Russ Reeder | H.E.A.R Leadership

HEAR the Truth

Honest and Respectful Leaders Make a Difference


A lot has been said about what personality traits and management styles great leaders need to have to succeed. A lot has also been said about how nice leaders finish last. I disagree with that approach, and I will try and share some of my leadership philosophies that I have applied to both my professional and personal life with great success.

I call it H.E.A.R. leadership:


A leadership style based on honesty, empathy, accountability and respect … That sounds pretty easy, right? Yet, it always surprises me how most people in leadership roles have no idea of 1) What it takes to be a great leader, and 2) the impact they have on the lives of the people they manage.

“A leader is best when people barely know he exists, when his work is done, his aim fulfilled, they will say: we did it ourselves.”
—Lao Tzu

Being a great leader means that it’s no longer about you. It’s only about the people you lead and the growth and success that they experience. As a leader, you have an amazing opportunity to change not only the lives of the people around you, but the many others that touch the people that you lead. In this post, I will dive into what honesty means to your success as a leader.


The bedrock of the H.E.A.R. leadership philosophy is honesty. It is not only the first step, but also the hardest. I’m not saying it’s hard to tell the truth, I’m saying that it is hard to be totally candid with people while continuing to motivate them. In today’s transparent social economy, successful leaders need to be utterly honest with the people they lead without insulting them.

That level of honesty has to start with yourself, with a deep knowledge of your innate strengths and weaknesses, both as a leader and as a person. If you are not honest with yourself, how can you be honest with others? Which is why the very first step to successfully implementing H.E.A.R. leadership and taking your team (and your life) to the next level is making an honest assessment of who you really are.

Do a S.W.O.T. analysis on yourself and own the results.

  • Strengths. Successful leaders naturally focus on what they are good at, and hire people to cover their weaknesses. Identifying strengths will remind you what to focus on.
  • Weaknesses. Own up to your weak areas. Do not hide them and, more importantly, do not try and fix all weaknesses. Yes, you may need to fix some of them, but, by surrounding yourself with great people who have strengths that complement your weaknesses, you will be able to focus on doing more of what you excel at.
  • Opportunities. Opportunities are a greenfield for both your team and your personal development. Those should be actionable elements in your team or yourself that can positively affect change, immediately.
  • Threats. What obstacles do you face? What is or will be standing in your way? Keep threats on the table and make sure to revisit them often to ensure your strategies for progress and communication are adequate – and effective!
  • Go into this process with an open mind and celebrate your imperfections. Your team will respond to humanness more than a projection of perfection. Most likely, you will not find anything new, but you will be reminded of your inner strengths and weaknesses. That being said, you will be amazed about the (positive!) things you’ve forgotten about yourself. You can use the results to affect positive change in the way you inspire your team and the others around you to succeed.

“But if each of us hires people who are bigger than we are, we shall become a company of giants.”
— David Ogilvy

When you’re operating with honesty, you have the foundation to build on and make big things happen – to yourself, your team and many, many others that you will never even meet.

Empathy: One Skill Great Leaders Can’t Lack


In my first post, I touched on the first pillar of my H.E.A.R. leadership paradigm, an approach that focuses on building a culture of respect and high levels of transparency, anchored with honesty… and empathy. If honesty is the foundation of the H.E.A.R leadership philosophy, having and displaying empathy, i.e. leveraging your ability to relate to others’ emotions and thoughts, is a critical tool you will need to truly empower your team to push themselves and achieve great things.

“Seek First to Understand, Then to be Understood.”
– Steven Covey, 7 Habits of Highly Effective People (Habit 5)

In other words, if you want to be a great leader, you have to face the fact that it’s no longer about you — it’s about the individuals you are leading and their perception of the world.

Empathy Leads to Increased Performance

Natural leaders have a unique capability to see through the facade and understand where their team members are coming from and how they see the world. Most people do not walk around with “their emotions on their sleeve.” Being an empathetic leader can be one of the most difficult leadership attributes to master. When you first seek to understand, genuine empathy enables you to put yourself in your team members’ shoes, acknowledge their emotions, build mutual respect, trust and understanding, which allows you to modify how you manage them at a different level. By understanding where people are, you will be able to help them get where you need them to be, resulting in each individual operating at their optimal performance.

What’s great about empathy is that it’s contagious. If you establish being empathetic as a part of your company’s culture, and especially among your managers, it will only make your entire organization stronger as it will trickle down the chain of command to empower every person, even your interns, to achieve greater, bigger, brighter things.

The more you understand what the needs and perspectives of your team are, the better you can tailor your leadership style to cater to their emotional needs, and help them succeed beyond expectations — including their own.

What’s your EQ (Emotional Intelligence Quotient)?

Being smart and technically skilled is not enough. A high level of emotional intelligence also distinguishes great leaders, who authentically care for their team’s needs and success. They never “show up and throw up” orders without taking the time to listen and understand in an empathetic way. Communication is a two-way street and, unless you understand where your people are, they will not completely hear or understand what you are saying/asking.

If you are not naturally a highly empathetic leader, though, I have some good news for you: empathy is not a fixed trait and can be learned. And this is how:

  • Be more inquisitive. Use your best problem-solving skills to understand the state of mind that your team is in.
  • Be careful of “your wake.” Become more aware of your own emotions, and work on understanding their potential (positive or negative) effect on others.
  • Acknowledge others’ emotions as often as possible, and treat them accordingly by openly showing to them how you relate to them (sharing any relevant personal or professional experience usually helps).
  • Listen, listen, and listen. Understand before trying to be understood.
  • Be present. Give your team 100% of your attention when you are with them.
  • Encourage and facilitate clear communication. Let your managers and team members know that empathy matters, and encourage them to communicate to you and each other in a frank (but respectful) fashion. If you have the resources, you can even consider bringing in a professional to open up your teams. At (mt) Media Temple, we’ve had great success facilitating open cross-department communication using a professional moderator.
  • Last but not least: Always remember your passion for your work or your company, and try and share it with your teams in an authentic, optimistic way.

Here and here are some great articles that I highly recommend about how to develop your empathy further and the upside of being empathetic in business.

How building accountability can improve team performance


In my previous posts, I touched on the first two pillars of my H.E.A.R leadership philosophy, namely Honesty and Empathy. When you take the time to focus on the core, being an exceptional manager is not only a lot more fun, but also can positively impact people’s lives.The quick review: Honesty is the ability to call it like you see it, while empathy allows you to deliver your message through the eyes of your team.
Okay, so now you have the basics — and the fact that you are reading this shows that you care! — so let’s review how to lead your teams to continuing success: accountability.Without it, most of your time and your team’s time would be wasted. We all know people who are very hard workers, but just can’t seem to deliver on time (if at all). In the technology industry, we call this “chasing the next shiny object.” I see managers fall into this trap when they do not hold themselves accountable or when they do not set up deliverables that help their team deliver and win.
While most people understand that we need to hold people accountable, the main philosophy and its implementation usually get lost. The foundation to holding people accountable is making sure you take the time to get your team involved when setting up their (SMART) goals and plan. If you enable your team to build their plan (under your leadership and continuous guidance), they will feel empowered to own that plan. And once they own it, they’ll be motivated to achieve their goals and exceed expectations. It also becomes much harder for them to make excuses for not delivering. Deep down inside, everybody wants to be successful, and it’s your job as a leader to create a culture where people feel empowered to get involved, set priorities, point out issues — and come up with solutions.
When helping my team build their goals, I always want to start at the top. It does not make a difference if you are the CEO and have to set the corporate goals, or if you are a manager and create an action plan against the corporate goals. I work with my team and ask them to come up with the plan on what they are going to deliver. They decide this — it’s not delivered from the top in an old “command and control” style.This is also a great time to make sure we agree on their specific KPIs (Key Performance Indicators), which should be tracked on a regular basis to identify when you are off course. Reviewing those KPIs during employees’ annual or bi-annual performance reviews is also a good way for them (and you) to assess how they are doing, what they can improve, etc. There are many ways to arrive at these KPIs; in general, I want my team to base their goals on our topline revenue growth, profitability, new customers, new products, churn (how long we can keep a customer) and company culture. In my experience, these are the factors that have the biggest impact on the company’s bottom line.

“No plan survives contact with the enemy.”

– Helmut von Moltke

Of course, I’m not implying that you can’t change your plan mid-year — it’s crucial to adapt as new information becomes available. What I’m saying is that failing to plan is definitely planning to fail. To be successful and help your team succeed, you need to not only prioritize the goals you and your team are trying to achieve, but also the many deliverables your team is accountable for. Without a plan, it’s impossible to verify what is urgent and what is just unimportant noise.

When teams understand their priorities, they understand how to allocate their time, focus and deliver. As their manager, helping remove the barriers, answering any questions they might have on a regular basis, and analyzing any new internal or external information that can change how they spend their time will enable you to set them up for success, and hold them accountable to what they have agreed to deliver.

People want to check items off their list, have accomplishments, feel valued and be rewarded. If you do not set up the right methodology to create and deliver on a plan, you are stealing the most important item from your team: self-respect. Achieving (and celebrating) wins against a plan isn’t just for team building and feeling good, it’s an essential tool for keeping your people on the right path. Enable them to deliver on a plan and be held accountable, and you will see your company hit and exceed your goals.

H.E.A.R.: Earn Respect


I am excited to write this post to close the loop on my H.E.A.R. leadership philosophy by talking about its fourth and final pillar, Respect. My entire leadership style revolves around one idea: Before you can lead in any area, you first have to live it and accept it. This kind of leadership can change not only your life, but the lives of others as well.As the H.E.A.R. philosophy goes, in order to be Honest and expect honesty from others, you first have to be honest with yourself. Before you can be an Empathetic leader, you first have to listen and understand what your teams are saying and thinking, and why. Before you can hold others Accountable, you first must hold yourself accountable and lead by example. Those principles all lead up to the final, and probably most important, stage: You first must Respect yourself and respect others before you can be worthy of their respect in return.
You may think that all leaders would have (and show) a certain level of respect for their teams, but, unfortunately, that’s not always the case. Remember, most leaders are promoted because of their exceptional individual contributions, and then they have to learn the hard way that coaches do not win – their teams win! Successful leaders are the ones who are able to figure out early that their job is first and foremost to make their team successful.In the next paragraphs, I will try and break down some of Respect’s many layers and nuances.
You have to earn it
Building on the saying that “in order to be trusted, you first have to trust,” I firmly believe that “in order to be respected, you first have to respect.” This sounds easier than it really is, and this is why so many leaders struggle to fully succeed. Many of them step into their new role with the expectation that with their title comes pre-packaged respect. It’s actually quite the opposite – you have to earn respect from your team. People respect others based on their actions, and if you, as a leader, think that you are owed some level of respect just because of your position on the organizational chart, you are setting yourself up for failure.
In a leadership role, your actions are amplified far more than you may be aware.  As you continue up the corporate ladder, if you are not taking every opportunity to speak with and manage with respect, that’s what everyone will eventually see. If your teams don’t feel respected, they’ll be less inclined to respect you back, which ultimately leads to poor communication and lost productivity. (Incidentally, I’ve always found that a key indicator of future leaders’ ability to lead and put their team first is how well, or poorly, they treat people they don’t have to be nice to – from the freshly hired intern to the hostess at the local restaurant.)
Be comfortable in your own skin
You first must respect yourself before you can respect others. It’s amazing to me how true this is. I’m friends with, have worked for or with, or interviewed thousands of highly qualified, well-paid, very successful leaders. Without a doubt, every one of them who was disrespectful to others had an underlying issue with self-confidence. It was almost as if they felt that they could gain respect and attention by disrespecting and belittling others – even if it was unintentional. The more confidence leaders have and the more self-aware and self-respecting they are, the more they are respectful of others (and usually, the stronger their worth ethic).
The fallacy of fear
One of the biggest misconceptions I often have to address with new leaders is their belief that managing through fear will drive more respect, accountability, and productivity. Fear is never a sustainable driver. Fear won’t earn your team’s trust or respect. It might spur them to follow your lead for a time, but they won’t see you as worthy of their respect – or their loyalty. Of course, fear can be an appropriate response in some situations, as in “Team, we are going to lose this account if we don’t perform.” But using fear to manipulate your team into compliance will only lead to stalled productivity, disengaged employees, higher than average turnover, and eventually, missed goals. Leading with an emphasis on respect rather than fear makes it very hard for you to fall into this trap.
Manage your mood
I’ve saved the most important item for last – I have to admit, once in a while, if I’m having a bad day, I have to pay more attention to my words (and actions) than normal, to ensure that neither will cause more long-term collateral damage than short-term gain. I always try to follow the philosophy, “publicly praise, privately criticize,” because it’s a great way to demonstrate respect. When you are tired, stressed, or just not having the best day, you can accidentally do a lot of damage to your team’s level of mutual respect. Understanding and acknowledging your own state of mind will enable you to work around it and in spite of it. As a leader, you need to be the rock for your team. The more consistent you are, the more people will respect you and follow you to the ends of the earth.
There are of course many, many more attributes that great leaders need to have, but if you take the time to learn, digest, and practice the H.E.A.R. Leadership philosophy, you will be well on your way to becoming someone who positively affects the lives of the people you work with (and even live with).Personally, I enjoy making a difference as a leader, and I am constantly improving the way I lead to keep earning my teams’ respect and trust, day after day. 


  1. Comment from Dave Thomas

    I’m glad I read this, I now have a classy version of one of my favorite quotes. For an educated and more proper audience, I can now quote Helmut von Moltke “No plan survives contact with the enemy.” instead of Mike Tyson “Everybody has a plan ’til they get punched in the mouth.”

  2. Comment from Tatyana Gann

    I love this…A leader is best when people barely know he exists, when his work is done, his aim fulfilled, they will say: we did it ourselves.”
    —Lao Tzu
    That happens when we work on transforming our mindset and drop our ego..We focus on developing people because we have done our inner transformation and we can see clearly what needs to be done. Our ego no longer clouds our thinking and ability to serve others best

    Thank you


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