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Understanding the Leadership Trifecta

Leadership. As a concept, it’s something most of us admire and many of us aspire to. While we may not aspire to lead on a grand stage, shying away from politics or committees, there’s still a way that we want to be seen as being smart, savvy, inspiring, and “follow-worthy” if you will. 

Parents want their children to look up to them; bosses want their teams to follow them; change-makers want folks to shift their viewpoints to align with them. Leaders, generally speaking, want to stand out, stand apart, and be seen as being great.

Sometimes, however, it can be hard to understand what actually makes a leader GREAT.  In my experience, greatness in leadership boils down to a critical TRIFECTA of qualities: INTENTION, IMPACT, and ACCOUNTABILITY. Let me explain:

When great leaders share ideas or take action, it’s with a very clear intent. They are aware of what it is they’re striving for, what the desired outcome is. This intention is what drives their course of action, and their choices.

From this place of clear intention, great leaders pay attention to their impact. They notice how their choices, decisions and actions “land” out there in the world, the effect that is created from their original intention. They notice when the impact serves, and when it backfires, or when it fizzles.

And now comes the great part: great leaders are fully accountable for all of it. They take responsibility for the impact they’ve had, celebrating success when it’s appropriate, and correcting mistakes when it’s necessary. When correcting mistakes, they also apologize for whatever fallout occurred; they don’t try to brush past the “mistake”, if there was one. They name it, they own it, and they do what they can to rectify it.

This past week, in my neck of the woods, there was a great example of a public leader demonstrating how this trifecta works. Our local public school board made the decision to pull funding for a theatre project that they’ve supported for over a decade. The issue this year, was that the project “portrayed the school board in a negative light” – it’s a high school production called Prom Queen, based on a true story from not that far back. It tells of a young man who took a school board to court and fought – successfully – for his right to take his boyfriend to prom. It is historically accurate – not representative of the board as it operates today, and still accurate in its historical context.

When the board pulled funding, the community went up in arms. They voiced their displeasure, reminding the board that its job was to teach history accurately, and provide opportunities for  students and educators to learn from past mistakes. In response, the chair of the board of Trustees did three things: he acknowledge the intention that guided the original decision, he spoke to the impact that resulted – which was not part of the original intention – and he took full responsibility for it all, on behalf of the board.

Some would argue that he did a 180 and was waffling. That wasn’t it at all. Instead, he realized that as leaders, he and his colleagues – who are elected to represent the community – made a mistake. While their original intention felt right, it didn’t play out as intended. The impact wasn’t what was desired. And so, he took responsibility and rectified the original action.

It’s not always easy to stand in this trifecta. As human beings, we want to believe that our clear intentions will always land with desired impact. When they don’t, it’s hard to admit error and own the mistake. We’re taught from a very young age, after all, that mistakes are punishable. And yet, this last piece of the trifecta – taking ownership of a mistake, being accountable – in combination with the other two pieces, is what makes great leaders, GREAT.

Bottom-line: if you want to be a great leader, it’s time to stretch a bit. You’ve got to be willing to develop three particular strengths. Learn to clarify your intention, notice your impact, and hold yourself accountable. These three qualities are what make up the essential trifecta of great, effective leadership.

Tracy Harvie