Timeless Principle #2: A Good Leader Catches People Doing Things Right

In my last How We Lead blog post, I introduced “Leadership is a partnership,” the first of six timeless principles of effective leadership that my son, Scott, and I will be highlighting in an upcoming book.

Like the first principle, this one—”A good leader catches people doing things right”—was revolutionary for its time. When I began studying leadership in the 60s, bosses were widely regarded as people whose job it was to catch their workers doing things wrong. Managers would evaluate someone’s performance, reprimand them, demand that they improve, and disappear until it happened again. To me it sounds like the opposite of a motivational environment.

I’ve said for years that if someone took away everything I’ve taught except one thing, it would be the concept of catching people doing things right. It’s in the first leadership parable I ever wrote, The One Minute Manager®, which I coauthored with Spencer Johnson in 1982—and it’s also in my latest book, Simple Truths of Leadership, which I coauthored with Randy Conley in 2022. Just think, that’s forty years of catching people doing things right!

Back in the day, I learned that most people had never looked at their boss as a friend or colleague. When people saw their boss coming, they would hide because they knew they were going to get in trouble—after all, that was the only time the boss ever showed up. I couldn’t help but think: What if that were reversed? What if the boss walked around catching people doing things right, praising their progress, and cheering them on? And if there was an area where the boss noticed behavior or performance wasn’t great, what if they said, ‘How can I help?’ Would that make a difference? You bet it would!

Catching people doing things right is a powerful tool for bringing out the best in others. This principle is consistent with how my parents raised my sister and me. I remember as a kid when my good friend and I were on the same team and our families would get together after the games. If our team won, we would all celebrate. But if we lost, my friend’s parents would get on his case and tell him everything he did wrong. In contrast, my folks would try to cheer me up. They would tell me not to get down on myself, that I played the best I could, and they would give me a chance to talk. They always led with encouragement. That’s where I got the idea of praising people not only for doing things right, but also for doing things approximately right. You don’t have to be perfect to earn a little praise.

I had several teachers through the years who were also encouragers and cheerleaders. It was easy to see that they got better results and formed better relationships with their students than the teachers who were tyrants or bullies. I was an observer who paid attention to things like that. To me, it has always seemed obvious that positive reinforcement is a better way for parents to get the best from their kids, teachers to get the best from their students, and leaders to get the best from the people on their team. Catching people doing things right is a timeless principle I learned and began practicing and teaching years ago. It is a concept that still holds true—in fact, it’s woven into most of my books and our company’s training programs. When somebody does something right or approximately right, praise them. If they stumble on the way to a goal, ask how you can help them get back on the right track. To me it just feels like common sense. And the best leaders make common sense common practice

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