Our job as leaders is to generate movement of groups towards a precise and worthy goal.

As individual contributors, excellence depended mostly upon our personal efforts. As we take on leadership responsibility, the complexity of our challenges multiplies.  We cannot resolve them on our own.

Great leadership implies being able to leverage, to generate a multiplier effect to your efforts. It is like the Domino Effect.

The Domino Effect

The Domino Effect states that a change in one behavior activates a chain reaction in related behaviors.  One small action instigates major change.

Big obstacles (such as resolution of conflict) are overcome by initial small moves (as in saying “hello”) which open up opportunities for intermediary steps (like a willingness to listen without judgement).

The key to mastering the Domino Effect lies in positioning each domino such that, when it falls, it impacts the next domino at its tipping point.

Check out this montage of the Domino Effect by the Eiffel Tower.  The first small domino impacts a slightly larger one, which then falls onto a bigger one, which…  Had the dominos been placed differently, they would have missed their powerful impact.

A Master in Leadership Leverage – Al McDonald

Al McDonald mastered the Domino Effect and knew how to place projects and people to connect at their tipping points.

Here is an example.

As US Ambassador to GATT (General Agreement for Tariffs and Trade), McDonald was mandated by President Carter to negotiate a global trade deal that favored US interests.

When he took on the role, negotiations were at a standstill even though his team included the best negotiation experts from each of the US Departments of ____ (Defense, Agriculture, Industry…)

If the situation were a game of dominos, they were all falling (the negotiators were doing “their job”) but instead of creating a Domino Effect and a significant impact, they landed in a flop.

“What is the tipping point? Where is the misalignment?” McDonald searched.


This post is in memory of my father, Alonzo L McDonald, who passed away one year ago. Here are photos which hung in his office.


Inherited Structure

McDonald inherited the conventional strategy for US trade negotiation success: let each expert maximize his gain.

However, efforts for individual Department gains undermined the benefit of the whole. Conflicting criteria of success ran rampant throughout the trade negotiation project.

Here is what happened. (*These examples reflect the concept and do not relay specifics of exact trade deals or responsibilities.)

When the US Department of Industry* hard-balled Asia on limiting car imports, the Japanese insisted more intensely on imposing tariffs on American grain.

When the US Department of Defense* secured a victory in limiting nuclear weaponry of Middle Eastern countries, they repudiated with increase in controls over oil access and prices.

The pursuit of maximum individual gain sabotaged their common objective to the point where all parties would lose.

Leadership Leverage in Action – Revamped Structure

This is where McDonald shifted the playing field.

He redefined responsibilities so that ALL negotiators held double interests: that of their own department AND that of the entire US delegation.

The US delegates for corn* maintained his responsibility for maximizing the interests of American farmers AND took on the responsibility of reaching an accord for ALL US good with Argentina and Uruguay.

Those responsible for arms trade* were also accountable for securing agreement on ALL US goods with major European countries.

The dual focus shifted the way negotiators played their cards.  Delegates personally experienced the detriments of their colleagues’ deal greed and inflexibility.  By replacing a silo structure with a wholistic one, McDonald initiated an awareness shift in among the US delegates.  By changing their perspective, he revamped their approach to negotiation.

Your Leadership Leverage

Where are your organization’s goals mutually conflicting?

Inconsistencies can exist at all levels of an organization, and if they were simple to identify, we would have none!

How can we put the finger on those areas of misalignment?

In the manager training program, “Be the manager you dream of having” we work on two frameworks: OKR’s (Objectives & Key Results) and Decision Impact.

These tools bring teams together to describe, debate, and decide upon the desired outcomes of goals.  We further explore obstacles to reach these optimal results.  When these potential obstacles reveal internal competition, managers know to revisit the goals.

We identify when low performance may be due to conflicting objectives rather than a team member’s lack of competencies or motivation.

The Tipping Point

Managing Motivational

McDonald addressed how to motivate senior civil servants to change their long-standing negotiating practices.

Let’s take a look at the organizational structure.

Officially, the US delegate for negotiations on grains reported to the Ministry of Agriculture.  In recognition for a successful job on the GATT, he would rise in the ranks of the Department of Agriculture.  He anticipated that what got him here (promotions in the Dept of Agriculture) would take him to his next step (again a promotion within the same ministry).

McDonald tapped into the informal influences and super-imposed a new motivational structure. 

He did not have the power to change compensation, bonus, or reporting structure.  He could, however, call people out as excellent team players or people whose commitments he questioned.   He had the power of exposing the “unsaid,” and used the personalized recommendation letter to wield this influence.

Your Leadership Leverage

You too, as a manager, have the power to reinforce a reputation.  Many employees and team leads tend to focus on weaknesses.

However, it is great achievements that inspire.

We all seek recognition for our contributions yet ranting on about our own accomplishments sounds like boasting.  That is why it is so important to broadcast another’s outstanding performance. Recipients open an email when its entitled “Recommending ____ (person’s name) to you for their excellent work.” They want to read it.

I would LOVE for my boss to receive such a note!  Wouldn’t you?

To publicize another person’s successes requires a commitment of attention, time, and effort. These rank among the most precious resources, even more rare than money.

The way we speak of our team members builds our reputation as well.  We influence when and how people listen.

When a boss known for her/his high standards praises someone’s work, we listen. Those comments speak loudly.

When that same boss highlights the performance of some yet remains silent regarding others, that too speaks loudly.  McDonald would describe them as “not making the cut.”

Since the GATT negotiation stakes were high, McDonald made it clear he would expose delegates who sought individual department gain over commitment to overall US international policy.

You can bet that anyone receiving a message with the following title will open it QUICKLY: “Concerns with allegiance of team members.  Your insights appreciated.”

I dread my boss receiving such notice!  How about you?

Leadership Leverage Insights

Al McDonald’s example teaches us to observe, understand, and shape connections.

  • Who talks to whom and what do they decide?
  • What does each player seek and to what do they aspire? What frustrates them and what are their fears?
  • How can I facilitate reaching aspirations? And, depending upon the level of resistance and importance of the stakes, how can I alleviate or intensify fears?

McDonald’s genius also lies in overlaying formal communication pathways with unofficial ones. These are the game changers.

Leadership Leverage “chez vous”

Are your managers struggling to grasp the intricacies of influence?  How much faster could your company advance if your young managers effectively align efforts and generate constructive Domino Effects?!

Let’s talk.  Drop me a line and we will schedule a quick call.

What do you think?

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.