Making Leadership Visible: Noticing and Naming

“You need to show more leadership.”  Have you ever heard that or a variation of that in a performance appraisal? This feedback assumes a definition of leadership, that you know what that definition is and that you share that definition. It is hard to do anything about this kind of feedback, because it is so generic.

Leadership is often invisible to people, because much of leadership is an internal process, buried deep in the leader’s head. We all carry implicit assumptions about what good leadership looks like – their values, beliefs and behaviours.  But the problem is that those assumptions are unstated, so we aren’t always aware of another person’s assumptions, or if we share them, because the assumptions are inside their mind.  And followers are not mind-readers. Often people trying to develop their leadership will select role models, trying on their leadership approaches to build their leadership and professional identities (Ibarra, 1999). But this approach is usually just trial and error.

Leaders can help their followers develop their leadership skills by using a teaching routine known as “noticing and naming” (Richard, Church & Morrison, 2011). This routine be used in two ways. First, when the leader notices a positive leadership action from a staff member, they name it.  “I noticed that you just did a great job of including other people’s voices in the discussion today, by asking everyone around the table to comment before we made our decision”  If appropriate, this naming should occur in front of the entire group, so they too can learn what looks like leadership. By naming the positive action, the follower now knows the what you value, and what specific action that was evidence of that leadership value, belief or behaviour.

Second, you can use naming and noticing when enacting your own leadership. By naming the leadership values, beliefs or behaviours, you are making them visible to your staff.  By uncovering your thinking, your followers can now understand your rationale and demonstrate what you value in leadership. A leader might talk about a specific decision, using their leadership beliefs and values to explain the decision. For example: “I decided to engage the entire team in this decision, because I believe that those affected by a specific decision need to be involved in crafting the alternatives.”  Using naming and noticing this way improves your effectiveness as a role model, because now your followers know your rationale, understand your specific beliefs and values, rather than having to guess at them.

Make your leadership more visible. Your followers will thank you for it.


Ibarra, H. (1999). Provisional selves: Experimenting with image and identity in professional adaptation. Administrative Science Quarterly, 44(4), 764–791.
Ritchhart, R., Church, M., & Morrison, K.  (2011). Making Thinking Visible: How to Promote Engagement, Understanding, and Independence for All Learners (First edition.). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

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