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What Great Leaders Do Differently I

Great leaders stand apart because of the results they get, and they get results because of what they do. Some of what they do comes under broad headings like communicate effectively and develop a compelling vision. But there are six specific behaviors that seem, to me, to set great leaders apart from other leaders. In each case, we'll name an over-arching behavior and then talk about some of the specific tactics that leaders use to get that to happen.

Here are the six behaviors.

Maintain a Realistic Picture

The first, and maybe the most important, is that great leaders maintain a realistic picture. That means that they have a realistic picture of themselves and of their organizations.

It's important to know yourself as the philosopher enjoins us. That means knowing your strengths and weaknesses. Once you identify those strengths and weaknesses, though, you have to do something with it. Great leaders build on their strengths and work to make their weaknesses irrelevant.

That's important, because it's different from what a lot of management development literature tells us. We're told often to shore up our weaknesses. We're not told much about developing our strengths. But when you look at great leaders, they build on the strengths that they have and they make those weaknesses irrelevant.

How do you go about making weaknesses irrelevant? There are a couple of specific ways. Way number one is that you get good enough at the area where you have a weakness. You don't have to be great at it, or even as good as everybody else. You just need to be good enough.

Tactic number two for making your weakness irrelevant is to delegate it or outsource it. Get someone else to handle it. A variant on this is to get someone else to help you with it, such as an Administrative Assistant.

The third thing that you can do to make your weakness irrelevant is simply ignore it. Lots of times the things that we see as major dramatic weaknesses simply aren't that important. Try not doing the things that you need to do any better for awhile and see if it really makes a difference overall.

It's not enough just to know yourself, to build on your strengths and make your weaknesses irrelevant. You also need to maintain a realistic picture of your organization and industry. The leaders that I would call great have two particular behaviors that support this.

First, they develop a parallel reporting system. The fact is that when you're the boss, people tell you what you want to hear when what you need to hear gets muted. That means you have to have alternative ways to get the same information.

One fellow that I studied, the head of a seven million dollar business, opened the company mail every day. That sounds eccentric, but it was his way of staying in control. At some large companies, top executives take a few hours every week to catch calls on the complaint line, or to answer complaint e-mail. You need to find something like that that gives you reporting from outside.

Another behavior that lots of leads do to get this done is simply wandering around. They get out of their office and into the field. They call on customers. They talk to vendors. They get information directly that otherwise would come through filters..

One more thing, if you're going to maintain a realistic picture of what's going on, you have to drive to get behind the information that's presented to you. Look for the underlying facts. Take aggregate numbers apart. Aggregate numbers that come to you in pieces. Look at things in different ways. Ask questions.

People Before Strategy

When I was reading my first management texts, strategy was always held up as a great, important leadership task. It was the important thing. You defined your strategy and then you got the people you needed to execute it. As it turns out, great leaders seem to go the other way.

Research by Jim Collins as well as the experience of a top manager like Larry Bossidy both point to putting people before strategy. If you have great people, you can execute all kinds of strategies and changes in strategy. But strategy without great people is simply impotent.

This doesn't mean just paying attention to getting the people onboard. It means paying attention to the important things that make the people part of your organization hum. That's salaries and benefits. It's training. It's development.

One of the finest leaders that I ever knew was George Hart, who was the Chief of the Oakland, California Police Department from 1974 until 1997. Police Chiefs have a lot of things that they can pay attention to. Hart chose three as the most important. One of them was not a "people" thing. He spent a lot of time on relations with the City Council and the City Manager, but the other two were core people activities.

He paid attention to recruitment. He personally told his recruiting team that Oakland could find enough people qualified to be police officers, who weren't white males and who met current standards without bending them in any way. Then he followed up rigorously by personally reading every background investigation of every candidate that the recruiters put forward.

He also thought training was important. He showed that by making training a key slot, one that would help get folks promoted. He personally reviewed training curricula and he personally met with every outside trainer brought into the department.

Rehearse Mentally

This sounds almost kid-like, but great leaders rehearse mentally. They imagine what things are likely to happen. They play "what if?"

The great leaders do this for all kinds of activities. They play "what if?" coming up to important interviews to imagine what might happen and how they'll respond. They play "what if?" in terms of strategy and tactics for the organization. That's really what "Scenario Planning" is playing "what-if?" They're constantly asking what kinds of things could happen and how would I respond.

There's strong psychology underlying this. Things that surprise and startle us also diminish our capacity to make good decisions. When you're surprised or fearful, the blood you need to make good decisions isn't up in your brain where it will do you the most good. Instead, their cycle biological system drives it to the places that worked when danger lurked in the jungle your major muscle groups in your upper body and legs.

The biggest advantage of "what if?" is that it prepares you for things that suddenly pop up in front of you.

Work Hard to Assure Understanding

You'll hear a lot about how leaders need to communicate. There are lots of courses on this. The majority of them deal with the direct communication process, how you phrase messages or how you engage in active listening. That's good, but it's not enough.

Our great leaders did something more. They aggressively followed up to assure understanding. Tom Harris is the CEO of a mid-sized industrial products company. Every time a subordinate has a meeting with Tom, Tom does two things.

First, he makes sure that clear performance measurement standards are agreed to before the subordinate leaves the meeting. Second, he follows up with a memorandum of understanding, outlining what he believes has been agreed to.

After that, it's follow up to see if the targets are met. Tom wants to be sure that everyone who works for him understands what they're supposed to do. He spends quite a bit of time on tasks that help achieve that. Part of what he does involves our next set of behaviors.

Manage the Consequences of Performance

One of the greatest frustrations that I had as a young manager was that I couldn't make people do anything. Thirty years later, I still can't. Neither can you.

People make their own choices. So while you cannot manage people's behavior, you can manage the consequences that come from their behavior, and that's what great leaders do.

This is nothing more than assuring that the good are rewarded and the unjust are punished in accordance with their deeds. It's where fairness comes from.

Fairness in an organization is what happens when people perceive that rewards are consistent with performance. Want to be fair? Then make sure that consequences match up with performance.

There are three tools that you have here. There are positive consequences, negative consequences, and negative reinforcement.

Positive consequences, such as praise on a promotion, or an increase in pay, are what you use when you want folks to either start something or to continue to do something.

Negative consequences are things like reprimands, reassignment to a lower-status job, and other things like that. Use negative consequences to get people to stop doing things.

Negative consequences are most effective if they're delivered consistently. If you tell your kid that if he or she comes home after curfew, you're going to be grounded, you need to do it. And you need to do it every time.

Positive consequences, on the other hand, are most effective if they are delivered inconsistently. It's that little extra reward.

Barbara Childress heads up a mid-size public agency in the Southwest. She doesn't have a lot of the pay incentive things that private industry has, so she does a lot with praise and things that she can control. She set up a system of special rewards that people can earn by collecting "preciate ya" points.

Barbara makes this work by handing out little cards when she catches folks doing something right. On each card is "preciate ya." That's a line that she used to use all the time and that works on the tickets. As people collect tickets, they can get some extra time off or special consideration in the cafeteria. Doesn't sound like much. But it works.

What about that negative reinforcement? That's something a little different than what you've normally heard. Negative reinforcement is a negative consequence that continues until you get positive behavior.

That's all, of course, on a very one-to-one level. How do you handle consequences for the whole organization. That's a job for culture.

According to Deal and Kennedy, culture is "the way we do things around here." It's incredibly powerful.

For years IBM had no dress code, but IBMers dressed alike. Louis Mayer had strong ideas about a number of things. He didn't think women should wear pants. He didn't like movies with dark shadows. He never had to write all those things down. Culture carried the load for him and his movies came out the way he wanted.

Culture is very powerful, but you can shape culture. Pay attention to the 5 P's of leadership. If you do these things consistently you'll shape the culture and the culture will shape behavior. Here they are:

  • Pay attention to what's important.
  • Praise what you want to continue.
  • Punish what you want to stop.
  • Pay for the results you want.
  • Promote the people who deliver the results.

Take Every Opportunity to Communicate Your Key Message

Great leaders take every opportunity to communicate the key message about where the boat is going and why. They work to get their key message down to something that's short and memorable. Then, they take every opportunity to communicate it.

That includes memos and appearances at training programs. It also includes casual hallway conversations and just about any meeting the leader attends.

This was first documented by Dr. John Kotter from Harvard in his early book, The General Managers. Kotter set out to study the time management practices of general managers. He thought that he'd discover that effective general managers were very tight managers of their time and planned every interaction. He found something quite different.

His general managers all had a clear agenda. They had learned simple and memorable ways to communicate their key items. Then they used every opportunity, both formal and informal, to get them across. Here's how you make that work for you.

Develop a simple statement of what your organization should be doing. One or two sentences will be the most you want. Try to come up with a short, memorable phrase.

Work on this by trying it out on people who aren't in your organization. My personal favorite is to try to explain you key concept in two sentences or less to an intelligent fifteen-year-old. Then have the teenager tell you in his or her own words what you said. Keep trying with different teenagers until you get it right.

Once you've got it short and sweet, use it again and again and again. You will get tired of it, but repetition is truly the mother of learning.


So where have we come? Great leaders do what all leaders do. They set the direction and purpose and they communicate that consistently. But they do some things that are different that make them more effective, and you can too.

When you go back home when you get to your office consider the ways that you can do the following.

If you've got the basics, the intelligence, the stamina, the knowledge, and the willingness to make decisions, you can get better at the important stuff, but you can make the leap from good to great by doing the things that great leaders do differently.

To help you get more on all of this, I've developed a reading list on leadership for working leaders.


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