Colorful Leadership

Harnessing the Power
of Human Ingenuity

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The following interview appeared in Leadership Guide Magazine:

Interview with Steve Wille

Leadership Guide Magazine Editor Linda Hatcher interviewed Steve Wille, a leadership lecturer, writer and management expert, about his unique perspective on leadership as fully detailed in his book Colorful Leadership. (See end of article for ordering information.)

Q: You have an absolutely unique view and approach to the dilemmas of leadership called “colorful leadership.” I will tell you that in 12 years of featuring a broad array of leaders, I have never come across anything remotely like your approach. Please give the overview of what “colorful leadership” is, and what its three perspectives are.

A.: Colorful Leadership is about seeing the whole picture, unfiltered by our own preferences and experiences. The Colorful Leadership discipline is to intentionally filter the image to fully understand an individual perspective, and then combine these filtered views into one composite image. Because most of us are blind to things that don’t show up through our personal filters, this discipline helps us see things in a new light, enabling us to make better decisions.

The three filters a leader needs to use are people, quality, and innovation. How employees, customers, and the general public feels about your organization matters. Perception is not reality, but perceptions are real to the people who have them. Quality means delivering products and services that meet objective standards. To survive, organizations must have repeatable processes that deliver a consistent and predictable outcome. Innovation is the third filter. Good feelings combined with quality products are not sufficient if the world has moved on when your product or service becomes obsolete. Change is always with us and we must constantly adapt or we go extinct.

Q: From where or from whom did you draw the inspiration for such a unique approach to leadership?

A: This came from two directions. First, Larry Nelson’s 3-Filters theory on human needs got me to see human needs without a hierarchy. We are driven by all our needs all the time, but with different levels of intensity. Next, I combined that with my digital photography experience. A high definition full color television image is built from just three images shot through blue, green, and red filters. The images are kept separate and projected together on the screen to get full color. This got me to realize that we could build a complex model of human needs from just three elements. Obviously, this overly simplifies needs and behaviors, but the simplicity makes it quicker to use, and therefore easier to integrate into every situation.

Q: You often say “sometimes we need to take off our rose colored glasses and look through glasses of a different color.” Explain.

A: We all look through our own glasses, some of us through rose, others through different colors. To understand what others are saying, we need to take off our glasses and look through their glasses. When you dig deeper into how color filters work, they block light and make us completely blind to what others see through different filters.

Q: You state, “How others feel is just as important as what they think, and where they want to go.” With everyone feeling so differently, however, what is a practical way for ethical leaders to also be effective?

A: Thinking, feeling, and future oriented actions are different, and each is important for a leader to understand. Thinking gives us choices and probable outcomes. Emotions are based on past experiences and give us guidance even when we don’t understand why. Both are essential and part of the human experience, but still not sufficient for good decision making. The third element, a focus on the future, can get us out of analysis paralysis, and away from selfish preferences. Effective conflict resolution requires all three, first viewed individually through filters, then as a composite image.

Q: What are “zones of overlap”?

A: White light does not exist, even though we think we see it every day. White is what you see when there are equal amounts of all colors. When the white light from the sun is broken into component parts by rain, we see a rainbow. Most of the time, however, we see sunlight as a composite white light. The Colorful Leadership discipline helps us see the rainbow. From the rainbow we see component parts of an image, and in the end we put it back together, making the best decision based on all the colorful information we have.

Q: You say, “Colorful leaders intentionally look at the differences from at least three perspectives and then act appropriately from the blended view.” You also state, “Colorful leaders spin the filters to get a clear, rich, natural color image based on seeing multiple perspectives.” What are the three perspectives, and are there times when the layers just do NOT line up to get an image that can be seen and acted upon?

A: Let us step back from the three specific filters and instead find three perspectives that are significantly different. Two perspectives force us into either or choices. When we vote we often pick the least bad between the two choices. Adding a third option opens up the world. The layers will never line up. Each choice is different and usually, the best choice is a blended hybrid.

Q: What do you mean “black and white leadership is ‘pretty good leadership?”

A: Day-to-day decision making is pretty much black and white. Do this or do that. We do not give it much thought. We do not even see the rich blend of opportunities. It is sort of like looking at a black and white picture. It is pretty good, and usually good enough to fully recognize the subject in the photograph. It is not, however, complete. Color does more than make the picture pretty. Colors give us additional information not available in a black and white photograph. The colorful leadership discipline gives additional information not available when we practice pretty good leadership.

Q: When looking at different perspectives, conflict is inevitable. What are the choices and outcomes when people encounter conflict?

A.: Conflict is a part of life. To get what I want someone else may have to give something up. I can often get what I want through intimidation, but that can lead to other problems. I can give up what I want to make others happy, but that can make me like a door mat that people step on without even thinking about it. Colorful conflict makes us think about the potential outcomes. Sometimes it is good to stand up for your rights and a little aggressiveness is appropriate. Sometimes it is good to back down and let the other person win. It is all based on a constructive approach with a focus on the future, asking the simple question, “Where do I want this to go?”

Q: You use a tool to assess possible approaches to conflict. It has 12 core areas of conflict resolution styles, and 8 different preferences of personality-based styles (passive, aggressive, defensive, etc.) It seems a miracle that any organization is able to get anything done with all of the possible permutations thereof! How do the most effective and ethical organizations navigate these complex dynamics?

A: Yes, the model can look complicated with 12 courses of action, but it is simple when you break it into the three component parts building these choices. It is always quick to ask where I want it to go. Ethics are different. They are more absolute, based on laws and culture. I would separate Ethics from the model. I should always do the right thing, but within the confines of being ethical, I still have many choices, and that is where the conflict model helps.

Q: It is often said there is an inherent conflict between process management and innovation and creativity. What do you think?

A: Wow, you just hit on one of the most basic problems hitting every organization every day. Quality requires conformance to standards and the ideal is zero defects. Innovation requires an out of control environment where ideas can be explored and tested. This takes us back to the need of multiple perspectives, viewed independently, leading to a composite image that includes many colors. To survive long term, you must have process management and you must constantly adapt to a changing environment. The world does not stand still.

Q: You state, “As we all know, behind the seemingly smooth facade that the corporation strives to present to the world, there are lots of incompatible ideas about how corporate realities should manifest themselves; and thus lots of underlying conflicts.” What are the key goals and options of ethical, effective leaders under the shadow of these daunting realities with all the different filters and personalities that mean literally no one sees things your way?

A: This is a tough question. At the end of every analysis is a decision. You cannot be all things to all people all the time. The only goal of a colorful leader is that the decision be based on complete information, unfiltered by personal preferences. The decision may lead to a positive or negative outcome, but at least it was an informed decision.

Q: What trends do you see emerging in leadership as we continue to slog through difficult economic times?

A: The world is out of our control. People have adapted to change over the ages. We will figure it out. It is helpful to read history to see how others have adapted to similar situations in the past. The new situation is different, but patterns tend to emerge and history can be a help.

Q: What do you personally do to maintain work-life balance, and what do you suggest to others when the new normal is “more with less”?

A: My life is richly blessed with friends, family and interesting work. When one door closes, other doors open. Sometimes the worst of times lead to the best of times because we stop to think about what is really important. The first time I found myself unemployed, I recognized the true value of friends and family. I am not alone in this life. Do I want to do more with less? Of course not, but I can adapt and make the best of any situation.

Q: Who are your leadership “heroes”?

A: George Washington successfully blended opposing points of view and succeeded in the worst of times. He then established a pattern of orderly transfer of power rather than becoming the king that some wanted him to be. This country would not be what it is without the leadership and example set by Washington.

Roger Ware was one of the most effective company presidents I have ever served under. He expected more than was possible, and people delivered. Even in a bad time he could be totally gracious to people. One time I was at a dinner with him, two senior managers who reported to me, and our spouses. Roger was totally gracious to everyone. After the dinner, when I was alone with him in the parking lot, he let me know in no uncertain terms that the financial results of the business division that I headed were unacceptable. At the time we were losing millions of dollars. With his encouragement, we did some innovative things that turned the organization around and within a year we achieved record profits, making up for all the losses in the past. He led Guaranty National Insurance in a way no one before or since has done. Roger demonstrated the ability to change the filters quickly and appropriately.

Q: How do you stay inspired to lead with all the difficult pressures of leadership?

A: I gave up the idea that I am in charge of the world. I go with the flow, and make a difference when I can.

Q: What are some companies you think have ethical, effective leadership and are good role models of “colorful leadership”?

A: Over a thirty-seven year career I have worked for six large corporations, plus at one time I owned a business. Every company was a top notch company, thriving, profitable, and to my knowledge, ethical in every way. None of them, except my current employer still exists, at least not in its original form. Things change. Some companies adapt, others do not make it. To pick out a few companies today would be difficult, but there are thriving organizations that have the potential for a good future provided they maintain quality, pay attention to people’s feelings, and innovate when things change.


Steve Wille, author of Colorful Leadership, has over 25 years senior level experience in corporate computer technology management. In the early 21st century he took a three-year sabbatical to write and teach classes on leadership for project managers at corporations throughout the country. He is a Project Management Professional (PMP). He has an MBA degree is from Regis University in Denver, and a BSBA degree is from the University of Denver. He is also a wedding photographer and drew on his experience with color digital photography as the model for this colorful book. Steve and his wife, Joanne, live in Centennial Colorado.

To order Colorful Leadership or to learn more about Steve’s work, visit The book may also be ordered on Amazon.




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