The Three Cs of Leadership

The Army’s motto – “Be All That You Can Be” is both simple and powerful. Leaders help people achieve that goal. In essence, leaders do three things:

  • They challenge people.
  • They build people’s confidence.
  • They coach people.

By providing the right C (challenge, confidence, or coaching), leaders help people become more and achieve more than they thought possible.

The three Cs are interrelated. As leaders coach and mentor people, they feel more prepared, more confident. As confidence increases, people are more willing to take on bigger and bigger challenges. Sue Lewis, executive vice president and chief real estate officer, The Travelers states, “Many leaders are good at only one or two Cs but not all three. In today’s business world challenge is common. However coaching and building confidence are frequently missing.”

Desire to Lead

What gives people the desire to lead? People’s values and beliefs are often shaped by significant emotional events. These defining moments energize some people to take a stand against injustice or pursue a new standard of excellence. In other instances, the desire to lead is sparked by a compelling vision. “My vision gets me excited. My adrenaline starts pumping.” Desire to lead may be generated simply by the desire to help others grow and blossom. An executive states, “Somewhere along the way I learned it was very exciting and rewarding to help other people achieve their dreams. That’s what leaders do.”

If a person lacks “desire,” he or she will not take on a leadership role. Charlie Eitel, former president and COO, Interface,Inc. states, “To want to be the leader is to risk failure. I’m convinced that everyone is afraid to fail-it’s a matter of degree. Fear is what causes people to ‘play not to lose.'” On the other hand, seeing what is possible and playing to win is exciting and energizing.

Challenging People

Actress, Cicely Tyson, says that challenges make you discover aspects of yourself that you never knew existed. Challenges are what make people stretch and go beyond the norm. Leaders use many of the following approaches to challenge people and change the status quo:

  • Describing their vision — Every leader has one. Visions describe a future that’s better in some important way. A clear and compelling vision challenges people to think and act differently as they pursue a new agenda.
  • Establishing stretch goals — When Richard Davis became CEO of Rand McNally, the company launched an average of ten new products per year. He challenged the organization to launch 120 new products during his first year. Nothing commands people’s attention like demanding targets and timetables.
  • Asking provocative questions — Leaders often ask “why” and “what if,” questions. The right questions force people to examine underlying assumptions and consider new possibilities. Stuart Hornery, retired chairman, Lend Lease Corporation states, “Every project we take starts with a question — how can we do what’s never been done before?”
  • Benchmarking — Ayn LaPlant, president, Beekley Corporation states, “Benchmarking is another way we challenge people. I want our employees to look at other companies and find best practices. If you’re really committed to continuous improvement, you have a natural curiosity to learn from the best.”
  • New assignments — Ruth Branson, senior vice president, Shaw’s Supermarkets states, “We challenge people through cross-fertilization. We move people into new positions, from one function to another, from line to staff, from a district to the corporate office. These job changes stretch people to see the business from new perspectives.”

All of these leadership actions — stating your vision, establishing stretch goals, asking tough questions, benchmarking and new assignments — challenge people to see bigger possibilities and pursue bigger goals. Leaders also set the example by challenging themselves. If the leader isn’t getting out of his comfort zone, it’s unlikely others will follow.

Building Confidence

Confident people face their challenges. They’re willing to leave their comfort zone, take risks, and try new approaches. People who lack confidence want to keep doing things the same old way. Jan Carlson, the legendary CEO of Scandinavian Airline Systems, (SAS) believes the most important role for a leader is to instill confidence in people. Even after people develop self-confidence they can lose it. Leaders use a variety of techniques to build people’s confidence including the following:

  • Affirm people’s talents — Don Sweet, vice-president, finance, Siebe Pneumatics states, “People need self-confidence or belief in themselves so that they can perform with the best. I sometimes simply affirm my confidence in people. For example, one of our sales reps was facing a new, very demanding account. I said to him, I know you can do this. I know you can get through to this client.”
  • Rewarding and recognizing accomplishments — Real confidence is based on achieving results, one success after another. When leaders provide rewards and recognition, it’s a validation of people’s talents and determination.
  • Training and development — Bill Cox, vice president, human resources, Ahlstrom Corporation states, “We build people’s confidence by making sure all employees receive ongoing training. One of our key beliefs is that competence builds confidence.”
  • Empower people — Ralph Stayer, former CEO of Johnsonville Foods, built confidence in his workforce by transferring total responsibility and ownership to the people doing the work. When leaders give people responsibility and real authority, they’re saying-“I have confidence in you.”
  • Remind people of their previous successes — Sometimes people forget or overlook their previous successes. Jim Ligotti, global product manager, Carrier Corporation states, “When challenges seem overwhelming or when people are reluctant to change, I go back to their successes in non-work related areas. I remind people that they did achieve success in other areas of their life.”

All of these leadership actions – affirming people, recognizing accomplishments, skills training, empowering people, and reminding them of previous successes – have a significant impact on people’s self-confidence. Confident people face reality and have a “can do” attitude. Leaders also need a healthy amount of their own self-confidence. Confident leaders aren’t afraid to attack “sacred cows,” make tough decisions, and candidly communicate their position.


Coaching is all about raising people’s performance to a higher level. Before people are open to coaching, they need to understand why they need to improve. That’s the challenge. Secondly, they need to believe they are capable of changing. That’s the confidence factor. Coaching involves the “how-to-do-it” part of the equation.

Steve Chanin, director, operations, ABB Corp. believes coaching involves helping people understand the big picture. People need to understand the key business drivers, what they can control, and what’s important to the customer. Leaders use a variety of approaches to coach people including the following:

  • Create coaching opportunities — Take the time to carefully observe people as they run meetings, make presentations, and interact with customers. Dan Kelly, vice president, transportation business, International Fuel Cells, gives his direct reports frequent opportunities to make presentations. He states, “These can be emotional events and powerful learning opportunities.” Leaders look for “teachable moments” when people are most open to learning.
  • Show them what great performance looks like — Top leaders are constantly searching for best practices and great performance in all aspects of business. Encouraging others to observe and study what top performers do and don’t do is an excellent coaching technique.
  • Ask questions — Socrates basic method of teaching was asking questions. The right questions help people focus on the areas needing improvement. Leaders spend time identifying the best questions to ask such as: “What question will help this person face reality?” “What question will energize this person?” “What question will help this individual identify specific next steps to be taken?”
  • Provide feedback — Michael Z. Kay, president and CEO, LSG Sky Chefs, Inc. states, “Give frequent, candid feedback. Let people know where they are strong but also where they need to improve. Always demonstrate your confidence in people’s ability to learn and grow.” He also believes in establishing rigorous consequences, penalties for not taking risks, and trying new ways of getting things done.
  • Set the example — Great coaches are usually great students. They keep learning and growing throughout their lives. Janice Deskus, vice president, training and quality implementation, CIGNA Health Care states, “Every meeting I attend, I try to walk away with at least one new idea.”

Coaches help athletes develop the required skills and mind-set needed to excel in their sport. In a similar way, leaders coach and help people achieve their best performance. These coaching actions — pointing out examples of top performance, asking the right questions, providing helpful feedback and setting a positive example-help people develop the knowledge and skills needed to succeed. Leaders view every coaching event as an opportunity to gain new insights about themselves and their associates.


Leaders have the desire to help people “be all that they can be.” They use the right amount of each C (challenge, confidence, and coaching) to help people stretch, believe in themselves, and develop new skills.

In the book Jesus, CEO: Using Ancient Wisdom for Visionary Leadership, author Laurie Beth Jones states that Jesus was a great leader and would have made a great CEO. What specific actions did Jesus take?

  1. He challenged people. He challenged his 12 recruits to give up their current jobs and take on a bigger and more meaningful task. He challenged people to think morally and act ethically.
  2. He built confidence. He believed in his recruits. He saw great potential in each of them. When they failed he didn’t judge them – rather he encouraged them to keep trying.
  3. He coached. He believed his role was to help and nurture others. There are countless stories of Jesus teaching and preaching wherever he went. He trained his staff so effectively that they continued to do the work after his death.

Leaders provide the challenge, confidence, and coaching people need to achieve their best performance.