Leadership Quotes to Inspire and Educate from Dr. Thomas Gordon

(excerpted from his L.E.T. book)

Quotes are grouped by category to make it easier to find what you’re looking for.  Enjoy!


Page 2: “If being a leader turns out to be a bad experience, it is almost always because of the leader’s own ineffectiveness. And considering that few people ever get any kind of specific training in leader effectiveness, it is easy to understand why being a leader so often is difficult, draining and disappointing.”

Page 8: “How to influence people without using power is the key to leader effectiveness.”

Pages 17 – 18: “What Makes a Leader? ‘Leaders are born, not made.’ That’s what most people thought, until social scientists began to make leadership a legitimate subject for intensive investigation, no more than 60 or 70 years ago. Back in the old days, when strong social class barriers made it next to impossible for just anyone to become a leader, it appeared to most people that leadership was inherited, since leaders emerged so frequently within the same favored families. As class barriers crumbled and it became obvious that leaders were coming from all strata of society, common sense told us that leadership was much more complex than being born with the right genes or in the proper families. If not the right combination of genes, then perhaps all leaders possess certain traits or  characteristics acquired through their upbringing or education. This notion started a search for the universal traits of leaders. But then hundreds of studies showed no trait differences between leaders and non-leaders, which all but killed the theory that leadership was a product of certain attributes residing within all leaders. A major breakthrough came when social scientists began to look at leadership as an interaction between leaders and their followers.” dr thomas gordon leadership


Page 37: “The Behavior Window can help you determine at any given time which person has the unmet need—which one owns a problem that is interfering with productive work. Its purpose is to help a leader first become aware that a problem exists and then to diagnose it so that she will know which skills to use to bring the relationship back into equilibrium so that productive work can continue.”

Page 39: “On becoming the leader of a group, few people seem able to resist the temptation to grab the reins, make a flying start, and plunge into the task of trying to solve all the problems alone. Understandably, the initial concern of most new leaders is to justify, as quickly as possible, their selection to those who appointed them. They want to look good, and the sooner the better. After all, what is a leader for if not to step right in and ‘take charge’? In the military the expression is ‘take command.’  Unfortunately, rushing in to take charge can get leaders into hot water. Eager to produce quick reforms, instant cures, and dramatic increases in productivity, leaders succumb to the well–known ‘new broom’ temptation, with high expectations of sweeping clean the mess left by the group’s previous boss. Yet seldom can leaders do it on their own without the group members’ willingness and cooperation, neither of which is likely to be immediately forthcoming. Groups resist change and hang on tenaciously to their habitual ways. These ‘group norms’ exert a strong influence on the behavior of the group members.”

Pages 41 – 42: “Thinking again of effective leaders as persons with skills in problem-solving, I must emphasize that leaders need not assume full responsibility to problem-solve alone; rather, they can enlist the resources of the group members to help them. In theory at least, the ideal group would marshal the creative resources of every member (including the leader, of course) as it faces its problems and searches for the best solutions. Not every member needs to be involved in all problem-solving, but in the ideal group the resources of all members are available when appropriate or necessary.”


Pages 63 – 64: “For the last several decades some psychologists have been attempting to identify the critical ingredients in human relationships that foster personal growth and psychological health. This intensive search, which initially focused only on identifying the characteristics and behavior of effective professional helping agents (counselors and psychotherapists), eventually led some to study the personal qualities of effective teachers, effective marriage partners, and effective parents. Rather conclusive evidence emerged that at least two ingredients are necessary in any relationship of one person fostering growth and psychological health in another—empathy and acceptance. Empathy is the capacity to put oneself in the shoes of others and understand their ‘personal world of meaning’ — how they view their reality, how they feel about things. Active Listening performs this very function. A climate in which a person can frequently feel empathically understood is conducive to that person’s overall psychological health and personal growth. I believe this happens primarily because such a climate facilitates problem-solving, which results in greater need satisfaction. When people solve problems and get their needs satisfied, they are freed to move farther up Maslow’s pyramid toward the higher level needs, discovering new ways of finding self-achievement and self-development.”

Page 69: “Keeping the locus of responsibility in the one who owns the problem is important because: First, leaders who get team members to solve their own problems are making a sound investment that will pay off with many benefits: their team members will become less dependent on them, more self-directing, more self-sufficient, and more capable of solving problems on their own. Second, leaders seldom have enough understanding of the complexities and wide variety of personal problems which group members encounter in their lives, on the job and off. Consequently, skills that keep the locus of responsibility for problem-solving with the helpee relieve leaders of the impossible task of coming up with answers to problems about which they have little information.”

Page 88: “People’s problems are like onions—they come in layers. Only after the outside layers are peeled off do they get down to the core problem. Sometimes people know what the real problem is but are afraid to start there; more often they are not even aware of what is underneath. When a person starts out talking to you about some bothersome problem, you generally hear only the ‘presenting problem.’ Active Listening effectively facilitates the helpee to move through the presenting problem and finally get down to the core problem.”


Pages 81 – 83: “People are conditioned almost from infancy to think of feelings as bad and dangerous—enemies of good human relationships. People grow up afraid of feelings—their own and those of others around them—largely because they have heard from adults in their lives many messages like these:

  • ‘Don’t ever let me hear you say you hate your baby brother.’
  • ‘You shouldn’t feel discouraged about what happened.’
  • ‘If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all.’
  • ‘Don’t feel bad about it—things will be better tomorrow.’
  • ‘There’s nothing at all to be afraid of.’
  • ‘Keep a stiff upper lip.’
  • ‘Swallow your pride.’
  • ‘Watch your tongue, young lady.’

Later, we encounter additional reinforcement of the strong ban against expressing feelings—in the world of work, where we are warned that feelings simply do not belong. Somehow feelings and emotions are perceived as the antithesis of the rationality and shallowness required in relationships we want in the workplace. Leaving your worries at the doorstep and biting your tongue are the behaviors considered appropriate for people in organizations; people feel these behaviors will be valued and rewarded in the long run.

This pervasive and repressive group norm not only contributes heavily to poor psychological health; it is counter-productive to organizational effectiveness. As everyone knows very well, working with people inevitably generates feelings—of all kinds—ranging from mild to strong: irritation, anger, frustration, disappointment, hurt, fear, futility, despair, hate, bitterness, discouragement. While experiencing such feelings is not unhealthy, repressing them is. Continually bottling up your feelings is very definitely ‘hazardous to your health,’ and can ultimately cause ulcers, headaches, heartburn, high blood pressure, spastic colon, or any number of other psychosomatic problems. Repressed feelings can also reduce your effectiveness by distracting you from your work.”

Page 85: “Feelings Can Be Transitory. When someone says, ‘I hate this job!’ or ‘I can’t work with Sarah’ or ‘Nobody values my work around here!’ most people are inclined to think that those feelings are rather permanent and unchangeable. And, usually, the stronger the feeling, the more it sounds final or irreversible. For example, if my wife should greet me at the door with, ‘I’m so mad at you!’ my immediate reaction would be that I’ve fouled my nest somehow and she’ll never feel the same about me again. Parents, too, have a similar reaction when one of their kids blurts out, ‘I’m never going anywhere with you again.’ Fortunately, negative feelings can be quite transitory. One of the reasons for this is that people purposely select strong negative feelings as codes to communicate ‘I want to make sure I get your full attention’ or ‘I want you to know how bad you’ve made me feel.’”


Pages 101 – 104: “Now that you have discovered how to be effective in helping others, you need to know how to help yourself. Why are some people so successful in getting their needs satisfied in their relationships with others? When someone’s behavior is causing you a serious problem, how can you influence that person to change without making her lose face or feel resentment toward you?

When the other person owns the problem you employ listening skills. When you own the problem you must employ assertive skills. And, assertive skills are distinctly different from listening skills. Many leaders are non-assertive, so confronting people whose behavior causes them a problem is difficult for them, for a variety of reasons. All of us are reluctant to tell other people that their behavior is unacceptable or is creating a problem for us. We run the risk that the other person will feel hurt, get angry, not like us. And such fears are not unwarranted. Who likes to hear that her behavior is unacceptable? People do frequently respond to confrontation with negative reactions that we don’t like to hear. They may start an argument; they may retaliate with a critical message of their own; they may walk away hurt or angry; they may get defensive and disagreeable. So it takes a certain amount of courage to assert ourselves and confront others.

Still another important reason why leaders approach the task of confronting with such trepidation is that the particular language they employ, originally learned from adults who confronted them as children, has a high probability of provoking resistance and retaliation or damaging the relationship with the person whom they confront. In our L.E.T. classes, instructors use a simple exercise, and its results consistently demonstrate that, when leaders confront people causing them a problem, the language of their confronting messages is abrasive, threatening, judgmental, moralizing, condescending, sarcastic, or injurious to the self-esteem of the person confronted.”


Pages 112 – 114: “It is essential that you keep in mind the fundamental concept of ‘problem ownership.’ When you decide to try to change another person whose behavior is interfering with your getting your needs met, you own the problem, not the changee. The changee does not have a problem; indeed, she is getting her needs met by doing the very thing that causes you not to get your needs met. You can’t blame a person for meeting her needs—it’s the way people function. So don’t be upset with the person whose behavior causes you a problem, although you are perfectly justified in being upset with the fact that you have a problem. This is the attitude that gets communicated by your non-blaming I-Message, as opposed to a blaming You-Message.

Although you assume responsibility for confronting the changee with the fact that you have a problem, in the final analysis it is the changee who ultimately must make the decision whether to change or not. The locus of responsibility resides in the changee. Because you have the problem, you are in fact dependent on the changee. Again, the I-Message effectively and accurately communicates this attitude; it is a statement of your problem but does not tell the changee she must change or how she must change. Again I-Messages are appeals for help, and this accounts for their often amazing potency. Most people respond better to honest appeals for help than to demands, threats, solutions, or lectures. Although I-Messages are more likely to influence others to change than You-Messages, still it is a fact that being confronted with the prospect of having to change is often disturbing to the changee. A common response of the changee to your I-Message is to become anxious, upset, defensive, hurt, apologetic, or resistive, as in the following two examples:

1. CHANGER: I was really upset when I found several critical errors in your report because it made me look foolish at the board meeting where I presented it.

CHANGEE: Well, you wanted it in such a hurry I didn’t have time to double-check all my calculations.

2. CHANGER: When I hear complaints from patients that you are not answering their call light immediately, I get upset because I would hate to be held responsible for something bad happening to one of our patients.

CHANGEE: I can’t be in two places at the same time, and besides some of our patients call us for things they can do themselves.

In both situations even your perfectly good I-Message provoked defensiveness and some degree of hostility. Your I-Message caused the changee a problem. Not at all unusual—people rarely like to be told their behavior is unacceptable, no matter how it is worded. When people resist changing, it is generally useless to keep hammering at them with subsequent I-Messages; what is called for at such times is a quick shift to Active Listening. In these two situations the shift might sound something like:

1. CHANGER: You were under such a time bind, you felt you couldn’t take the time to check your figures, is that right?

2. CHANGER: You mean you can’t see the call light when you’re in another patient’s room. And I also gather you get irritated when patients call you to do things for them they could do themselves.

This shifting from a sending posture to a listening posture, which in our L.E.T. course is called ‘shifting gears,’ serves several extremely important functions in confrontation situations.

  1. It communicates that the changer has understood and accepted (not agreed with, of course) the changee’s position—her feelings, defenses, reasons. This greatly increases the changee’s willingness to understand and accept the changer’s position. (‘She listened to me, now I’ll listen to her.’)
  2. It helps dissipate the changee’s emotional response (hurt, embarrassment, anger, regret), paving the way for possible change or, as I shall later describe, mutual problem-solving.
  3. It results, not infrequently, in a change in the changer’s attitude—from previously finding the other’s behavior unacceptable to later seeing it as acceptable. (‘Oh, I now see why you miss some of the patients’ call lights—you can’t see them.’)”


Pages 68 – 69: “Implicit (and sometimes quite explicit) in these 12 categories of listener responses is the desire or intent to change rather than accept the sender. The Roadblocks communicate a desire for (and often pressure for) the helpee to think, feel, or behave differently. These 12 types of responses, then, act as vehicles for communicating unacceptance. And we know that a climate of unacceptance is very unconducive to personal growth, development, and psychological health. Why? It seems that people don’t problem-solve very effectively when they fear arbitrary power to make them change, or when they feel threatened, judged, put down, or analyzed so they will change. Such a climate produces defensiveness and resistance to change (the person protects Level II safety and security needs); it also inhibits self-expression and self-exploration—both necessary for solving one’s problems.

Listening performs another very important function in helping group members solve their problems—it helps keep the responsibility for problem-solving with the member (who, of course, is the one who ‘owns the problem’). The 12 Roadblocks, on the other hand, in varying degrees, tend to grab that responsibility away from the owner of the problem and deposit it in the hands of the leader. Keeping the locus of responsibility in the one who owns the problem is important because: First, leaders who get team members to solve their own problems are making a sound investment that will pay off with many benefits: their team members will become less dependent on them, more self-directing, more self-sufficient, and more capable of solving problems on their own.

Second, leaders seldom have enough understanding of the complexities and wide variety of personal problems which group members encounter in their lives, on the job and off. Consequently, skills that keep the locus of responsibility for problem-solving with the helpee relieve leaders of the impossible task of coming up with answers to problems about which they have little information. Even highly trained professional counselors, recognizing how limited their understanding of another’s problem usually is, refrain from assuming responsibility for generating solutions for their clients, often despite heavy pressure to do so.”


Page 179: “The Cost of Time. Because power generates so much resistance in people and provokes them into challenging leaders who use it, it is understandable why leaders must spend a great amount of time and effort dealing with such reactions. Yet leaders often defend their use of power on the grounds that it takes less time than other non-power methods of problem-solving or conflict resolution. This is a half-truth. While the act of making a Method I decision can take less time than a group decision, inordinate amounts of time are often required to achieve acceptance of a decision made unilaterally.”

Page 181: “Contrary to the common belief that the acquisition of power gives a leader more influence, power actually makes a leader lose influence over group members.”

Page 187: “Although most people know from personal experience that the two win-lose methods of conflict resolution carry a high risk of damaging relationships and reducing organizational effectiveness, these continue to be the methods of choice for most leaders. While there may be a number of explanations for this, two seem most probable: people have had little or no personal experience with any other approach to conflict resolution, and, in the minds of most people, having the greatest influence is equated with possessing the most power. Most children were brought up in families in which one or both parents administered frequent and liberal doses of rewards and punishments to make their kids do what the adult decided they should do. A well-known nationwide study of violence in families found that 80 percent of the parents said they used ordinary means of physical punishment, such as spanking and slapping. Nearly 30 percent of the parents had committed a violent act against their children for which they could have been arrested for assault! Likewise, in schools, rewards and punishments have always been the principal tools teachers have used to get ‘discipline’ in the classroom. That practice hasn’t changed much for several hundred years, which is a source of some amazement to me.

This means that by the time youngsters are ready to move into adulthood, very few have been exposed to any other model of adult-child conflict resolution except the one in which adults use power to enforce obedience. So, children get little opportunity to experience relationships with adults who use non-power methods. All they experience is coercion and domination. Even if you ask youngsters, as I have, why authority and power failed to make them comply to teachers’ and parents’ demands, with amazing frequency they reply, ‘I guess they should have used more.’ No wonder nine out of ten people who have come to our L.E.T. classes over the nearly fifty years are so surprised to learn that there actually is a workable alternative to win-lose methods. And no wonder these leaders express such disbelief when confronted with the idea that they lose influence when they use power.

In fact, some of them enroll in the L.E.T. course expecting to be taught how to use their power more cleverly or more wisely—never expecting to be taught not to use it at all.”


Page 51: “When leaders learn the skills of a problem-solving facilitator (seeing that problems get solved), it actually makes their job much easier than if they attempt to solve all the problems on their own—a role that would require leaders to have all the answers, be omniscient, be equipped with inhuman intelligence or have an inexhaustible storehouse of knowledge and experience. I’ll repeatedly emphasize that an effective leader must learn how to get team members to start solving their own problems, how to build a problem-solving team, how and when to enlist the creative resources of group members, and how to build relationships in which members do not put distance between themselves and their leader. Unlike the goal of becoming omniscient, these goals can be achieved.”


Pages 278 – 279: “The style of leadership you choose will greatly influence the kind of person you will become. You’ll not be able to separate the two. Because you spend a lot of your time in your role as leader, how you behave in that role will inexorably shape you as a person. To illustrate, a leadership style that depends heavily on coercive power will require you to maintain a rather consistent attitude of suspicion and distrust. You’ll have to be guarded in what you tell people, be on guard to detect signs of resistance to your power (or outright insubordination). Along with this vigilance, as an authoritarian leader you will find yourself viewing others as possessing limited capacity and low potential for self-direction, for constructive change and personal development, for thinking for themselves. If you choose coercive power as your way of leadership, it will make an impact on your personal life in other ways. As I pointed out earlier, by assuming all the responsibility for group decisions and taking on the total burden for implementing and enforcing policies and rules you will pay a price of increased tension, worry, and anxiety—and ultimately have poorer physical and mental health.

Another issue: do you want to be a person who is open, honest, and direct in dealing with others? Psychologists use the term ‘congruence’ to refer to the similarity between what a person is thinking or feeling inside and what she communicates to the outside. Do you want to say what you mean and mean what you say, or be a person who ‘doesn’t ring true’ and can’t be trusted by others? Do you want to be a person who sends honest and direct I-Messages to let people know exactly where you stand?

There is, almost needless to say, a risk in being congruent in your communications, and you should seriously consider whether you can take that risk. If you decide to be a leader who is open, honest, and direct in presenting yourself as you really are, you risk exposing your true self to others. An I-Message sender is ‘transparently real’—to self and others. People must have courage to be what they are—that is, to communicate what they feel and think as of each moment in their lives. And here is the risk: if you open yourself to others, they will get to know the real you! Do you want people to know how you really are? If you decide to be a leader who listens to others, there is another risk. Active Listening, as you have seen, requires you temporarily to suspend your own thoughts, feelings, evaluations, and judgments in order to attend exclusively to the message of the sender. It forces accurate receiving.

For, if you are to understand the message in terms of the sender’s meaning, you must put yourself into the shoes of the sender (into her frame of reference, into her world of reality). Only then can you hear the meaning intended by the sender. The ‘feedback’ part of Active Listening is nothing more than your ultimate check on the accuracy of your listening, although it also assures the sender that you have understood. Active Listening carries its own risk. Something happens to a person who practices Active Listening. When you understand accurately how another person thinks or feels, put yourself momentarily into the other person’s shoes, see the world as another is seeing it—you run the risk of having your own opinions and attitudes changed. People do get changed by what they really understand. To be ‘open to the experience’ of another invites having to reinterpret your own. People who cannot listen to others are ‘defensive’ because they cannot afford to expose themselves to ideas and views different from their own.”


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