Promising Practices Promising PracticesPromising Practices
A forum for government's best ideas and most innovative leaders.

Five Pivot Points Every Leader Will Face


Leadership books present a quandary—they need to tell a story but they also need to be believable as something that can be replicated, preferably without excess effort.

What often results, even among well-written, smart reads, are books that are short on data and long on anecdotes and checklists. What data there is often is situation-specific information that the author, by necessity, stretches to encompass a philosophy.

Mind you, many of those books are excellent. What I speak of more is the herd mind-set that is applied to readers—possibly by executives who demand their teams read these books so employees will think just like them. That’s how you end up with executives thinking they were the first to think of “lean,” or eager to create “synergies” and “personal branding, instill offbeat productivity measures, “break down silos” or extol the wonders (or evils) of open offices. Etc., etc.

And the books with lots of data? Probably destined to be a textbook or a paper in a journal, Piketty notwithstanding. It’s a tough world for an author. Too few books take powerful lessons from leaders and data and place both into context, arming the reader with information to make his or her own conclusions. Too few books are able to stop at this: “Here are some things you ought to consider, but your situation and circumstances will require you to figure out what works best.”

So I was happy to see that Pivot Points: Five Decisions Every Successful Leader Must Make, by Julia Tang Peters, keeps that premise in mind. The theme is that there are five pivot points leaders face, starting with when they make the leap from managing to leading and ending with the “letting go” process. That may seem like the standard conceit of “The world is ever more complicated—except when you use my formula.”

But, as she notes, “these five pivot points do not necessarily occur linearly; they can occur in a zigzag fashion,” and as a career progresses, those pivot points can change based on time and perspective. What seemed critical or career-making in our 30s or 50s may not, looking back, be the same in retirement. Moreover, these moments are not always obvious; if someone says he hasn’t encountered these pivot points, that doesn’t mean they didn’t happen—that person may have not seen these moments or refused to act. As William James said, “When you have to make a choice and don’t make it, that is in itself a choice.”

What is also key in Pivot Points is defining what makes a pivotal moment. Success and failure do not magically occur, and rarely are they the product of a single decision, even though that would be much easier to explain and emulate. Success, and these pivot points Tang Peters writes, are based on the following:

  • They hold themselves accountable.
  • There was a moment of truth when making a solitary decision. Each confronted himself to answer the questions ‘Will I really? Can I? Should I?’
  • There was an impassioned inner voice . . . In that solitary decision, they had to trust and rely on their own acumen and judgment.
  • They expanded their belief in the power of one person and increasingly believed in the magic that many people working together could create.
  • Work became the source of renewable energy.

These traits do not automatically signal or require specific decisions. They are merely a guide, a reference point for budding leaders.

The five leaders whose careers the author tracks—some through to retirement, while others remain active—are not meant to be taken as examples to copy. Rather, we can gain understanding about their circumstances and decisions, what worked and didn’t, and hopefully be fortunate enough to have leadership opportunities and act on that potential.

As Tang Peters writes: “If there is a secret successful leaders have, it is this: Leading is about creating the job and the leader’s value to the mission. This is a very different approach from conventional thinking that success comes with doing what worked for others. Leaders want to know how others handled similar situations and their outcomes. However, leaders take that as a creative spark and adapt it to their own goals and methods.”

I’ve talked about the storytelling and the leadership lessons. But what about the data? I’m no expert in statistics. But what I can report is the narrow focus: The online research panel was heavily screened—college graduates and with various specific employment statuses. The survey results do not claim to represent the findings of all Americans, but only of 16 percent of adults, or 37 million.

The five pivot points were each represented by four questions, including whether the respondent believed he or she had had such a experience and how the respondent viewed the success of such pivot points. Tang Peters offers much greater detail on the survey, its methodology and findings, and offers a guide to determine where you are. Unlike many books, you’re given insight into the theory and the data, and whether you reject or accept the conclusions, you’ll be able to do so in an informed way.

And, if nothing else, you’ll get to read mini-biographies of people like Bud Frankel, founder and longtime head of Frankel & Co., Allscripts CEO Glen Tullman, and Dale Dawson, who worked in multiple industries before making the drastic shift to working in Africa through Bridge2Rwanda. Their unique and powerful stories are getting the telling they deserve, and we’re the beneficiaries.

James daSilva is a senior editor at SmartBrief and manages SmartBlog on Leadership. You can find him on Twitter discussing leadership and management issues @SBLeaders

Close [ x ] More from GovExec

Thank you for subscribing to newsletters from
We think these reports might interest you:

  • Forecasting Cloud's Future

    Conversations with Federal, State, and Local Technology Leaders on Cloud-Driven Digital Transformation

  • The Big Data Campaign Trail

    With everyone so focused on security following recent breaches at federal, state and local government and education institutions, there has been little emphasis on the need for better operations. This report breaks down some of the biggest operational challenges in IT management and provides insight into how agencies and leaders can successfully solve some of the biggest lingering government IT issues.

  • Communicating Innovation in Federal Government

    Federal Government spending on ‘obsolete technology’ continues to increase. Supporting the twin pillars of improved digital service delivery for citizens on the one hand, and the increasingly optimized and flexible working practices for federal employees on the other, are neither easy nor inexpensive tasks. This whitepaper explores how federal agencies can leverage the value of existing agency technology assets while offering IT leaders the ability to implement the kind of employee productivity, citizen service improvements and security demanded by federal oversight.

  • IT Transformation Trends: Flash Storage as a Strategic IT Asset

    MIT Technology Review: Flash Storage As a Strategic IT Asset For the first time in decades, IT leaders now consider all-flash storage as a strategic IT asset. IT has become a new operating model that enables self-service with high performance, density and resiliency. It also offers the self-service agility of the public cloud combined with the security, performance, and cost-effectiveness of a private cloud. Download this MIT Technology Review paper to learn more about how all-flash storage is transforming the data center.

  • Ongoing Efforts in Veterans Health Care Modernization

    This report discusses the current state of veterans health care


When you download a report, your information may be shared with the underwriters of that document.