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.
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
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
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
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.
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 Ð as well as the experience of a top manager
like Larry Bossidy Ð 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
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
Ð by personally reading Ð 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.
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 Ð 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 Ð 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.
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.
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
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
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
- 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.
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
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 Ð when you get to your office Ð 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
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