Clarity: A Primary Leadership Skill

one step at a time

So much of what’s written about in leadership literature focuses on a leader’s character.

Character’s important–absolutely.  It’s the foundation of the house of leadership effectiveness.  But it’s not the only thing.

You can be the exemplar of personal integrity, but that won’t (by itself) punch your ticket to leadership greatness.  There’s skill involved too.

One key skill is instructional clarity.

Leaders are in the business of sharing:  sharing visions, strategies, priorities, projects, tasks.     If you’re going to lead in any capacity, you need people to follow you. When you share with people,  the basic requirement is that you do so in  a simple, clear, understandable way.  Because if you’re not clear, they won’t follow.  Literally.

I know this concept of clarity sounds ridiculously simple.  And it is.  It’s just not easy.

Yes, it’s easy enough…sometimes.   Like when your sharing is basic, and not much demand is placed on you or your follower.

For example, this morning I had to tell my 6 year old daughter Miranda to take her backpack with her to school.  The backpack was literally on the floor at her feet.  Upon my instruction (reminder), it was easy for her to grab it and go.

But things get more complex rather quickly.  If I tell Miranda to clean her room (not an actual task, but a multiple task project), she freezes up.  Cleaning her room is an abstract concept; she freezes up because she doesn’t know what the next action should be.  I assume “clean your room” makes sense, because I see the bed that needs making, the dirty clothes that need to go in the hamper, and the books that need to be put away.  But that’s too much for Miranda to take in all at once.  So nothing gets done, until I go up there and work it step by step with her.

It isn’t just kids that need things worked through step by step.

Last week, I was observing a senior vice president of a large consumer goods company facilitate a working session on the company’ s 2014 strategy with the Senior Leadership team.   The goal of the meeting was to engage the Senior Leaders so that they’d own the strategy and feel equipped to go off and bring it to their functional teams so they could execute over the next 12 months.

This executive (Kathy)  is super-intelligent and she knows the business inside and out.  There was just one problem.  What was clear in Kathy’s mind wasn’t translating out.  She was so familiar with the strategy, she assumed people were tracking with her when they weren’t.  She wasn’t breaking concepts down into their simplest parts.  And people weren’t following.  To make matters worse, this room of senior people all had too much ego (or not enough courage) to stop and admit that things didn’t make sense.

On a break, I came over to Kathy to check in and asked how things were going.

Pretty well.

I asked her how she knew.

We’re though the first 2 priorities and we only have 1 more to go and there’s still an hour and 15 minutes left.

From Kathy’s response, I immediately realized that her mindset was content-focused, rather than outcome-focused.  She saw her role as to “present” the strategy.     This meeting was something to “get through”, not an opportunity to inspire, mobilize, engage and equip the senior leaders to walk out of this room aligned on the 2014 plan.

Kathy’s response reminded me of an interaction I had with a teacher years ago when I was a guest teacher at John F. Kennedy High School in the Bronx.  During a lunch break one day in the teacher’s lounge, Norma, a grizzled 25 year veteran history teacher was smoking a cigarette (you could do that back then), and said “My job is to teach.  If they learn or don’t learn…that’s up to them.”

Kathy was there to “pitch” the strategy.  Whether the senior team “bought it” was up to them.  Consciously or unconsciously, Kathy was missing a fundamental insight:

As leaders, we’re in the service business.  Our followers are our customers.  Clarity (and understanding) is the first step towards engagement and commitment.   Skip this step at your own leadership peril.

What steps have you implemented to makes sure your followers are clear?  How do you know?  



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