storm that HR quickly overwhelms. In these times, good leaders need to come to HR’s aid and push the communication to their teams. When communication stops, people are left to make up ideas about what is happening, which is where companies get in a mess. A cultural necessity is a cross-pollination of talent, support, and leaders willing to help HR in times of need.

With weak leadership, HR will struggle to make the great moves they need to succeed. It takes all the leaders to step out of their lanes and delegate to their teams to have time to do what is more critical (helping the culture, at all costs with HR).

Working with human resource leaders in various companies for the past two decades, they are stumbling. Caught up in the storms of downsizing, compliance demands, acquisitions, mergers, and reorganizations, they are engaged in activities that have little to do with their central mission. Ignoring or at least giving short shrift to the Leadership Obligation, they are too often viewed, especially by line leaders, as conducting sideline endeavors. 

HR leaders have nobody to blame for this situation but themselves. By neglecting the Obligation, they have chosen to be sideline participants.

Here is a three-step action plan to get the HR function off the sidelines and into the games thick. 

Recognize. Link. Execute. 

Before I describe each step, let me define leadership as it ought to be, for your misunderstanding of leadership will thwart you from applying the Obligation. 

The word "leadership" comes from the old Norse root meaning "to make go."  Indeed, leadership is about making “things go,” making people go, and making organizations go. But the misunderstanding occurs when leaders do not understand who makes what go. The people that work for them do the hard in the fieldwork. Leaders often believe that they must MAKE things go, that if people MUST go from point A to point B, let us say, they must ORDER them to go. But order leadership flounders today in fast-changing, highly competitive markets.

In this environment, a new kind of leadership must be cultivated of leadership that aims not to order others to go from point A to point B but instead to motivate them to want to take the lead in going from A to B. 

Leadership today should be about "getting others to lead others."  And it is what we should teach our Leadership clients we coach. We must challenge them to lead, lead for results with this principle, and accept nothing else from them but this leadership.

Furthermore, leadership today must be universal. Organizations must have employees who are all leaders to compete successfully in highly competitive, fast-changing markets. All of us have leadership challenges thrust upon us daily. At the very moment that we are trying to persuade somebody to act, we are a leader, even if that person we are trying to convince is our boss. Managing persuasion is leadership. Furthermore, the most effective way to succeed in any endeavor is to take a leadership position. 

The Obligation applies to all employees. Whatever activities you are being challenged to conduct, make the Obligation a lens through which you view those activities. Have your clients recognize that your work on behalf of their leadership will pay significant dividends toward advancing their careers.

Recognize that recruiting, keeping, and developing good leaders ranks with earnings growth (or nonprofit organizations: mission) as an organizational necessity. So, most of your activities must be tied to the Obligation.

For instance: Leadership Talks

HR executive directors who want to develop courses for enhancing the speaking abilities of their companies' leaders often blunder in the design phase. Not recognizing the Leadership Obligation, they err by describing them as "presentation courses."  Instead, if the Obligation guided them, they would offer courses on "leadership talks."   There is a significant difference between presentations and leadership talks. Presentations communicate information. Presentation courses are a dime a dozen. But leadership talks motivate people to believe in you and follow you. Leaders must speak daily to individuals or groups in various settings. You help their job performance and careers by supplying courses to help them learn practical ways to deliver compelling talks and have them speak better and lead better.

Today, in most organizations, presentation is the conventional method of communication. But when you make the leadership talk the critical process by instituting "talk" courses and monitoring and evaluation systems broadly and deeply within the organization, you will help make your company more effective and efficient.


Though such recognition is the first step in getting off the sidelines, it will not get you into the game. You must link your activities with results to get into the center of things. Not your results, but their results.

Your clients are challenged to get results: sales closes, operations efficiencies, productivity advances, etc. Results are crucial. But other effects are indispensable. Your job is to help your clients achieve their results, especially indispensable ones. You must be their "results partner."  Furthermore, you must help them get sizable increases in those results. The results they get with your help should be more than they would have obtained without your use.

For instance, when developing company-wide aims for leadership talks, you should not aim to have participants win a speaking "beauty contest" but instead speak so that they motivate others to get increases in measured results. When you change the focus of the courses from speaking appearance to the reality of results, you change the participants' view of and commitment to the practices and their view of and commitment to you in supplying those courses. So have the participants define their indispensable results and link the principles and processes they learned in the class to getting measured increases in those results.


It is not enough to recognize. It is not sufficient to link. You must execute. "Execute" comes from the Latin root execute, meaning "to follow continuously and vigorously to the end or even to the grave.'" Let us capture, if not the letter, the spirit of this lively root by ensuring that your activities on behalf of your clients are well "executed" and conducted vigorously and continuously in their daily work throughout their careers. If those activities are helping them get results, you are their "results partner."

For instance, HR professionals can lead an "initiative approach in the leadership talk courses."  After the system, the procedure participant selects an initiative to institute back on the job. Each initiative aims to increase its indispensable results using its learned principles and processes. 

The initiatives and their results should be concrete and measurable, such as productivity gains, increases in sales, operations efficiencies, and reduced cycle times. 

The participants should be challenged to get increases in results beyond what they would have called without having taken the course. They should be challenged to get those increases within a mutually agreed upon time, such as quarterly reports. 

  If the participants do not achieve an increase in results that translates to at least ten times what the course costs, they should get their money back. 

Do not stop there. Getting an increase in results is not the end of the course; it should be the beginning of a new phase of getting results, the stepping up stage. The more participants achieve, the more opportunities they have created to achieve even more. The leadership talk course should have methods for instituting results' step-ups.

One such method can be a quarterly leadership-talk round table. Graduates of the course meet once a quarter to discuss their results and supply best practices for getting more. Human resources should organize, direct, and ease the round tables. In this way, the leaders' results should increase quarter after quarter. 

When HR professionals promote leadership talk courses linked to increasing indispensable results with the "results guarantee," those professionals are genuinely seen as results partners in their organizations. 

I have used the leadership talk as an example of how you can significantly enhance your contributions to the company by applying the Leadership Obligation. Do not just apply the Obligation to such courses alone. Apply it to whatever challenge confronts you. 

When you recognize how that challenge can be met through the Obligation, when you link the challenge to getting increases in measured results, and when you execute for results, you can transform your function. 

You do not have to be as distinguished as Einstein or fantastic as Big Daddy Lipscomb, but you will perceive the simple, powerful center of things in your way. You will be in the thick of the most crucial game your company is playing, helping change your world and your clients' world.

Subscriber content only

To access this content and all of our unlimited content subscribe now