There are over 15,000 books on leadership. FIFTEEN THOUSAND.
The world is not suffering for a lack of principles of leadership. Taken collectively, it would seem that to be a great leader, you must grow nearly every skill. Delegation is key. Trust is crucial. Vulnerability; that’s what makes a good leader. Empathy and listening; that too. And being decisive, don’t forget that. And… on and on it goes.
No one can possibly live up to the expectations expressed in over 15,000 books and countless articles written about leadership. But instead of tackling every skill, is it possible to focus on just a few essential traits that would also strengthen the others?
In the last couple of years, I’ve taken up weight-lifting. One of the things I’ve learned in strength training is that there’s a difference between compound moves and isolation exercises. Compound exercises like squats, deadlifts and bench press contribute more to overall strength because they engage more muscle fibers than isolation exercises. They build the foundation for isolation exercises like curls and flys: perfectly good exercises, but only if you’re already doing the ones that really matter.
It seems to me that a lot of leadership advice is like focusing on isolation exercises. All well and good, but if we’re not working on the compound moves along with them, they are harder to integrate.
So, what are the essential compound skills to becoming an effective leader?
My answer to that question is from the perspective of what I most respect in leaders that I admire. Your answer to that question may vary, but for me there are four compound exercises in leadership that I admire in others and strive to emulate in my own life:
- Clarity: the ability to accurately see what is and what could be. It’s no surprise that leaders need to have vision and the ability to set clear goals. How could one lead without knowing where they are going? Yet, it’s surprising to me how rare that kind of clarity is among the leaders I’ve met. So much so, that when I see a leader clearly expressing their objectives, they are exceptional.
Rarer still are leaders who are clear-eyed about where they are today. Whether it’s self-preservation, ego, or just trying to inflate troop morale, many leaders do not accurately assess the present situation and challenges of their business. The leaders I admire neither over-inflate nor under-inflate the present realities of their business. They’ve learned to take an emotionally detached view of the challenges they face.
- Nerve: the ability to confront dysfunction. Organizations are often rife with codependency, enablement, and turning a blind eye to difficult employees who otherwise get the job done. Organizational dysfunction can be hard to evaluate and even harder to confront. I once worked with an executive with such erratic behavior that no one wanted to work with him. Eventually, he became an isolated silo. Unfortunately, a lot of energy was expended maintaining an unhealthy status quo. The leaders I admire most don’t surrender to a dysfunctional leader or organization. They may not enjoy it, but they are not afraid to confront an unhealthy team member, or even a client when necessary.
- Resolve: the ability to sustain commitment regardless of circumstances. You know a leader because they’re the ones with the arrows in their back. Old joke, but true. Leadership always needs to be strongest when the chips are down and the project is hard and things are not working out. That’s when true leadership emerges. A leader needs to have the resolve to sustain the commitments to their objective even when personal price is hard. Who would follow a leader who quickly surrenders on the battlefield? Don’t be that leader; I won’t follow you.
- Curiosity: the ability to stay humble by being a lifelong learner. Here’s a paradox: the more confident you become in what you know, the more likely you’ll rely on your own proficiency to carry you forward. And the less likely you’ll be inclined to learn a new skill. Neuroscientist Gregory Berns describes our brains as “a lazy piece of meat.” The leaders I admire most challenge their mental laziness. They see themselves as inquisitive learners. They don’t need to be the smartest person in the room. They ask questions contrary to their own thinking in order to improve their thinking. Do you do that? Now, that’s something to think about.
There’s my list essential leadership moves. Like I said, yours may vary. Do these moves well and I believe the rest of the isolation skills will follow. Do these moves well and I will follow, too.
Comment below: Do you agree with my four picks, or would you add something else?