The basics of good leadership

Throughout my career I have had the opportunity to work with numerous senior leaders.  In trying to understand where I may be able to help them I typically ask “What are the three or four biggest challenges you’re facing in your business right now?” Even with an incredibly diverse sample of businesses, it has been interesting to see a clear pattern emerge of four specific issues that the vast majority of these leaders identify as the things that are holding their organizations back and keep them up at night.

1. Lack of a vivid and extremely well-communicated vision

Even though these leaders are passionate about the vision and direction of their company, they reluctantly admit that if you were to go just one or two levels below them in the organization, you would likely find very few, if any, employees that truly understand the vision, mission and core values of their organization. A major job of every leader, whether you lead two people or 20,000, is to relentlessly communicate an exciting and clear vision for the future of the organization. In one-on-one meetings, town halls, e-mails, voice mails, team meetings …  the goal is to help people clearly see where the business is headed and what they need to focus on to make sure you all arrive there together successfully.

2. Lack of open, honest and courageous communication

The inability or unwillingness to put difficult, uncomfortable and awkward topics on the table for candid and transparent discussion was identified by these leaders as a major inhibitor to their ability to build strong teams and get their organizations fully aligned. As Patrick Lencioni points out in his superb book “The Five Dysfunctions of a Team,” in large part this lack of openness stems from a fundamental absence of trust that leads to unwillingness by people on the team to be vulnerable and completely honest. However, the desperate need for courageous communication and high levels of transparency is powerfully demonstrated in Jim Kouzes and Barry Posner’s seminal book “The Leadership Challenge,” which undeniably shows that honesty is the single most important driver in establishing credibility as a leader. Especially in times of great turmoil like we are facing now, employees crave as much information as they can get about how things are going in the company and what they need to do to keep it moving forward. Where there is a lack of a well-communicated vision mission and values, you quickly see fear, politics, rumor-mongering rushing in to fill the void.

3. Lack of accountability

As a direct result of the lack of honesty and courageous communication mentioned above, one of the difficult conversations not occurring is a frank discussion about tolerating mediocre performance. After taking a good, hard look at their business, many of the leaders I work with realize that they have a few mediocre performers in key positions in their organization and that every day they leave them there is another day they are in effect saying to the rest of the company, we were just kidding about pursuing excellence.  The truth is it is not right to let a small few jeopardize the organization and destroy their own career because their leader did not have the courage to tell them the truth about their poor performance. Here is a test will bring this into sharp focus:  Think of a person in your organization that consistently delivers sub par work, turn things in late and has a poor attitude. … Now realize that, because they still have their job, this individual is the person who establishes the level of acceptable work for every other employee in your company. How does that make you feel?

4. Lack of disciplined execution

What percentage of the time do you think companies that have a solid plan for how to succeed in the marketplace … actually effectively execute to plan? The answer has remained the same year after year: 10 to 15%. That number is shockingly low.  What is even more devastating is to realize the monumental waste of talent, resources, opportunity and money that low number represents. However, the process for ensuring effective execution is really straightforward and simple. Just a handful of key steps need to be applied with vigor and total accountability. Leaders just have to be willing and able develop a culture of disciplined execution by establishing the systems, processes and checkpoints to ensure consistent flawless execution of all critical initiatives

At the end of the day, none of the things listed here are particularly new or revolutionary. Actually, I am sure that most of us will recognize them as well-established fundamentals for leading a world-class organization. However there is a huge difference between knowing something … and living it every day in your organization.