Every day, we use our senses and observation skills to interact with people. Touch, smell, sight, hearing and taste provide powerful ways for us to understand and navigate daily. We also use our observation skills to make sense of our world in order to know how to perform, act, behave and adjust accordingly.

Our senses and observation skills can provide us with powerful information that helps us understand the people we interact with and their emotions. Through careful observation of both verbal and non-verbal cues, we can detect happiness, anger and sadness. We can even observe subtler human behaviors like distress, interest or passion. These same senses and observation skills can be used as part of a robust leadership development program for new and seasoned leaders.

Leadership Programs

Most leadership programs are based on competencies, and can include everything from classes to simulation. As a business becomes more global and competitive, both human capital and leadership skills become important competitive advantages.

Organizations spend a great deal of money on their leadership programs in order to be top-performers. According to Forbes, spending on corporate training has grown to over $70 billion in the U.S. and $130 billion worldwide. Forbes reports that the top area of spending continues to be management and leadership training, and it is projected to remain at the top.

Leadership programming costs include fees for guest speakers, salaries for instructional designers to develop content, books, technology to help administer programs, talent assessments, coaches and simulations (whether purchased or developed through internal resources). This partial list illustrates how costly leadership programs can become with no guarantee that they will achieve organizational objectives.

While always well-intended, many leadership programs lack a simple and fundamental strategy that can be used to further master leadership skills: simple observation and thoughtful, specific feedback. This method can be used in any day-to-day situation, either planned or in the moment to deepen and hone leadership skills in a more accelerated fashion than traditional methods.

Benefits of Observation

Observing a leader during their everyday activities reveals a variety of situations, stressors and behaviors. The observer can see leadership style, interactions with people, and detect skills that need practice and polish.

In addition, observation can identify leader strengths and expertise that are unique. The observer will want to encourage the leader to use their strengths often and identify where they translate into new situations. Observation can detect energy, passion and overall leadership effectiveness. Observation and feedback can be comparatively inexpensive and a more accessible tool for organizations. It may also yield some additional benefits such as leadership engagement and alignment.

Planning for Observation

When planning for observation, the observer should identify situations that will best illustrate the skills or knowledge that require development. Observation can include observing team meetings, client interactions, presentations, negotiations or difficult conversations. The key to success is devoting the time and energy to focus on the leader and incorporate all senses during the observations.

It may be helpful to review the leader’s developmental plans and goals, assessment data, and any other information that helps you illuminate the leader’s motivations, style and level of self-awareness.


Depending on the skill being observed, the methods of observation will vary. For example, if a leader needs to improve their presentation skills, you will want to make note of their word choice, voice volume, cadence, articulation and stage presence. If observing change management skills, you will want to review their change plan and observe their ability to manage resistance and effective communication of messaging to others.

It may take several observations over time to see a full picture. In addition, it will take some time for the observer to analyze data, give meaning to the information, and develop feedback that is both actionable and value-added.

Giving Feedback

Perhaps the greatest gift leaders are given is constructive feedback. Although not always wanted or appreciated, it is through feedback that leaders can continue to develop skills that are effective, and understand behaviors that are not effective or are career-limiting.

Once observers have completed their observations, they can use their hearts and minds to develop feedback that can be career changing for the leader. It’s important that feedback be both candid and thoughtful. Feedback that states “what I see, hear and feel and how that impacts people and the business,” is powerful.

The right words, specific examples and clear expectations about what has been observed and what needs to change, can be the difference between a leader who will not or cannot change and the next rising star.

The Power of the Observation and Feedback Model

The Observations and Feedback Model has long been used in a variety of fields where opportunities to observe and implement changes naturally present themselves in day-to-day situations. It continues to be an effective model, although it is often underutilized in leadership development.

Observations can identify even subtle behaviors that may enhance or limit a leader’s effectiveness. The observer must be skilled in giving feedback to share hard messages. The leader must be open to positive change and ready to receive the feedback. Each party is investing in a powerful communication model that will be meaningful for both.

Feedback must be specific. Telling the leader that they must communicate more effectively is too broad. Having them practice an oral presentation, and giving feedback on the cadence or word choice is much more specific. In addition, the time spent in observation and feedback communicates the investment the organization has in the leader and their willingness to ensure their success.

Both leader and observer must be open, vulnerable and able to deliver thoughtful communication. And, both must understand that the results will not be easy or immediate. Building a skill takes support, repetition and practice.

Case Study: Putting into Practice

A seasoned surgeon who has a reputation for “being mean to the staff” was recommended for coaching.  In an operating environment, the surgeon is the leader of both the surgery and the surgical team.

Initially there was resistance to being “coached,” however, there was agreement to some exploration and initial assessments. The observation and feedback model was instrumental in both observing behaviors and getting buy-in from the surgeon. The observation entailed watching the surgeon in the operating room, during patient visits and with the staff in their working environment. Though observing in an operating room is a bit unusual, it revealed behaviors that needed modification.

The surgeon’s interactions with the staff members, and his verbal and non-verbal communication, lacked general respect and had negative tones. Through careful observation, the negativity in both his overt and subtle behaviors was obvious.

Once the coach revealed the playback of what was observed, the surgeon gained clarity around the impact of his behaviors. In time, and through additional observations, the surgeon was able to let go of disrespectful behaviors and begin to practice new ways of interaction.

The powers of observation and feedback are bringing daily consciousness to subtle behaviors that need refining. Through multiple observations, the surgeon was able to gain continuous feedback over time and practice new behaviors that were more respectful to team members.


Organizations need leaders with strong leadership skills to handle complex work and achieve the organization’s vision and goals. Developing leaders significantly impacts both the bottom line and the organization’s ability to attract and retain top talent.

Observing leaders and providing feedback is just one strategy that organizations can use to invest in their leaders. While not a quick, easy or new concept, it is a tool that, if done appropriately, can pay dividends for your organization, leaders and employees.