The Leadership Puzzle – What Great Leaders Know

There’s no shortage of books, articles, blogs and journals focusing on the topic of leadership. Specifically, many write about the key behaviors, actions and experiences that are needed to achieve leadership success. We look for the common threads that can be weaved together to build a picture of what great leaders do. The thinking is that armed with this knowledge, others can learn to transform themselves into successful leaders.

I spend a lot of time thinking about leadership. Like most people, my thoughts focus on the great leaders that I’ve experienced first-hand. I think about what they do that makes them successful. Then I try to piece together a leadership puzzle with a collection of actions and behaviors that can be replicated.

Over time, I’ve come to realize that most leaders are not easily definable. Often their strengths are unique qualities that are not shared across the broad spectrum of leaders. What makes them so successful is that they don’t fit into a standard puzzle – rather they look to form new shapes, to define fresh boundaries, and to embrace solutions not seen by others.

Of course, this has not stopped me from trying to create my own leadership puzzle. There are some similarities I have seen in successful leaders that are clear enough to share with you. Based on my experiences – some pieces of the puzzle include:

Creating and communicating a simple vision. Leaders understand the value in providing a vision that people can rally around. Creating a “north star” that can be used to guide efforts is critical. They key is to make the vision simple, interesting and obtainable.

Defining a common enemy. Having a common opponent that creates an “us against them mentality” can be inspiring. Steve Jobs used this tactic and created a “geeks” vs. the establishment mindset that later was supplanted with an Apple vs. Microsoft rivalry. Often you hear sports coaches talk about how no one “outside the locker room” believes in their team – creating an us against them mentality.  Having a defined enemy can force teams to grow together. It creates a common bond; something that says we are in this battle together.

Setting priorities. Organizations are made up of many rapidly moving parts where new ideas and opportunities abound. The reality is that most organizations can only work on a handful of opportunities in any given period. Great leaders understand they need to focus all their efforts on a limited number of key initiatives that clearly support the objectives and vision of the organization.

Quickly correcting hiring mistakes. All of us have made hiring mistakes. Bringing someone new into an organization is often a crap shoot. Despite best efforts, sometimes you get it wrong – this is no sin. The key is to retain the best and move quickly to correct hiring mistakes. Great leaders don’t allow their hiring egos to stop them from moving on when a mistake is made.

Allocating organizational assets. Much of what leaders do is figure out where to invest and how to use available resources. The best identify organizational objectives and work to fund the initiatives which best serve the long-term goals.

Motivating people. Finally, the best know the key actions that motivate people and organizations. To do this they “know their people”, and they understand what actually motivates them. Generic motivational tools (like financial bonus programs), often fail to drive people to reach high levels of performance long-term. Leaders know that people are unique, so they use a variety of motivational tools that meet the diverse needs of the individuals in an organization.

Of course there are many other things to write about that great leaders do. We could talk about emotional intelligence, business knowledge, focus, personal strength, risk tolerances – these are all keys for great leaders. But, ultimately these are unique qualities that are hard to define, measure, replicate and even understand.

Creating my Leadership Puzzle is still a work in progress. I continue to meet new and interesting leader’s everyday. The truly great ones seem to do one final thing – they consistently deliver positive results.

What do you think? What are the key traits you see in great leaders? What does your leadership puzzle look like?


About Dale Myers

A San Francisco Bay Area Project and Program Expert
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