Lead with What's Working

Many leaders manage by exception – they spot something that is not working, point it out and get it fixed. They feel that this is an efficient way to manage, and in some situations this may be the case, but if we took a step back to see the impact that this type of a leader has on those around him, we begin to see a different picture unfold.


When a leader makes it his job to point out errors, is anybody learning anything? and what are they learning? People who work for such managers learn many behaviours that are not productive like only showcasing the things they do well, hiding mistakes or not bothering to check their work knowing that someone else is going to pick out the errors anyway!

The leader by pointing out errors is in a way showing the team what is important to him by his own behaviour. Followers look to leader behaviours to take cues from and shape their own behaviour. In this case, the message that a leader who manages by exception gives is one of “You will get my attention if you make mistakes”.

What we look for is what we perpetuate and such leaders are the ones who are always complaining about their staff not being able to do things without them or having team members who make a lot of mistakes.

Those within such teams who do a good job will tend to feel unappreciated and tend to leave as the work they do is not valued.


By pointing out what’s not working, we actually miss out the opportunity of spotting the things that work. And in reality, there are usually a hundred things that work for every one or two issues that crop up… So, where is the balance in spending more time highlighting things that don’t work.

Whilst there is value in learning what NOT to do, there is more value in learning what TO DO and HOW to do it. And the good way to learn is by learning from peers. This is where the leader can play an active part by marking out the good work and creating opportunities to discuss the good work. The learning this time takes a different turn. By showcasing good work, the leader marks out what’s important to him and this encourages those performing the work to do more. So, here’s a summary:


  • Mark out and praise good work
  • If someone has done something well, congratulate him or her and ask “How did you do that?” (by asking someone how they did something, you reinforcing that behaviour)
  • Look for small improvements and talk about the “mini” successes
  • Set mini goals and celebrate them – by doing this you help to shape performance in the direction you want
  • Be generous with positive reinforcement, but be sincere