Awareness to Action Leadership

By Mario Sikora
(for a pdf version of this article, please send an email to me at

Working with leaders, you can’t help but think a lot about leadership. Over the years I’ve developed a lot of opinions on the topic, and perhaps gained a few insights. In this post, I’d like to introduce the approach to leadership that I take with my clients, something I call “Awareness to Action Leadership.”
It’s important to define terms, so let me define what I mean by leadership. There are as many definitions of leadership as there are leaders and people writing about leaders, but this one works for me: successful leadership is the act of influencing others to effectively achieve a desired result consistently and over time. There are a couple of assumptions implicit in this definition, namely that leadership involves the engagement of others, that good leadership improves circumstances, and that in order to get results over time one must lead in a way that makes others want to follow. Thus, treating people well is inherently more effective than treating them poorly.

I’d like to start with some opinions I’ve formed:

There is no secret formula.
Leadership is very context specific; what works in one situation for one person may not work in another situation, or even for a different person in the same situation. Effective leadership requires adaptability to the variables of individuals, contexts, and goals. Circumstances may require a leader to call upon any of a very long list of skills, competencies, attitudes, or behaviors. The challenge is that we can never know in advance what those variables may be at any given time. Thus, a leader must be a student of leadership, continually improving his or her abilities, and constantly monitoring the environment for cues as to what abilities need to be developed. As Charles Darwin wrote, “It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent, but the one most responsive to change.” Nowhere is this more true than in leadership.
                 Because there is no secret formula, we should always beware those who promise a secret formula. If a consultant tells you that his or her list is complete or “necessary and sufficient,” walk slowly to the door.

Leaders are “born” and “made.”
Not born, perhaps, but there does seem to be some innate set of intangible qualities that many leaders have that non-leaders don’t. I don’t know whether they are born with these qualities or whether they are the result of early experience, but they tend to be in place by the time the leader gets to adulthood.
That said, almost anyone--given the requisite intelligence, drive, and fundamental task competence related to their job—can improve their leadership ability. Not everyone is a born leader, but everyone can become a better leader.

Good leaders have an almost-compulsive need to lead.
For whatever reason, the best leaders seem to unable to not lead. Some do it out of a desire to achieve their private goals, some do it for the rewards of the position, but the best can’t explain why they want to lead; they just have some inner drive pushing them toward the front. They often report a desire to see results or shape their environment, and they often feel that they must do it because no one else is capable or willing. Others sense this drive in them and unconsciously follow. Whatever the (often post-hoc) rationale, the need to lead seems to come from an irresistible urge deep in the psyche.

Good leaders work harder than most people.
Delegation, working at the right level, and some degree of work/life balance are important leadership qualities. However, the best leaders have a love for the job of leading and put countless hours into doing it well. They think about work all the time; they are constant learners, always seeking to improve; they are willing to get on a plane and fly across the world, to start the day early, and to end it late. Good leaders might fail because they are outsmarted or because they didn’t have the right skills or the right team or the right product they needed for the circumstances, but they will never fail because they didn’t work hard enough.

Leaders are (and should be) judged on the results.
There seem to be two broad camps when it comes to leadership theory; one I think of as the hard-line camp and the other I think of as the soft-line camp. The latter is focused on what are traditionally called “soft-skills,” interpersonal skills, empowerment, team work, etc. The hard-line camp, more dominant among senior business leaders, focuses on getting bottom-line results. Soft skills matter, but primarily because they are usually needed to get results over the long term (and secondarily because being nice to people is simply good form). A leader can browbeat people into getting results for a while, but eventually people (the good ones, at least) leave or fail to perform at a high level. Sustainable leadership uplifts and motivates people in positive ways. But it is a mistake to neglect the cold, hard facts of life as a leader: if you do not get results you have failed and you will not be the leader for very long. A good leader is able to keep results at the forefront of everyone’s concerns and perform some of the unpleasant deeds (such as reducing costs and inefficiencies, firing underperformers, delivering unpleasant feedback, engaging in conflict, etc.) necessary to get the results.

So how does one become a better leader?
                  As I said, there is no magic formula to leadership; the list of skills, competencies, and attitudes that a leader may be called upon to demonstrate is long and it is difficult to predict which will be necessary at what time.
What follows is a framework for leadership development. I call this framework “Awareness to Action Leadership” because it is inspired by the Enneagram and some of the concepts from my book “Awareness to Action: The Enneagram, Emotional Intelligence, and Change.” Those familiar with the Enneagram may recognize that the framework is based on the nine points of the diagram and the three instincts. This correlation is loose, and the framework should be viewed independently of specific personality traits related to the Ennea-types. But since I use the Enneagram as a typology with my clients it makes sense to correlate the leadership model to it as a convenience.
There is an old zen saying that if you want to become enlightened, you simply have to stand straight and breath. Doing so, however, requires years of effort and training. In the same way, good leadership begins with awareness and results in action, but there is a lifetime’s worth of study and work that go into making one an Awareness to Action Leader. We need to focus on the fundamentals—the broad concepts of leadership—all the time and also be able to dive down into focusing on very specific skills and competencies when necessary. The “Awareness to Action Leadership” framework can help us do that and is a useful guide for leaders and those who advise them.

In short, Awareness to Action Leadership:
1.     Starts with four broad questions.
2.     Identifies four simple leadership models that help to answer those questions.
3.     Provides a robust list of leadership competencies that are often required in leaders.
4.     Identifies a series of leadership stages that often determine which competencies are requisite.

Change often begins with asking the right questions. I encourage leaders to continually ask themselves these four:
1.     Am I continually working to improve my performance?
2.     Am I relating to others like a leader?
3.     Am I thinking the way a leader thinks?
4.     Am I preparing myself to scale (to take on larger challenges)?
To help my clients answer these questions, I’ve created four simple models. Again, these models are useful heuristics (or mental models), not magical formulas. I will describe each model in more detail in future articles, but the rest of this article gives a high-level overview.
The first model, which pertains to performance improvement or self mastery, is the Awareness to Action process I developed with Robert Tallon in our book. It has three sequential steps: increasing awareness of oneself and one’s circumstances; rewriting one’s story about the world to create authenticity or alignment between one’s beliefs and one’s goals; and taking deliberate, methodical action toward those goals. See Figure 1. (For Enneagrammers, this model correlates to the inner triangle—points 9, 6, and 3—of the Enneagram figure.)
 Again, I will describe these models in more detail in future articles, but one can find more information on the Awareness to Action Process in this video or in the book.

Figure 1

The second model relates to the way a leader interacts with others.
At the heart of leadership is power—which I broadly define as the capacity to produce an effect but which also includes things like responsibility for and control over the distribution of resources. It is important to acknowledge the role of power in leadership relationships; it’s a topic that many people are uncomfortable with it. Ignoring the implications of power, however, pushes it into the shadow and leads to ineffective and inappropriate use. A good leader needs to be a student of power, understanding its implications, its nuance, and when to use how much of it.
As Figure 2 indicates, power needs to be balanced by connection and detachment, two qualities that must exist in a dynamic tension with each other. Leaders must have the ability to connect to others and, simultaneously, to remain emotionally unattached. Without the ability to connect, a leader won’t have followers; without the ability to remain detached, a leader won’t be able to make the difficult, dispassionate decisions often required in positions of authority. Connection and detachment must exist in a dynamic tension with each other while the application of power lessens and intensifies based on the circumstances.
(These qualities correlate to points 8, 5, and 2 of the Enneagram.)

Figure 2

The third model (figure 3) relates to the way leaders should think. Like power is to leadership relationships, rigor is to leadership thinking. Leaders do not need to be the smartest person in the room, but they need to be committed to rigorous, critical thinking. It is their responsibility to question, probe, and challenge information that is presented to them. The leader has no one else to blame if mistakes occur because no one took the time to ask the right questions. Of course, leaders must also use discretion on how aggressively to challenge data; their time is limited and they can’t obsess over the details of every decision. A general rule is that greater potential consequences require greater rigor; matters of lesser consequence require less rigor. In other words, a request to spend $1 million deserves more rigor than a request to spend $1,000.
Rigor must be balanced by curiosity and creativity. In this context, curiosity is a broad hunger for knowledge and experience that may have no clear, immediate benefit other than being innately interesting. The great management thinker Peter Drucker always referred to management as a liberal art; I believe that great leaders think like liberal arts majors—wanting to know a little bit of something about everything. This curiosity must exist in a dynamic tension with creativity, however, which here refers to the desire to bring something into being (in addition to doing so in new and unique ways). Too much curiosity means that nothing gets done; too much creativity means that what gets done is not very interesting or useful. Without rigor, the leader won’t know if the right thing is getting done or whether it is getting done correctly.
(These qualities correlate to points 1, 7, and 4 of the Enneagram.)

Figure 3

Fundamental to being in business is the need to grow the business, especially in a publicly traded company. Thus, in addition to asking “How do we grow the business?” a leader must be asking, “Am I able to grow with the business (i.e., am I able to scale to larger roles and greater responsibilities)?”
As I’ve already said, the factors that affect leadership performance are many. However, over the years of coaching leaders in a variety of organizations I have found that three fundamental competencies are critical to a leader’s ability to rise through the ranks and assume greater responsibility: developing subordinatesbuilding and leveraging an effective network; and appropriately promoting oneself.
Developing subordinates into strong individual performers and a coherent team ensures that a leader can work at the right level, doing more-strategic work rather than having to do lower-level work to cover for weak subordinates. (To help my clients understand the significance of this I always tell them that if they are working at the wrong level they are being overpaid and should request a pay cut.)
Building and leveraging an effective network increases capacity because it expands one’s range of available resources. In short, a leader with a broad network knows who to go to in order to get things done. They get more done faster.
Appropriate self-promotion of course means that one is more likely to be noticed and assigned larger roles. However, this is the competency that many of my clients find to be the most uncomfortable to work on—no one wants to be that person who gets ahead through self-promotion rather than ability. Thus, I encourage people to look at this issue from a business perspective rather than a “personal-gain” perspective. At a fundamental level it is the responsibility of everyone in an organization to let people know what they are capable of. A leader (or anyone else) in an organization who has unrecognized skills or abilities is an underutilized resource. Leaders have a fiduciary responsibility to the company to help make full use of the resources; thus, it is incumbent upon every leader to give an accurate account of what they have accomplished and what they are capable of.
(These competencies roughly correlate to the three instinct domains found in Enneagram literature. I refer to these instinct domains as Preserving, Navigating, and Transmitting rather than the traditional “self-preservation,” “social” and “sexual” for reasons I explain elsewhere—most thoroughly in this series of youtube videos ( It is easy to see how networking correlates to “navigating” and how self-promotion correlates to “transmitting.” Admittedly, it is a bit more of a stretch to correlate “developing people” to “preserving” if it is viewed merely as the more-traditional instinct of self-preservation. However, Preservers tend to also focus on the well-being and nurturing of those within the nest, not just themselves. Since a leader has a responsibility for the general well-being of their subordinates, I am comfortable with the analogy.

Figure 4

These four heuristics or models are useful for leaders to keep in their mind. They also provide a skeleton on which to hang a lengthy list of more-specific skills, attitudes, or behaviors that make leaders more effective. Space does not allow me to go into to detailed explanations of each of these competencies or explanations of how to improve in them, but they are included here for illustration. (See Tables 1-4)

Finally, it is important to understand how the leadership level or tier may influence what competencies one should focus on. Again, there are many ways to think about this issue—Elliot Jacques, for example identifies seven leadership strata—but I like to break them down into levels of responsibility and in terms of directindirect, or strategic leadership.  Direct leadership is more hands-on and active, indirect leadership is less hands-on and more influence-based, and strategic leadership is more focused on setting direction and inspiring others. It is important to note that effective leaders practice elements of direct, indirect, and strategic leadership at all levels, but the leadership tier one is acting in determines where the preponderance of one’s leadership approach should be focused.
The leadership tiers are:
1.     Manager of Individuals (Direct Leadership)
2.     Manager of Managers (transitioning from Direct to Indirect Leadership)
3.     Manager of a Function (Indirect Leadership)
4.     General manager of a business unit (transitioning from Indirect Leadership to Strategic Leadership)
5.     CEO (Strategic Leadership)

Table 5 provides a guide to what competencies are most critical at which level. Again, this list is not meant to be exhaustive, and their placement on the various tiers is not iron-clad. As a leader one must get good at worrying about what one needs to worry about and not worry about the rest. The Awareness to Action Leadership framework provides a useful checklist when thinking about what one should worry about, thus providing a useful starting point for ongoing leadership development. Most high-performing leaders first work to master the competencies required for their current level of responsibility and then seek to develop the competencies for the next level before they get there. You’ll never get fired for being ahead of the leadership learning curve.

In summary, the Awareness to Action Leadership framework provides a framework for leadership development; a guide both for leaders and for those who advise them. Leadership is more art than science, and no rules or models are absolute and complete in themselves. However, starting with the four big questions then burrowing down to more specific competencies provides a structured rather than haphazard approach to leadership development. Cross-matrixing those competencies with the five leadership tiers helps leaders prioritize their development in the absence of any specific situational demands.
Future articles will describe the competencies in more detail and provide advice on how to develop them.

Table 1: Performance Improvement
o   Adaptability/Flexibility
o   Self observation (ability   to stand outside oneself)
o   Working at the right level

o   Manage confidences
o   Acting ability
o   Crafting a compelling   narrative

o   Personal discipline/execution focus
  Time management
  Follow up/follow through
  Project management skills
  Monitoring results/benchmarking
o   Need for Achievement
o   Need to Win
o   Persistence

Table 2: Leadership Relationships
o   Need for Power
o   Will
o   A bias for closure
o   Comfort with responsibility
o   Resilience (“Stoic optimism”)

o   Empathy (Theory of Mind)
o   Conflict management skills   (strong relationships, clearly saying yes or no, defining needs and objectives, willingness to compromise)
o   Graciousness
o   Magnanimity
o   Communication skills
  Motivational skills
  Disciplined message delivery (town halls, email, one-on-ones, etc.)

o   Work-life balance
o   Willingness to hold people accountable.
o   Ability to make unemotional decisions.
o   Maintaining executive distance

Table 3: Leadership Thinking
o   Focus/prioritization
o   Disciplined use of processes and procedures 
o   Strategic Thinking
  Understanding second-order consequences
  Balancing short-term and long term
  Balancing micro- and macro-
o   Critical thinking
o   Decision making tools
o   Complexity management

o   Continual learning
o   Global mindset
o   Desire for Constant Improvement/Reinvention
o   A desire to bring something into being
o   Systems Thinking
o   Long-term vision

Table 4: Leadership Scalability
Developing Subordinates
Building and Leveraging a Network
Appropriate Self Promotion
o   Consistent, direct feedback
o   Managing quality, quantity, and time commitments
o   Succession planning
o   Assigning stretch assignments
o   Mentoring across boundaries

o   Career Management
o   Political savvy
o   Relationship building
o   Reputation management

o   Personal Brand Management
o   Executive Presence
·   Composure
·   Manners
·   Interpersonal ease
·   Clarity of communication
·   Cosmopolitanism
·   Polish
·   Command
·   Authenticity
·   Public speaking ability
·   Humor and self-deprecation
·   Optimism
·   A coherent story—message clarity
·   Fitness/Energy/Stamina
·   Confidence
·   Holding the space
o   Media Savvy

Table 5: The Five Leadership Tiers
                                     Manager of Individuals (Direct Leadership)
Managing quality, quantity, and time commitments
Assigning stretch assignments
Consistent feedback
Self observation (ability to stand outside oneself)
Manage confidences
Personal discipline/execution focus
Time management
Follow up/follow through
Project management skills
Monitoring results/benchmarking
Empathy (“Theory of Mind”: being able to infer and relate to another person’s internal experience)
Conflict management skills (strong relationships, clearly saying yes or no, defining needs and objectives, willingness to compromise)
Communication skills
Motivational skills
Disciplined message delivery (town halls, email, one-on-ones, etc.)
Disciplined use of processes and procedures
Manager of Managers (Direct/Indirect Leadership)
Succession planning
Career Management
Political savvy
Relationship building
Reputation management
Need for Achievement
Need to Win
External locus of control
Appropriate self-promotion
Work-life balance
Willingness to hold people accountable.
Ability to make unemotional decisions.
Strategic Thinking
Understanding second-order consequences
Balancing short-term and long term
Balancing micro- and macro-
Critical thinking
Decision making tools
Continual learning
Working at the right level
Manager of a Function (Indirect Leadership)
Mentoring across boundaries
Acting ability
Maintaining executive distance
Global mindset
Desire for Constant Improvement/Reinvention
A desire to bring something into being
General manager of a business unit (Indirect Leadership/Strategic Leadership)
Executive presence
Interpersonal ease
Clarity of communication
Public speaking ability
Humor and self-deprecation
A coherent story—message clarity
Holding the space
CEO (Strategic Leadership)
Media savvy
Systems thinking
Long-term vision
Complexity management