Setting the Tone – A Guide to Quality Leadership

How do you define quality leadership? Why is it so important, and how can you model it and foster it in others?

A quick google search on the topic will quickly yield over 4.8 million results. There are countless articles, approaches, and theories on the subject, many of which encourage leaders to be creative and think outside the box to demonstrate great leadership.

While I am all for doing things differently and challenging conventional thinking, I would like to propose that we get back in the box and do it right from the get-go. Ultimately, if the foundation is weak, no sustainable progress can truly be made.

While there are many characteristics attributed to quality leadership, there is one simple truth: Great leadership starts with you. It isn’t what you say, it’s what you do – and do consistently – that defines who you are as a leader.

One way to gain insight as to what you do is by connecting your actions to the behaviours you see in the teams you lead.  As leaders, when we are concerned or struggling with the behaviour of our team members, it can be natural to look outward to try to lay blame to determine the root cause of the issue. While in some cases this may be appropriate, it is important that we also look inward to assess how our own behaviour might be influencing those we are responsible for.

While there are many characteristics attributed to quality leadership, there is one simple truth: Great leadership starts with you.

Setting the Tone

As a leader, it is important to know that you are being watched . . . not by hidden cameras, but by the people you are responsible for. Your staff are paying attention to the things you say and do, what you prioritize, and what you put off. Your behaviour sends signals to your team about what’s important and what you truly value. How your team behaves is directly impacted by how you yourself behave as a leader.

Leaders must demonstrate the behaviours that they want to see in their team members. Leaders set the tone for what’s acceptable.

While it is important to know that you set the tone for how teams operate, perhaps more importantly leaders should be asking themselves the question: What should that tone be?  We are often quick to define what’s unacceptable, but we rarely provide clarity about what quality leadership looks like.

From your perspective, what does”tone” of  quality leadership look and feel like?

To define quality leadership, you don’t need to look outward to a book or a course – you already have the answer. Use your own experience of other leaders to help you define how you want to operate as a leader. .

To determine your leadership tone, ask yourself these two questions:

  1. How do I want to be experienced as a leader?
  2. What does the leader that I want to be look like?
    • What are the specific qualities and actions?
    • What behaviours embody the kind of leader I want to be?

When answering, be specific about the behaviours that would create the experience that you want for your team. A behaviour is something observable, something you could be spotted doing. Asking exploratory questions of your staff like “Can you tell me more?” or “How do you know?” are concrete and observable actions, just like speaking last in a team meeting or checking in to see if anything is needed. 

The answers to these questions and the behaviours associated with them start to define your leadership tone.   The tone you choose to set is often linked to values that are important to you and this forms the foundation of your leadership purpose. 

Leaders must demonstrate the behaviours that they want to see in their team members. Leaders set the tone for what’s acceptable.

Be Accountable for the Tone You Set

Once you have established your leadership tone, use it as a guide for your behaviour moving forward, and as an anchor to hold yourself accountable to. After all, these are the things you said were important. 

Inevitably you will have situations where you drift outside your leadership tone. When this happens:

  1. First, cut yourself some slack – you are human after all.
  2. Then apologize to those who were impacted, and own your behaviour without making excuses. Recognize that your actions were out of line with your intent and acknowledge the impact your behaviour might have had on others.

Don’t underestimate the power of taking accountability. This will demonstrate both humility and integrity as a leader, and it’s a sure way to build trust. It also gives permission to those you lead to do the same, which will help you build a culture of accountability among your team members.

In Summary

While Setting the Tone and Taking Accountability seem both obvious and simple, the reality is, they can be very challenging, especially when we are under stress.  Consistent focus on these attributes will enable us to develop into the leader we aspire to be.  Remind yourself every day that you set the example for those you lead. Use your leadership toneto guide your behaviour. When you operate out of step with the tone you are trying to set, demonstrate accountability, and take ownership of your actions.

Setting the tone for what quality leadership looks like and holding yourself accountable to that tone establishes a solid foundation that is sure to inspire others to do the same.


Chris Downey

Trainer, ACHIEVE Centre for Leadership

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