Marcus Buckingham spent two decades studying great business leaders. His conclusion: Great leaders have a unique ability to make things simple.
Most business and business-school curricula on leadership have long lists of skills that the aspiring leader must master, from motivating to communicating to counselling to managing conflict, and on and on. Marcus Buckingham says that this has vastly overcomplicated the role of a leader, and those disciplines, while important, fail to get to the heart of true leadership.
Buckingham spent 17 years researching the world’s best leaders and managers for the Gallup Organization and drawing on their research of 80,000 managers and 3 million employees, he wrote two best-sellers: ‘First, Break All the Rules’ and ‘Now, Discover Your Strengths’. After this, he left Gallup, and instead of focusing on the many, he set out to find the very few leaders who truly excelled. “I became more interested in the vividness of what excellence on the front line really looks like,” he says. “By studying one person deeply, you might learn as much if not more than studying 10,000 broadly.” Buckingham sought out old-line outfits such as Walgreens, Best Buy, and Rio Tinto Borax — companies that, lacking the advantages that come with product innovation, must gain an edge by mastering the disciplines of managing and leading. He distilled his key findings into: ”The One Thing You Need to Know…About Great Managing, Great Leading, and Sustained Individual Success” (Free Press).
Here, in his own words are some of Buckingham’s core concepts that mark superior leadership.
Leaders are Compelled by the Future
There’s something unique and different that makes a leader, and it’s not about creativity or courage or integrity. As important as they are, you can have those attributes and still fail to be a great leader. A leader’s job is to rally people toward a better future. Leaders can’t help but change the present, because the present isn’t good enough. They succeed only when they find a way to make people excited by and confident in what comes next. With leaders, the future calls to them in a voice they can’t drown out. The future is more real than the present; it compels them to act.
Leaders Turn Anxiety into Confidence
For a leader, the challenge is that in every society ever studied, people fear the future. The future is unstable, unknown, and therefore potentially dangerous. So in order to succeed, leaders must engage our fear of the unknown and turn it into spiritedness. By far the most effective way to turn fear into confidence is to be clear — to define the future in such vivid terms that we can see where we are headed. Clarity is the antidote to anxiety, and therefore clarity is the preoccupation of the effective leader. If you do nothing else as a leader, be clear.
Be Clear about Whom You Serve
Leaders can be wrong. They can’t be confusing. If we are going to follow you into the future, we need to know precisely whom we are trying to please i.e. customers and which customers precisely will value our offering? It’s a scary thing to please all of the people all of the time. So to calm our fear, employees need their leaders to narrow their focus.
Tell us who will be judging our success. When you do this with clarity, you give us confidence — confidence in our judgment, in our decisions, and ultimately in our ability to know where to look to determine if we have fulfilled our mission.
Leaders are Clear About Why You’re Going to Win
As a leader, your job is to make people more confident about the future you’re dragging them into. To that end, you need to tell them why they’re going to win. There are many competitors out there. Why will we beat them? There are many obstacles in our path. Why will we overcome them? The more clearly you can answer these questions, the more confident we will be, and therefore the more resilient, the more persistent, and the more creative.
Keep Your Core Score
Having told his people that their strength lay in the intelligence, insight, and creativity of the frontline employees, the CEO of Best Buy, Anderson took the required next step and identified the one score that would track their progress toward a better future: number of engaged employees. Although Best Buy’s success could be measured in a variety of different ways, the company uses 12 simple questions to measure just that. Scoring is even more vivid than saying frontline employees are really important. From a leadership standpoint, a score is actionable and unambiguous. When followers are presented with numerous scores, they get confused. The job of a leader is to say, “Of all the things we measure, this is the most important.”
If You Want to be Clear, Act
Of course, a leader must take action — action leads to impact. But actions also possess a separate, equally powerful quality. Actions are unambiguous. If you, the leader, can highlight a few carefully selected actions, then your followers will no longer have to infer the future from theoretical pronouncements about “core values” or your “mission statement.” We will simply look to see what actions you take and base our confidence on them.
But be aware that we respond best to two types of action: symbolic action and systemic action. Symbolic action is just that — a representation of what the future can look like. Symbolic action grabs our attention; it gives us something new and vivid on which to focus. Systemic action changes behaviour. For a leader, it’s important to disrupt routines as this signals change in systems. It makes people realize that the world is going to be different because they’re doing different things. The future becomes clearer, and out of that clarity comes confidence.
“Effective leaders don’t have to be passionate or charming or brilliant. What they must be is clear — clarity is the essence of great leadership. Show us clearly who we should seek to serve, show us where our core strength lies, show us which score we should focus on and which actions we must take, and we will reward you by working our hearts out to make our better future come true.“ Marcus Buckingham
Material drawn from Marcus Buckingham’s ”The One Thing You Need to Know…About Great Managing, Great Leading, and Sustained Individual Success”