Direction, Alignment and Commitment: How you can make leadership less stressful.

Direction, Alignment and Commitment: How you can make leadership less stressful.

Cynthia Mc Cauley and Lynn Fick-Cooper from the Center of Creative Leadership located in Greensboro, North Carolina/USA widen the focus from the leader towards a leading process according to the pattern Direction, Alignment and Commitment. These three areas Direction, Alignment and Commitment can be a helpful check list for every team on its way into the Performing Phase to accept leadership and divide its responsibilities between the parties involved. Here, teams can set their own priorities in a simple three-level process.
Because there are many things a leader can do to be a more effective leader, it is often hard to know what is most important. So, what makes a good leader? Leadership is complicated but at its core, it is a social process that enables individuals to cooperate and to achieve goals that they could never reach on their own. At the centre of this process are the interactions and exchange between the formal leader and the group members as well as between the group members themselves. In other words, it is not only about the leader and what he or she should do better. Taking the focus away from “the leader” and turning it towards “the leading process” can re-lieve leaders and put the focus on main points in the sense of reducing complexity.

In 2015, Cynthia Mc Cauley and Lynn Fick-Cooper got to the heart of this approach in their brochure “Direction, alignment, Commitment: Achieving better Results through Leadership”:

  • DIRECTION is a common image concerning the group’s overall main goals. In groups with strong Direction, the members have a common understanding of what defines the group’s success and agree on what they want to achieve together. In groups with weak Direction, the members may be insecure about what they want to achieve to-gether or they feel torn in different directions toward different goals.
  • ALIGNMENT (coordination) is die coordination of work within the group. In groups with strong Alignment, members coordinate and prioritize members with different tasks and roles or with different expertise and work load. In groups with low Alignment, the members rather work on their own and it is unclear for them how their tasks fit into the group’s total work. They also run into the danger of working on conflicting tasks and thus unnecessarily wasting time or leaving important work undone.
  • COMMITMENT (feeling committed) is the common feeling of re-sponsibility for the group. In groups with high commitment, all members feel responsible for the group’s success and wellbeing and know that other members feel the same. They trust each other and stick together in hard times. In groups with low commitment, some members consider their own interests more important than the group and only contribute to the group when it is easy or useful for themselves.

A good way to become more effective is to focus on these three areas (Direction, Alignment and Commitment, short “DAC“) as a complete group – and not only as manager – and to realize in a first step where the group is standing. Helpful and simple assessment questions in this first phase could be:

  • Do we agree on what we want to achieve together?
  • Do we have group priorities that help us to concentrate on the most important tasks?
  • Is everybody’s work properly coordinated with the others’ work?
  • Is it clear for everybody how their tasks fit into the group’s work?
  • Do we consider the group’s success — not only our personal success — a priority?

If these questions are answered rather negatively, the teams can go deeper into cause analysis in a second phase:


  • The orientation (Direction) was not clearly formulated or discussed properly. Maybe a leader has defined a direction and others do not really understand it or are not interested in it.
  • Disagreement about the direction within the team is known but not discussed openly.


  • We begin tasks without a plan and without coordinating them with the work of others.
  • We do not include others with relevant expertise or do not effectively manage the division of work.
  • Resources are not contributed appropriately.
  • It is unclear who is responsible for what and who has the authority to make decisions.
  • Some work is done twice or, the other way around, there are gaps which cause some aspects of work to be left undone.

Commitment /Self-commitment:

  • People rather have the feeling to be working on their own than to be responsible for the group’s results.
  • Group members do not have the feeling of having the influence to address problems.
  • Individuals feel excluded from the group, maybe a subgroup dominates the team.
  • Some members feel that they do not get the appreciation they deserve for their contributions to the group.

The third step is about identifying the changes that could improve the trium-virate DAC and thus the leadership process. In doing so, it is important to keep in mind that from the very first step, improvement impulses and in-sights concerning Direction, Alignment and Commitment come from within the group and thus a high degree of identification can be created. In order to enhance DAC, with your help of formal leadership a team could possibly work on 3 to 5 identified main points such as e.g.:

  • Enhancing the quality or quantity of interactions between the group members.
  • Improving the relationships between single members.
  • Structuring the formal or informal processes of decision making or task achievement more transparently.
  • Further developing individual members’ abilities.
  • Discussing the group’s common assumptions and cultural beliefs.

Of course, the DAC approach is no instant solution. But it offers clarity and a development path into the Performing Phase for every team. So, when it is about enhancing performance under high pressure or when a group is facing big challenges, DAC can be a good strategy to take the pressure away from the leader and evenly distribute it to a common assessment to then start together from a solid basis by means of clear orientation, good coordination and explicit self-commitment.