I believe strongly that leaders and leaders-of-leaders (and quite a few of us consultants) are not clear enough with leaders about what we expect of them!

We too often confuse leaders by asking them to do MANY THINGS: set the vision, clarify strategy, define valued behaviors, set goals, meet one-on-one, listen, embrace followers’ great ideas, redirect when required, hold staff accountable, manage different personalities, etc. Whew! The list is a very long one.

I think it will be easier for leaders – and more actionable for them – to focus on ONE CORE IDEA that will set the context for the variety of activities they must do each day to serve that one core idea. That idea is this: Leaders, your ONLY valuable contribution to your organization is the creation of employee discretionary energy toward goals.

What is Discretionary Energy?

For our purposes, we define an employee’s discretionary energy as:

  1. Their willing application of knowledge and skills in service towards espoused strategy and goals, and
  2. Their demonstrated positive enthusiasm for their work, their team & its members, and their customers.

Discretionary energy is at play when an employee goes beyond the minimum. Sometimes discretionary energy is about innovation and creativity, but more often it is about jumping in before being asked, going beyond the basics to meet a need or solve a problem.

There are dozens, possibly even hundreds, of activities that a leader needs to manage. I’m not suggesting that those activities no longer require a leader’s attention! However, I do believe that a leader’s primary contribution – one that needs constant attention and monitoring – is the frequency of employee discretionary energy applied in the leader’s work environment.

Define the Playing Field

The “playing field” metaphor is intended to set the context for a leader’s activities and for a leader’s primary contribution (employee’s discretionary energy). A leader must set the stage by defining the playing field in which team members are going to operate. These activities create performance clarity (the WHAT they are to deliver), values clarity (the HOW they will treat others as they deliver on goals), and inspire confidence and willing focus to “do what it takes” to deliver on goals (discretionary energy). These three pieces, effectively managed, create a high performance, values-aligned culture.

Some of the key activities required of leaders to “set the stage” include:

  • Clarifying and communicating the vision, values, and strategy for the team/organization.
  • Setting and communicating goals for the team and for individual team members.
  • Coaching, redirecting, and praising to ensure team members cooperate and perform well, both individually and as a team.
  • Honoring and respecting team members and demanding they do the same for their peers & customers.

When these activities are proactively managed, leaders create a powerful, positive culture that creates trust, respect, and gratifying work for team members.

How Will You Know That Employee Discretionary Energy is being Applied?

These activities are typical of a high performing, values aligned culture. Employees:

  • Do their work to standard (often beyond standard), then volunteer to help with other projects or assist their peers.
  • “Wow” customers by meeting customer expectations then going another 1% beyond to provide a unique experience that exceeds needs.
  • Proactively solve problems. Employees with work passion tell the boss, “I identified problem ‘X’ late yesterday. I solved it by doing ‘Z’ and have informed everyone involved so we shouldn’t see it happen again.”

The Leader’s Primary Contribution

Leaders, do continue to manage the variety of activities required to keep your team on track. AND, pay close attention to the most powerful contribution you can provide to your company: employee discretionary energy.

S. Chris Edmonds

S. Chris Edmonds

Chris helps leaders create purposeful, positive, productive work cultures. He's a speaker, author, and executive consultant. He blogs, podcasts, and video casts. He is the author of The Culture Engine and six other books.
How do you like to learn? Read books | Listen to podcasts | Watch videos

Reader Interactions


  1. AvatarLeanne Hoagland-Smith says

    The brain is not designed to multi-task and this advice makes sense. Also by having greater clarity specific to one task ensures that one task is completed and probably done well. Given employee productivity research suggests that up to 75% of all employees are not actively engaged, initiating strategies to reduce employee disengagement is critical to organizational success not too mention profitability.

  2. AvatarJon says

    YES!!!!!! Two huge thumbs up. Two time worn phrases that most companies ignore but effective leaders apply constantly: 1-You can manage things but you have to lead people and 2-Not everything that can be counted matters and not everything that matters can be counted. In the course of my career I’ve been fortunate to work for a few great leaders. I have also survivied a much larger number of folks who showed me how NOT to lead or manage.

    Best wishes to all for a future filled with success.

  3. AvatarJon says

    One other item to share–most employees will listen to what you say however they believe what you do.