“A Golden Rule of Leadership”, or “It’s not as hard as you might think”

The truth is there is no mystique, there is no magic: every single one of us has the potential to be a leader, and it’s not as hard as you might think.

Sometimes I fear that we’ve built such an aura of mystique around leadership that we forget there are some golden rules, repeatable ideas, etc..  We focus on charisma at the expense of practice, celebrate luck instead of planning, and believe in intuition over careful application of best practices.  Such superstitions often benefit those in positions of leadership, helping them to convince followers that they, the leaders, are somehow special or preordained.  But ultimately these beliefs are detrimental to society, for they prevent each of us from finding our own inner leader, from stepping forward, raising our hand, or speaking out to make a change…and things stagnate as a result, and the status quo celebrates.  The truth is there is no mystique, there is no magic: every single one of us has the potential to be a leader, and it’s not as hard as you might think.

I’m busy reading Lessons from the Top, by Gavin Esler.  In one passage, he describes how Alastair Campbell explained at a conference that any significant act of leadership has three parts: objective, strategy, and tactics:

  1. First, the objective must be absolutely clear, as it provides the followers with a common purpose.  By clarifying a common purpose, a leader unites the group in a quest for achievement.
  2. Second, you must determine the strategy by which you will achieve your objective.  It is critically important that every part of the strategy is dedicated towards achieving the objective; any distraction will lessen your chance of success.
  3. Third, you must select and employ tactics that enhance the strategy (and in turn support the objective).

When described like that, it seems very simple.  Why, then, do so many leaders (and the organizations of which they are a part), utterly fail to deliver results?  As it happens, there are a few common mistakes.

To start with, many leaders fail to establish a clear objective.  A wishy-washy, somewhat amorphous or nebulous “objective” sends all sorts of demotivating messages: that the leader has no vision, that measurement of success or failure is impossible, that actual success is impossible to achieve, etc.  Without clarity, the group lacks common purpose, and common purpose is a critical component of an effective group.  It’s very common for employee surveys to indicate that workers either don’t know what the company’s objective is, or don’t believe the leaders have a vision.  The same lesson about clarity applies to strategy and tactics, too.

Furthermore, in much the same way that math has an order of operations, so too does effective leadership.  In the case of leadership, the rules require that one first selects an objective, then determines a strategy, and only then looks at tactics. I’m sure many of you have been part of projects in which the complete opposite was true: some vague sense of purpose (not clear enough to be an objective) gets everyone talking about tactics (which in this case are usually just repeating things that were done on other projects); from there, you look at a morass of tactics and try to whittle out a coherent strategy; finally, a few weeks into the project you start to get an idea of an objective, usually determined only to justify your current activities.  Such projects are doomed to inefficiency, at best, and failure in the most likely scenario.  They’re also incredibly frustrating to be a part of, as you’re expending energy on all sorts of activities, but no amount of energy can make up for what is lacking.  So please, leaders, get the order of operations right.

However, order alone is not sufficient to ensure success; it is also critical that the leader understand, and be able to express for motivational purposes, how the three parts relate to each other.  The followers must know not only what the strategy is, but how executing on that strategy will help to achieve the objective.  This will build in them a true belief and devotion.  Similarly, everyone must know how their individual tactics are furthering the strategy.  Esler unites these two elements when he says, “Successful leadership means getting these three parts in the correct order, and understanding how they relate to each other.” (Lessons from the Top – p39)

It’s amazing how many leaders and companies fail to grasp the importance of the order of and relationship between the critical elements of objective, strategy, and tactics.  A common gripe with employees in all industries is that they don’t know how what they do contributes to the company’s objectives.  Flatter organizations likely don’t suffer from this quite so much as massively hierarchical ones, but it’s always a danger – particularly in very complex industries.  If you don’t know how what you do moves the organization closer to achieving an objective – or worse, don’t believe that what you do contributes in any meaningful way – then how motivated can you really be?  Contrast that with the sense of empowerment you feel when you know you’re making a difference!

Another common mistake is a lack of focus, at every “level” of the objective-strategy-tactics approach.  How many times have you seen a company list their X objectives for the year, where X is some unreasonably large number (some would argue anything greater than one is too large)?  Or maybe there’s an agreed-upon objective, but multiple strategies?  This just leads to division, confusion, competition, and many more unpleasant words ending in “ion”.  What is required is a ruthless focus: a leader must always remember that, “the tactics must be developed only to support the strategy, and the strategy is there only to secure the objective.” (Lessons from the Top – p40)  A point that Campbell drove home in his conference address was that, “what you do not do is let clever tactics distract you from the strategy; nor do you let the sophistication of the strategy blind you to the overall objective.” (Lessons from the Top – p40)

“The tactics must be developed only to support the strategy, and the strategy is there only to secure the objective…What you do not do is let clever tactics distract you from the strategy; nor do you let the sophistication of the strategy blind you to the overall objective.” (Lessons from the Top – p40)

Hopefully this post has taken some of the mystique away from leadership, and shown that there are some concrete ways you can become a better leader.  Learn from Mr. Campbell’s advice: start with a clear objective, then choose a strategy, and only then consider tactics; make sure your followers know how each piece relates; employ a ruthless focus and eliminate all distractions and activities that don’t directly contribute; and know the common pitfalls, and watch out for them.  Following these lessons will take you farther than charisma ever will.

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Posted in Books, Leadership, Management
9 comments on ““A Golden Rule of Leadership”, or “It’s not as hard as you might think”
  1. […] What I mean is, it’s easy to busy oneself with tactical items as they pop up and to mistake activity for achievement (“Hey, we’ve all been busy, so we must be doing well!”), but it’s much more worthwhile (and efficient) to identify important objectives and define and execute on strategies by which to achieve them (this is a golden rule of leadership). […]

  2. […] My generalized approach/philosophy: Objectives → Strategies → Tactics […]

  3. […] of planning the campaign. He advocates a back-to-basics approach, where you start with your objectives and strategic vision, before moving onto tactical concerns, saying “You’d be amazed how many companies and […]

  4. […] I run into this all the time at work and in life, and people are probably tired of hearing me go on about the relationship between objectives, strategies, and tactics. In fact, I’ve written about this subject before, in A Golden Rule of Leadership: […]

  5. […] written before about the relationship between objectives, strategies, and tactics, but in that post I didn’t mention metrics. I’ve also written before about some of the […]

  6. […] of (hopefully) thought-provoking material. One was a slightly distilled version of my post on The Golden Rule of Leadership, which relates objectives to strategies and to tactics, and touches on some common mistakes of […]

  7. […] “A Golden Rule of Leadership” or “It’s not as hard as you might think” […]

  8. […] I mentioned in a previous post, I’m busy reading Lessons from the Top, by Gavin Esler.  I’m quite enjoying it so far, […]

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