compelling results through coaching, training & organizational development

Leading: The One Thing You Need to Know

The last issue of Moving On talked about Marcus Buckingham's new book: The One Thing You Need to Know: About Great Managing, Great Leading and Sustained Individual Success and in particular great managing. This issue is about great leading.

When you study leadership styles, the first thing that strikes you is how different they all are. George Washington was sound and constant; Adams was a visionary; and Jefferson so feared public speaking he changed the protocol so that the State of the Union address was delivered by an assistant. When we look at differences we must look at what is the one primary insight that explains why one excels.

Jim Collins, in Built to Last, observed that it was not the executives, but the organization-wide culture that accounted for sustained success in companies, and yet by the time he had written his next book, Good to Great, he recognized that the executive could not be ignored. There was something unusual about them. He called it Level 5 Leadership. The Level 5's were not celebrity seeking, ego-driven types, but rather were characterized by their quiet assurance as they pushed steadily and resolutely towards their goal. Collins noted, "They build enduring greatness through a paradoxical blend of personal humility and professional will." And Warren Bennis, perhaps the preeminent leadership expert says: "Leadership accounts for, at the very least, 15 percent of the success of any organization."

Now granted, leaders are not just found in large organizations, we are all leaders in many ways each day, but if we're all focused on being the leader, we will lose focus on our primary role, whether that be sales, or service or design or analysis or management. Then quite quickly the organization will splinter apart.

A leaders' focus is different and the talents to excel are different.

The most important thing a leader does is rally people to a better future.

Leaders are restless for change, fascinated by the future and irrationally optimistic. They must be optimistic and they must use this optimism to rally us and to make us feel confident that the future is bright and that we are a part of that future. A leader is curious and inquisitive. The opposite of a leader is a pessimist.

A leader must tap into the emotion of his people, meet them where they are and cut through their differences. After 9/11 when Giuliani was asked what he thought the final body count would be, he said "I don't know what the final number will be, but it will be more than we can bear." In those words, he touched and secured the hearts and the commitment of his people because he tapped into the emotion everyone was feeling. Managers are intermediaries, leaders are instigators. Leaders discover what is universal and capitalize on it.

In the book, Human Universals, Brown states all humans share a common experience and this commonness, if you will, allows us to understand and empathize with each other. If it's true that to know someone's fear is to know their need, then it stands to reason that with this information you can more likely engender in your people the confidence to follow you into the future. The 5 human fears and needs are:

Fear of Death - the Need for Security; some of our most basic needs stem from our urge to secure our lives and the lives of our loved ones.

Fear of the Outsider - the Need for Community; all societies make distinctions between those who are part of the group and those who aren't. We favor the former.

Fear of the Future - The Need for Clarity; in every society we give prestige to those who claim to predict the future. Whether we call them a seer, an economist or the Wall Street Journal. Communities become strong when they know what threatens them. By far the most effective way to turn fear into confidence is to be clear. A leader must satisfy this need for clarity.

Fear of Chaos - The Need for Authority; out of our desire for order comes our need for authority. Incidentally every society has a word for leader.

Fear of Insignificance - The Need for Respect; the need for significance and the fact that people crave prestige with different levels of intensity laid the basis for some to become masters and some to become serfs.

A leader must provide focus. If the focus is on community and security, the status quo will be maintained. If the focus is to be on the future, a leader must transfer fear of the unknown into confidence about the future. In a company, the leader must be clear about who the company seeks to serve, what the companies core values are and how do we measure success?

As for measurement, a good example was the British prison system. Their measurement went from how few escapees they had to how few repeat offenders they had. Quite a difference in the focus! If it can't be measured, it can't be managed.

If you want someone to follow you, you must tell them what score they should use to measure their progress into the forest of the future and how that score will reveal how far they have come and how far they have yet to go.

Leaders must be disciplined; they must take time to reflect, they must choose their heroes carefully (the employee you choose to celebrate will reveal the future you are trying to create) and practice your descriptions of the future - make them vivid.

Leaders must never forget the needs we all have for security, for community, for clarity, for authority and for respect. Our need for clarity, when met, is the most likely to engender in us confidence, persistence, resilience, and creativity.

Back to Articles