One of my recurring frustrations with books on leadership is that leaders are often made out to be superhuman. You have to be able to do this and that and then that as a leader. I think the issue with most of these books is that they study the best leaders of their age and try to combine all their best traits into one thesis on what makes a good leader.
I think that’s the wrong approach. There is no trait-based path toward leadership. We lead others the way we lead ourselves. And, the best way to lead ourselves is to be authentic – to be 100% ourselves.
So, one of my goals has been to understand what it is it leaders actually do. Over the years, I’ve been piecing this graphic together through books, blog posts, conversations with wiser folk and my own experiences applying what I’ve learnt. So, here goes.
We’ll be building to the full 1 pager step-by-step.
Leaders do 3 things – they lead, manage, and build culture. In simple words, these mean
1. Lead: “Doing the right thing” or effectiveness
2. Manage: “Doing things right” or efficiency
3. Culture: “This is how we do things here”
The size of the boxes gives a rough illustration of the amount of time you spend on each of these 3. I estimate management to be 50% of the time with the rest split between leading and building culture.
To draw on the difference between leadership and management, I’d like to draw on a Stephen Covey story that distinguishes efficiency from effectiveness. Imagine a group of woodcutters getting ready to cut trees in a forest. The managers or efficiency leaders are those who walk behind the woodcutters and say – “Try a 45 degree angle. It’ll cut the tree faster.” Managers optimize.
The leaders are those who climb up the trees and say – “Guys, wrong jungle.” Leaders focus on whether our effort is effective.
Finally, the one central principle that ties leading, managing and building culture is “deep care.” As a leader, all the things you do will be null and void if you don’t care more than anyone else about leading. I’ve added my own interpretation to this idea – “doing small things with extraordinary care.” I have come to realize that leadership isn’t so much about the big things. It is all about the small things. Over time, the small things become the big things.
The first piece to dive into would be the lead part. For the “how,” I’ve channeled Jack Welch’s idea – caring more about your people and work. You have to obsess about what the right things are. There are no shortcuts.
But, to bring it to the tactics, I’ve gone with the what Ben Horowitz laid out in “The Hard Thing about Hard Things.” Leaders do 3 things
1. Articulate and share a vision – The Steve Jobs attribute
2. Ambition for the team (versus self) – The Bill Campbell attribute
3. Ability to execute and bring their vision to life – The Andy Grove attribute
Of these 3, the tactic you need to consistently focus on is honing your ability to articulate and share a vision. You would assume that you have risen or been given leadership because of your ability to execute. And, the ambition for the team is one that is the hardest to coach. Ben Horowitz believes that, by the time you reach your twenties and thirties, you either have it or you don’t.
So, as a leader, you obsess about doing the right thing and then communicate the vision and priorities relentlessly.
Next, we move to management. Management is all about efficiency. And, the “how” revolves around setting and managing expectations.
A beautiful framework that helps explains the tactics is the triangle with results, people, and processes. Leaders typically influence or directly control all 3. While they are always held accountable for results, results are a lagging indicator. By the time they appear, it is too late to do anything. So, the way to manage is to take control of people and processes – both of which are leading indicator. The assumption here is that if your people are happy and productive and if your processes are thorough, the chances are high that results will go your way.
The place to start here is with processes. This is because people problems are often process problems. An example I think of is vacation policy. Let’s assume you work in a company where customer support is critical. If you don’t have a simple shared calendar process that enables your team to coordinate vacations, you could end up with a situation where every person wants to take time off at the same time. In the absence of a process, you play “bad cop” asking one of them to cancel their vacation. This, soon, becomes a people problem. Good system design enables the systems to be tough and the people to be nice.
Most team processes involve setting expectation around the norms of the team. A great place to start are the processes around team meetings and communications. Example processes are 100% mindfulness (no cell phones or laptops), 100% transparency in communication around key decisions, candor in meetings – “the worst is discussed at the meeting and not outside” and a decision process where we debate till we decide but lend our 100% support once the decision is made.
One of the biggest challenges about creating team processes is that you will occasionally have a team member who refuses to follow your processes. It is not uncommon for managers to make exceptions when their results are outstanding. But, it is critical we understand the trade-offs and be transparent about why we make the exception.
Finally, the most nebulous piece – building culture. Culture, to channel Seth Godin, is when we say “this is how we do things here.” Culture is built intentionally – one small action, one day at a time. There are 2 parts to building culture – building culture and sharing culture.
You build culture in 3 ways –
1. The leader’s personal culture. The single biggest factor that influences a company is the culture of the leader or founder.
2. Who you hire/fire/promote. One principle here is that you get what you tolerate. So, if you don’t stop behaviors you don’t want, you will get more of it. The other part is that when you hire or promote, you send a strong signal about the kind of behaviors you want to encourage. Promote a jerk and you will get more jerk behavior.
3. How you make decisions. Decisions tell us how teams work. Whether it is by consensus, debate and discussion or simply issuing directives, our decisions go a long way in building culture.
An often overlooked part of building culture is sharing culture. Sharing culture involves sharing stories of people who’ve demonstrated key cultural tenets. This is why companies with great cultures (Zappos, Netflix) create handbooks. While it is useful externally, it is much more useful internally to explain to new employees that “this is how we do things here.”
One final note – there needs to be alignment between the culture you seek to create and the processes you use to govern the team with. For example, if your decision making process is to hoard information and make decisions yourself, you can’t expect to have transparency in communication.
So, how do we use all this? My sense is that this is best used as a reflection sheet. It is, perhaps, one of those things we might look at over the weekend to ask ourselves – how did I do on all these fronts last week? And, what should I aim to do on these fronts next week?
If there’s one insight I’d like to go back to to wrap up, it would be that it all comes down to deep care. At the end of the day, people will likely not remember what you say or do, but they will remember how you made them feel.
Thanks to: every person listed in the bottom for contributing key insights and frameworks for everything on this sheet. In truth, the number of folks who’ve contributed to this synthesis would be much longer than just a page. Thanks to the many authors who’ve written books on management, leadership and related topics and a big thank you to every team I’ve been part of, or lead.
I hope you find it helpful. This’ll undoubtedly evolve and, hopefully, get better. Looking forward to all thoughts/feedback.