The Trap of Checkbox Leadership

by Alli Polin on November 1, 2013

There is no list of to-dos to check off to be an exceptional leader

Way back when I was acting more, I would know my lines cold, go deep on my character and truly focus on my relationship with all the other characters.  I know I was a good actor based on feedback and casting but I also had an awareness that I had not yet tapped into what I needed to be great.  One on-film class in particular stands out to me since I came face to face with one of my personal “walls.”  I needed to cry, on camera, on cue, over and over.

The director / instructor would give me advice on how to summon the tears, yet I struggled.  I had to find the source within me and be willing to go to a place of vulnerability that I struggled to go to not only on camera but also in my real-life.  Ultimately, even if I pushed out a tear, I had to go to a far less authentic place: hands covered my face as I sobbed (tearlessly) into them.  I definitely felt the emotion but also stopped on my follow-through.  I also stopped at good, when I could have been more courageous, and been great. 

I see the same thing with many of my coaching clients.  Some clearly want the checklist for great leadership.  “Do this and you’ll be an awesome leader.”  Others, want a partner to break the frame they’ve built over the years, rediscover and unleash the leader within.

It’s easy to spout of a top ten list of “Great Leaders Do This, Not That.”

  1. Listen
  2. Commit to 1x1s
  3. Have and share a vision
  4. Etc.

Still, this list (or any list for that matter) doesn’t tell you how to do it authentically with genuine follow-through.  Oftentimes, checklist leadership manifests a lot like this:

[ ]  Tell your team you’ll look into it but you won’t
[ ]  Suggest that you love their ideas and will take them under advisementbut you don’t
[ ]  Team members get trashed in a leadership team meeting and you want to speak upbut you remain silent
[ ]  You see bad behavior and are appalledyet look the other way
[ ]  You learn critical information for the teambut sharing it is not your top priority, focus is
[ ]  Clearly, hard conversations need to happenand you’ll get to them… eventually
[ ]  You want to advocate for the people on your teambut not at the risk of looking bad yourself

Your leadership fails when you know what to do, but are only willing to go half-way. (Click to Tweet)

A checklist only covers the surface, a mark in a box doesn’t create meaning, connection, engagement or inspiration.

The Pitfalls of Checklist Leadership – Don’t Fall Victim!

All glitz no substance.

Leaders that focus on looking the part and playing a role miss an opportunity to authentically step into the being of leadership.

Make the Leap ACTION: Ask yourself: Are you being a leader that you’d want to follow? If not, what needs to change?  It’s not too late, start to make an adjustment – now.

Do as I say, not as I do.

Having all the right words to say does not automatically create feeling behind them, evoke emotion or action in others.

Make the Leap ACTION: Be present, mindful and engaged where you are.  People can sense when you’re rushing through to get on to something that matters more.

Leadership shines through action, not words alone. (Click to Tweet)

Your words, not mine.

Using someone else’s checklist to as your guide to leadership is like riding a bike but never taking of the training wheels.

Make the Leap ACTION: Toss the checklist and listen to your gut.  You can create a leadership legacy that’s shallow OR approach every person with the genuine goal and desire to make them incredibly successful.

Shift your mindset from checklist to deeper, more meaningful connection. (Click to Tweet)

Here’s the scoop:  You don’t need someone else to tell you how to be a leader.  You know but you need to trust yourself, make values-based choices and worry a heck of a lot less about impressing everyone.

Want to be an exceptional leader?  Own it and follow-through.

How do you shift from practicing new skills on a checklist to fully embodying a new way of being?

For coaching, consulting or speaking Let’s Connect!

{ 14 comments… read them below or add one }

Terri Klass November 1, 2013 at 8:15 am

Love the post, Alli and was so drawn to the idea of not using someone else’s checklist. That is a true trap and one that is so easy to fall into.

It is difficult not to compare ourselves to others and not feel that someone else’s checklist is stronger or better than ours.

We each need to love who we are and believe that we can make a difference in whatever way we choose to lead. Most of all, we owe it to ourselves and others to put our best foot forward and not worry that others may not see things exactly as we do.

Great way to start my Friday, Alli!


Alli Polin November 1, 2013 at 9:38 am

When we see someone else’s formula for success, it’s natural to want to grab it and use it… too often the critical step of adapting it and making it our own is lost.

Love that you point out that different is not always strong or better… just different!

Thanks so much, Terri!


Karin Hurt November 1, 2013 at 8:35 am

I see this a lot, particularly from frontline leaders. They want the checklist, use the checklist, and it doesn’t work. Checklists are helpful as suggestions and to spark our thinking. That’s why reading is so vital… to learn from others that have gone before. But every leader and situation is different. You must make it your own.


Alli Polin November 1, 2013 at 9:40 am

Right on, Karin! Continuous learning is vital and all the books and conferences in the world can’t tell us exactly how to apply the new knowledge to our world. That’s where the fun – and challenge – comes in.


Blair Glaser November 1, 2013 at 11:24 am

Alli — this is such a great post. It’s difficult to get people to really go beyond the checklist. And the checklist has no real authority. Being a leader is so much more then a checklist, that there are times when a true leader can leave essential items unchecked for a little while and still be effective and respected.


Alli Polin November 2, 2013 at 7:53 am

It takes courage to move beyond the safety of the checklist, doesn’t it? That’s why those “true leaders” can stray from the list and still make a meaningful impact – it’s a part of their way of being and not just something that they do.

Big thanks for your comment, Blair!


Joy Guthrie November 1, 2013 at 11:56 am

Love this post, Alli! Think many people are drawn to check lists because there’s a feeling of accomplishment you get when you check the box. Leadership is not about checking the box. Thanks for sharing your wisdom.


Alli Polin November 2, 2013 at 7:55 am

I totally get it! Crossing things off of the to-do list feels good! Except, when the wrong things are on the list… like it’s not about having 1×1 meetings, it’s about listening and engaging – but who has that on a list? I’m so with you, leadership is not about checking a box.

Thanks, Joy!


Carl November 2, 2013 at 4:12 am

Hi Alli, I’ll echo the previous comments – great post. I’ve seen the ‘list’ syndrome when young leaders are starting out and faced with the realities that weren’t covered in the training program they went through. In counseling with them you typically hear…’but I’ve tried X, Y, and Z…..nothing is working’. That’s when you know they have a checklist mentality.
It looks so manageable on paper 🙂

Best regards,


Alli Polin November 2, 2013 at 8:01 am

It reminds me of my post-coaching certification self. I had a list of “powerful questions” and I used them. Finally I let go of the questions and traded them in for listening and curiosity. The questions, while solid we not my own.

Love your example of “I’ve tried everything!” and they probably have. It’s hard to let go of training and realize that those checklists are really guidelines and suggestions and a place to start – not finish.

Appreciate your wisdom and experience, Carl!

Many thanks!


Karen Jolly November 4, 2013 at 11:34 am

Beautiful point Alli – create a leadership legacy by following your gut and going deeper. Allowing yourself to be great takes courage to go beyond the comfort zone. Your example of acting was excellent as it requires letting go of what anyone else thinks and allowing yourself to be emotionally naked – all in!! Leadership, like acting, is an all-in activity. Half-ing it never works!

Thank you for this reminder, to give it our all today!


Alli Polin November 6, 2013 at 12:05 am

Karen – Leadership is absolutely an all in activity. I keep picturing leaders that straddle every issue and challenge, one foot in, one foot out. Living and leading that way is the equivalent of crying into my hands without the deeper connection or vulnerability. Love the way you put it – emotionally naked. It can be so scary and the rewards are significant if we can let ourselves make that leap.

Appreciate you, Karen!


CaBeatrice November 7, 2013 at 9:57 am

I think a lot of (traditional) leaders fear being who they are and want to project a certain image. When you pretend to be anything but yourself you lose your connection with your humanity.


Alli Polin November 10, 2013 at 3:56 am

I could not agree with you more! Pretending can put us in a box where we see ourselves as better than others, or more deserving. … our humanity demands that we realize that we truly are equals.

A sincere thanks for your comment and insight!


Leave a Comment

{ 1 trackback }