This week I had the incredible privilege of spending a day with 10 highly successful leaders, all of whom had come to present their “Secret Sauce.”

I got such positive feedback on what I shared that one of the leaders said, “You need to write this up into a blog right away or I’ll steal your idea and write it myself!”

Here’s what I told them…


It’s not about you.

So many leadership theories and methods are all about the leader: 6 pillars of great leadership, 5 traits of the best leaders, 8 things leaders must do to succeed, and so on. I have read all of those, and there are some really powerful truths in them.

But my secret sauce is a leadership approach that is not about the leader.

Before what I reveal my secret sauce, let me ask you a question and then refresh your memory on some realities that you have probably seen or read already.


Does it make any difference to you what others believe about you?

Do someone else’s beliefs about you affect your motivation or attitude towards them? Your willingness to help them? Your desire for their respect, or approval, or friendship?

Hold that thought in your head while you consider the daily reality for most employees:

  • Most employees say they are not challenged at work.
  • Most employees believe they are under-utilized.
  • Work is not meaningful, stimulating, or purposeful for most employees.
  • 70% of employees are disengaged.
  • 2/3rds of voluntary turnover is due to problems with a supervisor.


What you think (about people) really matters:  Theory X and Theory Y

Douglas McGregor of MIT’s Sloan School of Business developed a paired leadership theory not about the leader but about what the leader believes about employees.*

If a leader follows Theory X, then he believes that employees:

  • hate or dislike their jobs
  • must be motivated externally
  • must be carefully watched and supervised
  • are incapable or unwilling to be creative or innovative

If a leader follows Theory Y, then she believes that employees:

  • find satisfaction in their work
  • are internally motivated and want to perform well
  • are inherently creative and will solve problems on their own
  • can commit to objectives and achieve them without oversight

It’s not hard to figure out that a Theory X leader will not trust his people and will foster a climate of suspicion, strict rules, and invasive supervision. A Theory Y leaders, on the other hand, will nurture a culture of autonomy, empowerment, and trust.

What do you believe about your people? Are they lazy thieves, incompetent sluggards, or only interested in more money or time off? Or are they trustworthy, self-directed problem solvers who make your life easier?


People know what you think about them.

Don’t fool yourself. People know what you think about them. Recent research on micro expressions shows that we all telegraph our emotions on our faces, even when we are trying to suppress them or not let them show. Poker players have known this for years and call those micro expressions “tells,” because they tell you what the person is feeling about his cards.

Even if you think you’re hiding your opinion of an employee, they have probably already read your body language and guessed what you think. Ask yourself: Would you put forth any extra effort for a boss that thought you were incompetent or a boss that was never able to see your potential?

Your employees won’t give you their extra effort, either, if they think your opinion of them is too low.


My Secret Sauce

My secret sauce is what I choose to believe about other people.

  • I believed that rural African teenagers from mud huts could learn computer technology and compete for jobs internationally. And they did.
  • I believed that African adults would leave higher paying jobs to work in an unproven university and lead it to greatness (without white Americans staring over their shoulders). And they did.
  • I believe that CEOs and Presidents can lead with courage, acknowledge their faults to their direct reports, and create new climates of trust. And they have.
  • I believe that employees want to make their companies succeed and are willing to go above and beyond for a leader who believes in them. And they do.

It truly matters what we believe about people. X or Y.

Is it naïve to always believe the best about employees?

Possibly, but this approach is about believing the best to bring out the best—not believing the best with our heads in the sand. We all know that people rise (or sink) to our expectations.

Which of McGregor’s leadership theories best reflects what you believe?

Share your Secret Sauce below or make a comment about what leaders should believe.


* McGregor, D. (1960). The Human Side of Enterprise. New York, McGrawHill.

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Dr. Shero believes that leadership can be learned and that the best organizations intentionally develop leadership at every level. Leaders have the privilege of influencing other human lives for the better. That's why Phillip cares so much about learning to lead well and helping others do the same.

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