Guts And Gumption: How To Lead With Moxie

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Do you have the X-factor when it comes to leadership?

Have you got tenacity, daring, and ambition? Maybe you’re more gutsy or bold? Whatever you want to call your main drive, chances are you could always use more of it. In times of uncertainty or when embarking on something new, a leader’s greatest weapon is the ability to move forward with a sense of purpose, despite any obstacles. Have you got moxie?

John Baldoni is a globally recognized leadership consultant who’s been named as a Top Thought Leader by Trust Across America, and a Top 50 leadership expert. His newest book is Moxie: The Secret of Bold and Gutsy Leadership. I recently interviewed John on the LEADx Podcast to talk all things moxie, and how leaders can stand to have more of it. (The transcript below has been lightly edited for space and clarity.)

Kevin Kruse: What does moxie mean, and why is it so important?

Jon Baldoni: Well, I love that question. Moxie is an old American slang word and it comes from the film noir era of the ‘30s, ‘40s and ‘50s. Imagine that character―maybe it's a prize fighter, or maybe it's a woman on her own―and they're succeeding against the odds. One character will say to another about that character, “Oh, she has moxie!” or “He’s got moxie.” Moxie is guts, gumption and it's a determination, a desire to put yourself out there and to succeed. I firmly believe we don't stress enough what it takes with moxie. You mentioned entrepreneurs, they are full of moxie. If they weren't, they wouldn't try to do something different, because entrepreneurs live in the world of perpetual ‘No.’ Someone is always telling them they cannot do something.

If you're going to push forward, if you're going to persevere, you better have some internal fortitude― that guts and gumption―to succeed. That's what moxie is, it's your spirit, it's your willingness to persevere. I define it as determination over time toward a goal. We can have moxie, but from a leadership standpoint, or maybe a career development standpoint, if we don't focus our guts and gumption toward a goal and we don't persevere, we don't determine well enough, we will fail. Moxie, in the way I'm looking at it, it's the guts and gumption pointed toward goals.

Kruse: How do you define the ‘X-factor’ and how can we develop it, or even can we develop it?

Baldoni: Well, the X-factor comes from the acronym M-O-X-I-E. M – mindfulness. O – opportunity. X – X-factor. I – innovation. And E – engagement. They all come together in a pivot, if you want, on the X-factor, which is really my term to make the analogy work. The X-factor is really your character. I took a deeper dive into what character means. It's more than simply integrity. Now of course, without any integrity, or without character, there cannot be any true leadership.

As I delve into that X-factor, as you talked about, it's ambition, a willingness to take a chance. A drive. It's also courage, and standing up for what you believe. Also, from a leadership standpoint, it’s about standing up for your people, taking the heat when times are tough, being the person they can go to, and being a person of conviction. Also, your integrity.

Also, very much is compassion. We talk a lot about passion for work, which is inherent in the concept of moxie, but how about compassion? How about treating our colleagues with dignity? Dignity and respect for the work they do, but dignity as human beings. We live in a pretty crass and commercial culture. It's been said a billion times, but in that, all that, we kind of lose the dignity of personhood, what it means to be on a team, what it means to be an individual, what it means to go to work, what it means to put yourself out there to take a chance, to do something different. We need to respect the dignity of others and from that comes compassion. It doesn't mean you're meddling, but being cognizant that people have a life outside of the workplace. How is that affecting them either negatively or positively?

It's up to a leader to know something about the external circumstance of what brings people to work. What are they working for internally, but also, what's their work outside of life? Do they have young children? Are they doing elder care? Are they a sportsman? Maybe they have a problem in their life, either a family problem or a personal problem. That's part of the compassion for human beings.

Then also, what I like to think of and what we often overlook, and I studied a little bit about it, is humor. Two of my favorite American heroes are people of humor. One was Abraham Lincoln and the other was FDR. Both led our nations in times of very high stress. I mean, obviously the Civil War was a time of division, Depression, and Second World War, were challenging times too. Neither of those gentlemen lost their sense of humor.

There's nothing that Lincoln liked better than a good story that made him chuckle. He was also a great storyteller himself, he told stories about himself, and very often they were funny. FDR's favorite hour of the day was called ‘The cocktail hour’, and he would have his guests in and he'd mix them drinks, which as Winston Churchill said, “He never really liked, because they were kind of sugary and sweet.” I think that General Winston liked his stuff neat, whatever it was. I mean imagine a man in a wheelchair, this was the one thing he could serve other people, and so he'd mix their drinks and pass them out. Over those cocktails, they would delve into gossip, and light stories, and tell jokes, things like that. That's important for a leader to have that sense of humor.

If you're going to tell stories with a point of view, or integrate humor, be self-deprecating, make yourself the butt of the joke. And what you're doing is you're showing a sense of vulnerability. In reality, Kevin, as you well know, vulnerability is actually a sign of strength, because a leader who allows himself to reveal that is someone who is very confident in himself or herself.

Kruse: One of your articles, it was called, The Most Powerful Question a Leader Can Ask. What is that question? How do we use it?

Baldoni: The most powerful question a leader can ask is “How can I help you do your job better?” That certainly is not original with me. It was taught to me by some senior leaders on more than one occasion, because I watched them put it into action. I watched them go to their frontline people and ask that question, “How can I help you?” I also know that leaders that I work with are asking their people about “How can I help you?” You're positioning yourself more than as a helpmate, but someone who understands what the workplace dynamic is. Now, when a senior leader does that to a frontline employee, it's not that they're volunteering to “hack” them, say to stock shelves in a retail situation, or in a factory to produce widgets, but it's “What do you need to succeed?” That's really the heart of that question.

What can I do? What resources can I get for you? There's a wonderful story told by David Hackworth, who has now passed on. At one point he was the most decorated soldier in the US military. And David was a veteran of all the way from World War II through Vietnam, and also became a journalist, and told great stories. He said he learned how to ask the right questions. Always go to the top if you need something done, because as a young private in the second World War—it must have been just after, it was occupation time—and Eisenhower came around to him and he said, “How's it going soldier?” Young David, maybe he wasn't even of legal age, because he snuck into the military before he was, he said, “Well, not so well, General.” [The General] goes, “Well, what's wrong?” He said, “Well, all we have is Spam, and Spam, and more Spam.”

Ike turned to his adjunct and said, “Is that true?” He goes, “Well, yeah sir, because we have an oversupply of it so we keep giving it to the men.” Ike said, “Well, stop that and feed these men right.” Then he gently punched David Hackworth in the chest and then he said, “Does that do it for you soldier?” He goes, “Yes, sir.” In other words, it's that kind of thing, it's that access to the top.” Now Ike didn't say, “How can I help you?” but, “How are things going?” He made himself accessible. Most people would say, “Oh, everything's fine General,” but when you go, or you put yourself out, make it clear that people can give you a straight answer. “How are things going?” If they're not going well, then, “Hey, it's because we need this, or we need Y,” and then it's up to you to explain what you can do about it. It's a reciprocal process. While we talk about what we need from employees, employees need to give back to us. It's a back-and-forth type of thing. “What can you do to help me?” I think, is a very powerful question for anyone in a position of authority to think about.

Kruse: Is there something you can challenge all of us to do right away at work, or even in our personal life?

Baldoni: It's a really good question, Kevin. When people ask me something like that, I invariably punt, but you made me think about it, so I prepared a little bit of something and it's real simple. I think if we think about the times that we're in, which are great uncertainty, it's to be brave, stand up for what you believe, admit when you're wrong, resolve to make corrections, and move forward.

Kevin Kruse is a New York Times bestselling author, host of the popular LEADx Leadership Podcast, and the CEO/Founder of, which provides free world-class leadership training, professional development and career advice for anyone, anywhere.

CEO of LEADx, and NY Times bestselling author, of Great Leaders Have No Rules and Employee Engagement 2.0. Get a FREE demo of the LEADx platform at