10 Ways to Start a Conversation About Leadership

Vince Lombardi wisely quipped, “The man on top of the mountain didn’t fall there.” Success does not happen by accident…and neither does becoming a leader. The road to meaningful influence is marked by deliberate steps to acquire knowledge, gain experience, and engage in ways that specifically relate to leadership. Followers can do this on their own, but leaders have a tacit responsibility to grow other leaders and must find ways to further the leadership development of those around them.


Marine Corps Gen. Joe Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, talks to airmen following a field exercise at Incirlik Air Base, Turkey, Aug. 2, 2016. The airmen are assigned to the 39th Security Forces Squadron base defense operations center. DoD photo by Navy Petty Officer 2nd Class Dominique A. Pineiro.

Bringing Leadership to Life

Even in military circles, most conversations do not naturally drift towards topics of leadership. People can remember the last conversation they had about sports, but probably not the last conversation they had about leading by example, or delegating, or ethical decision-making.

If the team members are to grow in these areas, someone (the leader) will have to take an active role in generating original thought and guiding them towards insight. Here are some practical ways to get that conversation going:

  1. Use the face to face time throughout your day to engage those around you. Ask any one of these questions to a group or individuals you encounter:
    • “Who inspires you and why?”
    • “What is one leadership-related skill that you are working to improve?”
    • “If you could meet one military leader from history, who would it be and why?”
    • “Name one leadership challenge you’ve faced this week and how did you handle it?”
    • “What is the worst leadership experience you’ve ever had and what did you learn from it?”
    • “What was the leadership environment like in your last unit and how does it compare to this one?”
    • “What do you look for in a good leader? Good follower?”
    • “What is your all time favorite leadership quote?”
    • “Describe a mentor who has had a significant impact on you as a leader.”
    • Briefly explain a challenging situation you face in your own position, then ask how would they would handle it.
  2. Post a weekly or daily quote on a dry erase board in your unit area or outside your office and ask people to comment on it. Start with this one: “If your actions inspire others to dream more, learn more, do more and become more, you are a leader.” – John Quincy Adams
  3. Take advantage of “team time.” Maximize the time that your team is assembled and listening, like close-out formations. Give them something formative to walk away with, not just a list of warnings about staying out of trouble.
  4. Books are a great primer for conversation. When people stop by your desk for routine matters, peek their curiosity by leaving a leadership book or article out and visible. Be ready to give them the quick takeaways. (Check out this list of top leadership books.)
  5. In a less subtle way, ask questions related to the books you’re reading. “Hey, have you read The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership? Maxwell talks about ‘The Law of the Lid’ and how effectiveness is determined by leadership ability. What do you think?”
  6. Make good content readily available to the team. Make a binder of leadership articles you read and in a common area for your team to browse while on CQ duty or waiting for meetings. Then ask people to read, highlight, and make their own notes in the margins.
  7. Similarly, consider assigning a leadership-related concept or word for the week and encourage subordinate team members to use it in their conversations. Examples might be vision, value-based leadership, leading with strengths, training to standard, and any of the Army values.
  8. Maximize social media. As I’ve mentioned, most people could make better use of their social media connections as leader development tools. Start a leadership conversation in your Facebook feed and see where it goes.
  9. Weave leadership into daily activity. There’s almost never a bad time to talk about leadership. Meetings, PT sessions, walking to chow. You don’t need to drag it out, just take a moment to direct the conversation towards something meaningful instead of the typical banter. You can also include leadership references in your emails. Maybe there’s a particular quote or experience you can cite to reinforce a lesson.
  10. Let someone else do the talking. Find a few TED talks about leadership and use them to prime discussions that relate to your unit or the challenges you face. This might be a good method for those who are less comfortable with leading a discussion group or starting a leadership conversation out of nowhere.

Making leader development part of your day is not as challenging (or weird) as you might think. People feel enlightened, motivated, even inspired when others add value that personally grows them. Reach out. Start a conversation. Ask a question. You’ll not only reveal lessons that your followers might have overlooked, but most importantly, you will develop a habit of looking at the world through a lens of leadership. And that is a priceless skill.

Questions for Leaders

  • Is your interest in developing the leadership abilities of your followers more important than your interest in sports, or cars, or the latest TV series? Does your routine conversation reflect that answer?
  • In what ways can you guide the conversations of your team to prime them for growth in the right areas?
  • How can you maximize the “hurry up and wait” time to grow your team?

Subscribe to The Military Leader!

Complete Archive of Military Leader Posts

Back to Home Page

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

2 thoughts on “10 Ways to Start a Conversation About Leadership

  1. All right and just the indications done, but what the more import is drive and lead others with example, with a life, ours, conformate to the principles and valors we trust and for whom we live. That require a daily moral and mental training and sincere answers to own defects or mistake, if any, require integrity and loyality towards ourself before than others, require a life that is not on dissonance with what teched, a manner to make free the men one lead to pose questins and problems and done the complete diponibily to a dialogue, by whom and interplay and a relationship, not limited to an obeyance or limited to an action borm and develop on growing just establish a constant rapport we call canaradie, for one may say hinself i not the title, the rank that count but the life and the vitality of the military family on the several corps. if we search to establish such a rapport and consolidate the interplay we nuilf professionalism on the full sense of term, a professionalism not empty, but full of contain. We have to be leaders that pose not themself on a superior stage but create a pool of men able to fight and combat and do so rightly and on the required time