Thornton’s 3-C Leadership Model

Numerous theories have been put forth about the many aspects of leadership such as motivation, alignment, and empowerment. However, it is not obvious how these pieces fit together into a coherent model, if they do at all. As such, leadership has a reputation of being an art that is practiced by the lucky few who possess certain talents.

In his 1999 book, Be The Leader, Make The Difference, consultant Paul B. Thornton proposed an integrating framework that takes these various leadership ideas and transforms them into a model that quickly can be studied, understood, and implemented by managers in order to develop an effective leadership style and better lead their organizations. The model is based on the premise that leaders exist because individuals need guidance, without which they do not always know what they can accomplish, what they should accomplish, or how to accomplish it. To this end, leaders can provide challenge, confidence, and coaching. Thornton calls this framework the 3-C Leadership Model and depicted it as shown below.

This three vertex diagram illustrates the balanced relationship among the three 3-Cs of leadership: presenting a challenge, building confidence, and providing coaching.

Present a Challenge

Of the 3 aspects of leadership, challenge is the one that is practiced most widely by managers as they ask their employee’s to set increasingly higher goals. Human nature is such that most people do not want to leave their comfort zone and therefore are inclined to suggest small, incremental improvements in their objectives. In today’s competitive environment, such small improvements often are insufficient. Improvements of 30%, 50%, or even several hundred percent sometimes are required. There are many ways in which leaders can challenge their employees. They can:

  • Share their vision, inspiring them to believe that more is possible.
  • Set very high goals, forcing people to leave their comfort zones to find ways to achieve them.
  • Ask challenging questions that lead people to reconsider their assumptions about what is possible.
  • Use benchmarking to reveal the best practices of others and use these as a challenge.
  • Provide a wide variety of assignments. Many firms make it a policy to expose their employees to a wide range of aspects of the firm. Each new position is a new challenge that develops the employee further.

Once success is achieved, it is important continue raising the bar in order to fight the temptation to rest on one’s laurels.

Build Confidence

A challenge brings people out of their comfort zones, often resulting in a drop in their confidence level. Without confidence, the challenging goals that caused the drop in confidence in the first place become even more difficult to reach. Therefore, a major responsibility of a leader is to build confidence in his or her employees so that they will believe in their ability to reach their objectives.

Many motivation experts make the case for positive thinking and self-affirmation as a means of building confidence. Paul Thornton argues that simply thinking something does not make it reality, and that a person achieves genuine self-confidence not by repeating affirmations but by actually working and achieving something. In the process of achievement we expand our abilities, and these expanded abilities create a more genuine, lasting confidence.

With this philosophy in mind, leaders can instill real confidence in their employees by:

  • Recognizing and rewarding positive accomplishments rather than focusing on deficiencies.
  • Providing professional development in order to build confidence through competence.
  • Empowering them by providing both responsibility and authority, thereby expressing confidence in them.
  • Verbally expressing confidence in them.
  • Reminding them of past successes that may have faded from their consciousness in the face of new challenges.

Provide Coaching

Coaching is the process of advising people in a way that facilitates their success. It may take various forms, from training to offering a broader perspective. Coaching can help employees to better understand how their efforts fit into the larger strategy, thereby allowing them to make better decisions.

Leaders may coach employees by:

  • Providing feedback immediately after the employee performs some important task such as meeting with a client or delivering a presentation.
  • Showing them the best practices of others as examples of how tasks can be accomplished.
  • Posing carefully formulated questions designed to improve their understanding by leading them to think through the situation.
  • Setting an example, especially one of continual self-improvement.

Overcoaching should be avoided as it can create dependent employees, reduce their initiative, and cause them to feel micro-managed.

Relationship Among the 3-Cs

The triangle diagram is particularly appropriate for depicting the 3-C Leadership Model because there is no single “correct” order and because balance among the three vertices is important.

The 3-Cs do not need to occur in any specific order. For example, the leader may choose first to present a challenge, then to build the confidence needed to meet the challenge, followed by coaching. Alternatively, the leader first may build the team’s confidence, then present the grand challenge.

A proper balance among the 3-Cs is important. Consider the balance between confidence and challenge. A significant challenge without enough confidence likely would result in failure. Conversely, high confidence with little challenge would result in under-utilization of one’s abilities and boredom. In the case of insufficient confidence, coaching can be used to improve the employee’s skills and thus build confidence. In the case of insufficient challenge, the employee may need to be offered an assignment that better utilizes his or her capabilities.

When the right balance is achieved, employees will experience a higher degree of effectiveness and satisfaction in their work.

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