Over the course of a long career, I have had the pleasure of working with lots of leaders. Some of them were unmistakably incompetent, but most were what I’d call “good enough.” At the other extreme, a handful of them were simply awesome. I am sure that most observers would say much the same thing about the leaders they have worked with. If there has been anything surprising about my experience, it is that I learned at least as much from the incompetent leaders as I did from the awesome ones, but I learned the most from the leaders who knew they were not up to snuff. Overall, five lessons have stood the test of time.
#1. Leaders are typically very bright people. I have frequently been amazed at how quickly they figure things out.
#2. Good leaders really, really matter. There have been many times when I have seen a team or even an entire company turned around simply by replacing its leader.
#3. As smart as they are, leaders are frequently intellectually lazy. Some of them insist that everything be recast in “crayon-simple” terms or reduced to a few essential bullet points. Many of the things that leaders routinely handle can be simplified to a few cogent points, but most cannot.
#4. Many leaders do not differentiate between their assumptions and the true facts of a situation; often, with bad consequences. The best ones recognize that the way they see determines what they see.
#5. Leaders do not grow without the intention to grow. Many of the mediocre leaders I have known work (unknowingly) very hard to stay within their comfort zone and do not grow.
Lessons 3 and 4 have their roots in the habit of leaders combining intellectual quickness with foggy thinking. Too often, they do not apply a clear framework to their thinking and, therefore, open their assumptions to challenge or testing against the facts. The higher a leader is within an enterprise, the more costly this habit can be. Lesson 5 has to do with the human habit of “being on autopilot;” that is, going through life with little awareness of how we are living. Some leaders lead with the same lack of awareness of how they lead as they do with the fact that they are breathing. While this habit does little harm to a leader’s breathing, it can be deadly for his or her growth as a leader.
For a guy like me who was once described as being “able to make a forty-five-minute talk feel like two hours,” the tendency of leaders to use simplistic renderings of complexity has always baffled me. As Albert Einstein said, “The definition of genius is taking the complex and making it as simple as possible, but no simpler.” There is a fine line between simple and simplistic that leaders too often cross.
My career has been built on a 40+ year love affair with free enterprise and helping leaders to understand and use knowledge-based principles of leadership. This “one pager” is the beginning of a series of one-page (some will be two) essays focused on essential knowledge. The essays address the lessons learned and are organized from the individual level to teams and groups, and from there to the most macro: leading an enterprise. Each essay is intended to represent a single idea. I hope you find the ideas included in this series useful to you.