The 3-legged Stool of Leadership

March 27th, 2010

This particular line of reasoning was originally inspired by an educator, Parker Palmer (, who wrote a few books on this theme, Courage to Teach and Courage to Lead.  His hypothesis goes something like this…

Good teachers are good at two essential elements of teaching – they know their subject (content experts) and they know how to teach it (pedagogy).  All well and good.

Palmer suggests that the one single characteristic that separates good teachers from great teachers is what he calls the “Third Leg” – knowing, and successfully managing, yourself. 

Boy does that make sense.  Think about the great teachers you’ve had in your life; hopefully you’ve been fortunate to have more than one.  Yes they knew their subject. And yes, they utilized many of the effective teaching strategies that bring learning to life – full engagement, Socratic method, connecting content to current interests.  But what else did they have?

They knew themselves and were not afraid to insert themselves into the course material; either through self effacing humor, pertinent revelatory story telling, or just plain honest assessments of where they were on any particular day and how that might effect that day’s teaching.

The same can be said for great leaders.  Yes, they need to know their business (content expertise) and they need to know how to manage people and processes (similar to pedagogy for teachers). 

They also lead by example.  Whether they like it or not.  So, the third leg for them is even more critical.  They not only need to talk the talk (shared vision, clarity of goal alignment, common understanding of core values), they need to walk their talk.  Pretty much all of the time.

And in this crazy busy, email driven, multi media overload, topsy turvey business climate that is the new millennium, how’s a regular guy or gal supposed to manage that?

Daily practice.  That’s how.

Yup, if you are a leader in your organization, your community, your family, you need to be paying attention to how you go about managing yourself

And the best way to do that is through a regular, consistent, centering practice that you do no matter what else is going on.  Can you miss a day occasionally?  Of course!   And, that is to be expected.  Just like healthy eating habits, having that hot fudge sundae every now and then is a key part of healthy living, not something to feel guilty about.  As long as it’s in moderation, as long as you get back to your ‘regular’ healthy habits.

The best part of this, in today’s world, is how many different types of Daily practices there are to choose from – yoga (in all of its many forms; Kundalini, Kirpalu, Ashtanga, Hatha, Tantric, Bikrum, to name just a few), tai chi, Akido, meditation, running, walking, spinning, jogging.  The list goes on and on. 

Of course Daily practice alone won’t cut it. 

Regular feedback (how are we doing, how are we showing up, what impact are we having), ideally of the 360 variety, along with feed-forward (clear vision and goals of where we’re heading, what we want our  teams to be doing/achieving, what it will look like when we’re successful) are also part of the mix.

As is having enough time and energy to actually do all of this  – which includes paying attention to your mental, emotional, physical and spiritual well being.  To keep track of how we’re doing, in real time, and to maintain a healthy, balanced perspective, I encourage you to check out Jim Loehr’s work in the area by starting with a free self assessment at:  His book, “Managing Your Energy, Not Your Time – The Power of Full Engagement” is one of the best books I’ve seen on this topic. 

If you feel like your two legs are tired, wobbly or just plain not enough to get you through the day, try developing your third leg.  It’s there.  Just in need of a little attention and TLC.