Transforming Leaders into Progress Makers: Leadership for the 21st Century


Phillip G. Clampitt & Robert J. DeKoch

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    Many of the contemporary contributions that attempt to address the subject of leadership have the intellectual heft of a bumper sticker. They are often based on pithy suggestions such as “lead, follow, or get out of the way,” or “when in charge take charge.” Then there is the “leadership secrets of …” genre that suggests that we too would be great leaders if we would emulate the actions of some notable historical figure. At a higher level of sophistication, but equally problematic, are overly engineered competency-based models that list a series of traits or skills that promise the consistent production of excellent leaders if we could just master the list. It's not that there is anything inherently wrong with such observations. There is something to be said for proverbs, truisms, and rules of thumb. The problem arises when well-intentioned academics teach them without thinking critically about them and when practitioners try to apply them in their practice. I'm reminded of a conversation with Dickinson College President William Durden, who responded to a student's question, “What leadership books do you recommend?” with the statement, “For goodness sake, don't read anything with the word leadership in the title.”

    When it comes to leadership, the results achieved from applying formulaic approaches are often disappointing if not downright harmful.

    Leadership is a complex and dynamic social phenomenon. What works for one person doesn't work for the next. What works in one situation is inappropriate for another. That's not to say that we should remain silent about leadership. There are patterns that can surely be discerned, studied, and applied. We should seek out these patterns, but we should also maintain a healthy skepticism when faced with definitive statements about how to influence other people.

    Most leadership scholars would agree that influence is at the heart of leadership. The most we may be able to hope for are probability statements that generally hold true while maintaining the possibility of exceptions. As Clampitt and DeKoch note, probability statements use terms such as usually, sometimes, often, frequently, rarely, and occasionally. The study of leadership may well attract those who are comfortable with uncertainty. The lack of clear and unambiguous answers will undoubtedly frustrate some and send them running in search of the universal laws of the natural sciences. Those who remain, who can handle paradox and uncertainty, will find their studies most gratifying.

    Phillip Clampitt and Robert DeKoch understand something about the promises and the pitfalls of trying to decipher the truths of leadership. In Transforming Leaders Into Progress Makers: Leadership for the 21st Century, they engage in some high-order patterning, yet they also avoid the trap of declaring universal truths. They provide real-life examples to illustrate their points without falling prey to hero worship. In this book, we can see the reflection of their book Embracing Uncertainty: The Essence of Leadership. I have often assigned that 2001 contribution as an example of a refreshing alternative approach to traditional depictions of leadership. Progress Makers is far more than a rehash. There is indeed new wine in this bottle. Beyond its useful treatment of uncertainty and platforms, it touches upon one of the great questions of leadership studies by including the notion of progress as a central theme.

    Almost 20 years ago, the late Joseph C. Rost, a founder of the field of leadership studies, struggled to capture the definition of leadership. The result was the seminal book Leadership for the Twenty-First Century. After reading hundreds of books on the subject of leadership and criticizing most of them for a lack of definition, Rost proposed that leadership is “an influence relationship among leaders and followers who intend real changes that reflect their mutual purposes.”1

    In Rost's definition, we see the importance of change and the characterization that leadership is more than simply raw influence. Change, however, can just as easily be for the bad as the good. Rost's definition makes no distinction between the leader of the criminal enterprise that works to the detriment of society and the public servant that works for the public interest. Here's where Clampitt and DeKoch come in. They sagely avoid the highly doubtful proposition that an influence relationship that results in a bad outcome is something other than leadership. Instead, they focus on progress—a hopeful term that connotes something inherently positive and worthy, and they describe the kind of leadership that is most likely to result in progress. Once again, with a level of candor that is rare in published works, they assert that progress is not an inexorable linear advancement but a messy process full of fits and starts.

    I suggest that this work contains concepts and insights that advance the study and practice of leadership. It is to be celebrated equally for its humility as well as its assertions. An example of intellectual humility appears in the conclusion where they caution the reader that none of the strategies and tactics in the book should be considered sacrosanct. Here there are no false claims of certainty, demonstrating that the authors practice what they preach. Instead of punctuating their work with a declarative statement of truth, they enjoin the reader to refine and explore. Yet just as we accept the caveat and invitation, we should not overlook the helpful exploration that lies within the cover of this book. The authors are in search of a more sustainable form of leadership, a project that could be the next great platform of leadership theory.

    Department of Leadership Studies
    University of San Diego

    1. J. Rost, Leadership for the Twenty First Century. Westport, CT: Praeger, 1993, 102.


    In Chapter 11, we discuss how to engender progress by thoughtfully “enlarging the circle” or building the right team in the proper way. We were fortunate that the right people chose to be part of our circle. We begin the acknowledgments with the first member to join the Progress Maker circle. The authors are deeply grateful for the support of Laurey Clampitt, who is one of the world's best “refiners” and masterfully guides “explorers” in their progress-making quests. She devoted enormous amounts of her time to challenging the ideas, critiquing the manuscript, and improving the writing, time she took away from her new business, Totally Twisted (Dining Designs). Moreover, she developed all the content for the book's Web site ( In short, this project would not have been completed without her guidance and assistance. Lee Williams (Texas State University) also provided thoughtful commentary on numerous chapters during the embryonic stages and developed several research projects highlighted in several chapters and Appendix B. He also serves as a valued mentor, colleague, and friend to one of the authors (Phil). Cal Downs also deserves recognition for his ongoing influence on Phil's career and life.

    The Progress Maker research team was headed by Tiffany Jensen with the assistance of Kim VandenAvond, Ryan Hartwig, and Kylene Pankratz (all proud graduates of the Communication program at the University of Wisconsin–Green Bay). They unearthed obscure research on a 24/7 basis that enriched the final product. Todd Armstrong at Sage Publications along with his assistant Nathan Davidson guided this project with professionalism and enthusiasm. They selected a number of insightful and thoughtful reviewers who greatly enhanced the final manuscript. Those reviewers were Angela Laird Brenton (University of Arkansas at Little Rock, College of Professional Studies), Charles D. Allen (United States Army War College, Department of Command, Leadership, and Management), Angela D. Boston (The University of Texas at Arlington, Department of Management), Sue Currey (St. Edward's University, New College), Larry M. Edmonds (Arizona State University, Interdisciplinary Humanities and Communication), Gary F. Kohut (The University of North Carolina at Charlotte, Department of Management), Lance Kurke (Kurke & Associates, Inc., and Carnegie Mellon University), H. John Heinz III (Graduate College of Public Policy and Management), George E. Reed (University of San Diego, Department of Leadership Studies), Meir Russ (University of Wisconsin–Green Bay, Department of Business Administration), and W. Robert Sampson (St. Petersburg College, College of Technology and Management). An additional word about one of the reviewers: George Reed agreed to write an insightful foreword to the book that reflects both his thoughtfulness about leadership and commitment to the project. We are grateful for his support, friendship, and service to the nation. In Chapter 14, we discuss the importance of error detection and correction. This team of distinguished scholars did their best to make sure we avoided errors and seized relevant opportunities. Finally, we want to thank our wonderful black belt copy editor, Gillian Dickens (aka “Little Dickens”). She, along with Libby Larson and Aja Baker, were instrumental in refining the final version of this book and the ancillary material. The book is dedicated to two special and extraordinary people who continue to be a source of inspiration as we progress through life together—Laurey and Debbie.

    About the Authors

    Phillip G. Clampitt (Ph.D., University of Kansas) is the Hendrickson Professor of Business at the University of Wisconsin–Green Bay, where he teaches in the Information Sciences program. The Wall Street Journal and MIT Sloan Management Review recently highlighted his work on “Decision Downloading,” which details how companies can effectively communicate decisions to those not involved in the decision-making process. He is the author of a Sage Publications best-seller, Communicating for Managerial Effectiveness (fourth edition; see and coauthor of Embracing Uncertainty: The Essence of Leadership. Along with being on the editorial board of numerous professional journals, his work has been published in a variety of journals, including the MIT Sloan Management Review, Academy of Management Executive, Management Communication Quarterly, Journal of Business Communication, Communication World, Journal of Broadcasting, Journal of Communication Management, Ivey Business Journal, and Journal of Change Management. In addition to many guest speaking opportunities in the United States, he has also been invited to speak internationally at the University of Pisa, University of Aberdeen, and University of Ulster, as well as to numerous multinational businesses and professional organizations. As a principal in his firm, Metacomm, he has consulted on communication issues with a variety of organizations, such as PepsiCo, Manpower, Schneider National, American Medical Security, Dean Foods, The Boldt Company, Stora Enso, The U.S. Army War College, Appleton Papers, Foremost Farms, Thilmany Paper, Dental City, and Nokia (see

    Robert J. DeKoch received his bachelor of arts degree from Lawrence University and his master's degree in Business Administration from the University of Wisconsin–Oshkosh. His career has spanned numerous manufacturing industries where he has held various management positions in operations, engineering, and research. He is currently the president and chief operating officer for a major U.S. construction services firm, The Boldt Company (see He is also co-chairman of the board of New North, Inc., a regional economic development initiative in northeastern Wisconsin. The initiative's mission is to harness and promote the 18-county region's resources, talents, and creativity for the purposes of sustaining and growing the regional economy (see Throughout his career, Mr. DeKoch has focused on developing work environments for high involvement and continuous learning. He has instituted progressive communication processes in the workplace to promote understanding, focus, and alignment. He strives to build organizational relationships that foster innovative thinking, recognition of achievement, and genuine teamwork. He coauthored the book Embracing Uncertainty: The Essence of Leadership and leadership articles in various journals.


    To Laurey, who infuses my life with joy, wisdom, and richness



    To Debbie, my wife, my best friend, and my lifelong partner

  • Appendix A: Progress Makers Discussed or Profiled

    A. G. LafleyFormer CEO of Procter & Gamble
    Albert EinsteinTheoretical Physicist
    An WangFormer CEO of Wang Computers
    Andrea JungChairman and CEO of Avon
    Andy GroveFormer CEO of Intel
    Anne MulcahyChairman and Former CEO of Xerox
    Atul GawandeSurgeon and MacArthur Fellow
    C. S. LewisAuthor and Middle Ages Scholar
    Cathy FleurietaAssociate Vice President for Institutional Effectiveness at Texas State University
    Chris FortuneaOwner and President of Saris Cycling Group
    Curt HerztarkInventor of the Curta Calculator
    David SternNBA Commissioner
    Doug HallFounder of Eureka! Ranch
    Duncan SmithU.S. Navy SEAL
    Edward DemingFounder of the Quality Movement
    Ernest ShackletonPolar Explorer
    Franklin Roosevelt32nd President of the United States
    Frederick TaylorFounder of the “Scientific Management” School of Thought
    Freya StarkAuthor and Middle Eastern Explorer
    George C. MarshallFormer Secretary of State
    George ReedaProfessor of Leadership Studies
    Georgia O'KeefeArtist
    Gordon MooreFormer CEO of Intel
    H. R. McMasteraBrigadier General, U.S. Army
    J. F. Kennedy35th President of the United States
    Jack WelchFormer CEO of GE
    Jeff BezosCEO of
    Jimmy WalesFounder of Wikipedia
    John MackeyCEO of Whole Foods Market
    Jonas SalkDeveloper of Polio Vaccine
    Laura HollingsworthaPresident and Publisher of the Des Moines Register, West Group President of Gannett's U.S. Community Publishing Division
    Leonard BernsteinComposer and Former Conductor of the New York Philharmonic
    Mary Kay AshFounder of Mary Kay
    Mike CowenaChairman of Sportable Scoreboards
    Nancy ThompsonaExecutive Recruiter
    Oprah WinfreyMedia Mogul
    Oscar BoldtaFormer CEO of The Boldt Company
    Pat SummittUniversity of Tennessee Women's Basketball Coach
    Richard FeynmanTheoretical Physicist
    Ron ReedaFormer Chief Education Advisor for The Discovery Channel
    Rosalind FranklinDNA Scientist
    Ruth KirschsteinFormer Director of the National Institutes of Health
    Sir Winston ChurchillFormer Prime Minister of Britain
    Steve JobsCEO of Apple (Fortune's CEO of the Decade)
    Tom BoldtaCEO of The Boldt Company
    Vicki WilsonaOwner of Door County Coffee & Tea
    Walter WristonFormer Chairman & CEO of Citibank
    a. We interviewed these progress makers. Their comments and profiles are highlighted in various chapters.
    NOTE: Links to more biographical information on these progress makers are available on the book Web site at

    Appendix B: UMM and the Origins of Focused Flexibility

    M.LeeWilliams Texas State University

    Focused flexibility is a notion that took shape as a result of research I conducted with Phil Clampitt several years ago.1 In this appendix, I outline the history of the research project and some of our major findings.


    The tussle between certainty and uncertainty has concerned many researchers.2 Some scholars argue that humans have a fundamental need for certainty, even if it is based on mythology.3 Yet, others have argued that humans have countervailing needs to escape the “iron grip of predictability and monotony.”4 On a behavioral level, the literature suggests that there are fundamental differences between employees who embrace and suppress uncertainty.5 Those with less tolerance for uncertainty tend to avoid ambiguous stimuli, rely on authorities for their opinions, and act in a dogmatic manner.6 An employee who avoids uncertainty may be hesitant to express a dissenting opinion, looking to the supervisor for specific direction. On the other hand, those who embrace uncertainty tend be self-actualized and flexible, preferring objective information.7An employee who embraces uncertainty, for instance, would be comfortable critiquing a supervisor's decision because he or she entertains a different view of the facts.

    Just as individuals vary in the way they approach and deal with uncertainty, so do organizations. Some organizations manage uncertainty by embracing it. They openly discuss changes in their customer base and competitors, foster innovation, encourage meaningful dialogue, and de-emphasize rigid planning processes. Others, however, tend to avoid uncertainty by following inflexible control procedures or policies, ignoring changing circumstances, overly relying on success recipes, and artificially bolstering organizational successes by overlooking shortcomings.

    The Uncertainty Management Matrix integrates these two forms of uncertainty (see Figure B1).8 This framework juxtaposes the individual employee's approach to uncertainty and how he or she perceives the organization’ s approach to uncertainty. Those individuals who embrace uncertainty see it as challenging, invigorating, and useful. They do not try to artificially drive the ambiguities and contradictions out of the situation. Conversely, those individuals who avoid uncertainty view it as threatening and undesirable. They tend to shun complexities and novelty. In like manner, individuals can perceive their organization as embracing uncertainty (i.e., being open to change and innovation) or see their organization as avoiding uncertainty by denying the presence or need for change.

    Different climates emerge depending on how the individual employee approaches uncertainty and the way he or she perceives how the organization embraces or avoids uncertainty. As suggested in Figure B1, there are four basic possibilities:

    • Placid Climate: Employees and the organization both avoid uncertainty. Employees want few surprises and they rarely get them.
    • Unsettling Climate: Employees desire certainty, but they perceive that the organization embraces uncertainty. As a result, employees become unsettled and perhaps overwhelmed by the chaotic work environment.
    • Stifling Climate: Employees embrace uncertainty, but they perceive that the organization avoids it. The result is that employees feel stifled.
    • Dynamic Climate: Both employees and the organization embrace uncertainty. Employees want change and progress, and the organization promotes it.

    Figure B1 Uncertainty Management Matrix

    Each quadrant represents a different kind of organizational climate with varying beliefs, assumptions, and ways of communicating.

    Research Questions

    Since leadership and uncertainty management are important factors related to organizational outcomes, this research was guided by the following two research questions:

    • Do employees who perceive their organization as well led tend to operate in different uncertainty-embracing climates than those in not well-led organizations?
    • Do employees who perceive their organization as well led exhibit more favorable outcomes (e.g., satisfaction, commitment) than those in not well-led organizations?

    Employees were drawn from organizations, including financial institutions, medical facilities, retail organizations, manufacturing firms, government agencies, and educational institutions. A convenience sample of 249 participants completed and returned the questionnaire.

    To answer the research questions, a survey composed of four parts was developed: (1) Uncertainty Climate questions, (2) Leadership Effectiveness questions, (3) Outcome questions, and (4) Demographic questions. A 7-point strongly disagree to strongly agree scale was used to measure all items except the demographic variables. (Contact either author for a copy of the questionnaire.)

    Uncertainty Climate. Prior research has established reliable and valid techniques for ascertaining how employees perceive the uncertainty climate. Using the measurement scales developed by Clampitt and Williams, respondents completed a 24-item questionnaire.9

    Leadership Effectiveness. One item on the questionnaire asked respondents to indicate on a 1 (strongly disagree) to 7 (strongly agree) scale if their organization was “well managed.” Respondents who strongly agreed (7) that their organization was well managed were classified as working in a well-led organization (n = 56), and those indicating they strongly disagreed to slightly agreed (i.e., 1 to 5) were classified as working in a not well-led organization (n = 98). Those who responded “moderately agree” (i.e., 6) were not used in the study (n = 95). Therefore, this investigation is based on the 154 respondents who perceived their organization as well led or not well led.

    Outcome and Demographic Variables. A variety of outcome variables were analyzed in this study. They included single-item measures of several types of satisfaction, communication satisfaction, commitment, productivity, organizational direction, and cynicism. Each was measured on a 1 (strongly disagree) to 7 (strongly agree) scale. The survey also contained a number of demographic variables, including gender, education level, and position in the organization.


    Of the 154 employees investigated, 56 were in well-led organizations and 98 were in not well-led organizations. The chi-square test for independence revealed that the distribution of levels of education for well-led organizations was not significantly different from that of not well-led organizations (χ2 = 7.30, df = 5, n = 148, p < .20).

    Seven percent were in top management, 22% in management, 56% in nonmanagement, and 15% other. Eighty-one percent were female and 19% male. For both job classification and gender, chi-square tests indicated no significant differences for the distribution in well-led organizations versus not well-led organizations (χ2 = 2.99, df = 4, n = 149, p < .60 and χ2 = 3.53, df = 1, n = 153, p < .06, respectively).

    Research Question 1

    The answer to the first research question was clear. The data indicate that well-led organizations have very different uncertainty climates than their counterparts. In particular, well-led organizations promote either Dynamic or Unsettling climates. Note in Figure B2 that 78% of the well-led organizations were classified in those climates. Yet, only 29% of those organizations not deemed as well led were classified in the Dynamic or Unsettling climates.

    By digging a little deeper into the data, we can glean further insights. The findings suggest that, in general, employees in well-led organizations do not differ significantly from their counterparts in other organizations regarding their personal comfort with uncertainty. On the other hand, employees in well-led organizations do differ significantly in their views of how their organizations manage uncertainty. In particular, well-led organizations embrace rather than suppress or ignore uncertainty. In essence, employee personal comfort with uncertainty matters less than how they perceive the organization dealing with uncertainty.

    One caveat: While well-led organizations encourage a lot of discussion and debate upfront, the tolerance for ambiguity fades when it comes to outcomes and goals. Less well-led organizations tend to communicate muddled outcomes. For example, our data indicate that 50% of employees from well-led organizations agreed with the statement “My organization needs to know the specific outcome before starting a project.” Only 26% of employees from the less well-led organizations agreed.

    Figure B2 Climates in Well-Led vs. Not Well-Led Organizations

    Research Question 2

    Overall, the answer to the second research question is that employees in well-led organizations express more favorable responses than those in not well-led organizations. They were more satisfied with their job, more satisfied with communication from their supervisor, more committed to the organization, and identified more with their organization's values. Furthermore, they felt their organization was headed in the right direction, said that it was a great place to work, and expressed less cynicism. They also perceived their coworkers as proud to work in the organization and that they were not overwhelmed by change. It would be an overgeneralization to say that leadership was solely responsible for all these positive outcomes; however, it is reasonable to assume that leaders in organizations perceived as well led contributed to and, to some degree, influenced these outcomes.


    Uncertainty permeates organizational life. Leaders can choose to ignore it, suppress it, succumb to it, or embrace it and take action. That decision, to a large extent, will influence their organizations’ level of effectiveness. Ignoring or suppressing it might provide temporary comfort. But employees instinctively know that uncertainty lurks just around the corner. Succumbing to or balking at uncertainty cultivates a sense of hopelessness and a perception of leadership weakness. Embracing uncertainty requires something special of leaders. It requires that they create appropriate policies, procedures, and cultural norms. It requires that they encourage employees to notice shifting trends and new ideas. And it requires that they encourage debate and dialogue. Yet, after the issues have been fully discussed, they tend to communicate specific outcomes. Such practices help instill the “focused flexibility” mind-set.

    Effective leaders are not necessarily enamored with uncertainty but rather realize that uncertainty pervades all their information, knowledge, decisions, and actions. Rather than trying to rid their organizations of uncertainty, they seek to make it work for them. And they know their organizations can only transform uncertainty into action by properly communicating about it. Mastering this challenge shields them from ineffectuality, irrelevancy, and, ironically, instability.


    1. P. Clampitt and M. L. Williams, “Conceptualizing and Measuring How Employees and Organizations Manage Uncertainty.” Communication Research Reports 22 (2005): 315–24.

    2. K. E. Weick, Sensemaking in Organizations. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 1995.

    3. A. Fry, Safe Space: How to Survive in a Threatening World. London: J.M. Dent & Sons Ltd., 1987.

    4. G. Gumpert and S. J. Drucker, “A Plea for Chaos: Controlled Unpredictability, Uncertainty and the Serendipitous Life in the Urban Community.” Qualitative Research Reports in Communication 2 (2001): 25–32.

    5. K. McPherson, “Opinion-Related Information Seeking: Personal and Situational Variables.” Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin 9 (1983): 116–24.

    6. A. Furnham, “Tolerance of Ambiguity: A Review of the Concept, Its Measurement and Applications.” Current Psychology 14 (1995): 179–200.

    7. P. Foxman, “Tolerance for Ambiguity and Self-Actualizing.” Journal of Personality Assessment 40 (1976): 67–72.

    8. P. Clampitt and M. L. Williams, “Communicating About Organizational Uncertainty.” In Key Issues in Organizational Communication, edited by D. Tourish and O. Hargie. New York: Routledge, 2004, 37–59.

    9. Clampitt and Williams, “Conceptualizing and Measuring How Employees and Organizations Manage Uncertainty.”

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