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Fundamentals First

In Leadership Articles (Archives) on September 7, 2017 at 1:50 pm

Fundamentals

“All of these principles are easy to comprehend, and all of them are damnably difficult to live and make happen. And that explains why truly great leaders are rare indeed.” Oren Harari

Writing in his book The Leadership Secrets of Colin Powell author Oren Harari is talking about the fundamentals that were so characteristic of Colin Powell’s approach to leadership. I’m not sure why, but it seems these days that there is far too little attention paid to developing strong fundamentals, maybe it’s that tendency in human nature to complicate the simple.

Good examples would be the seemingly boundless enthusiasm for personality testing and emotional intelligence workshops and books these days. I’m not saying these are of no value, only that work on these topics will not transform an average team into a high performing team. In leadership, as in virtually all other endeavours, the foundation for success is found in strong fundamentals. There will always be far more upside in teaching leaders how to stay mission focused, provide good direction, build accountability and provide skillful feedback than there is in some of the more tangential leadership topics there seems to be so much enthusiasm for, yet I frequently see these foundational topics overlooked.

So what the are some of these fundamentals? In the space I have here I can’t possibly offer a complete list but I can cover a few.

Start with the right heart

All the best leaders care a great deal about the missions and people they lead. They are in it for the right reasons. They are mission and people driven. They value relationships. This doesn’t mean they coddle team members. To the contrary, they challenge people to deliver their best work and to continually get better and they encourage and support their efforts. We can’t teach someone to have the right heart for leadership, but we can help those who already do learn how it how to express it in the right ways.

Communicate well

We talk to people we care about and we listen to people we care about. For the best leaders good communication habits connect them with people and build engagement. As I have so often said, we can’t expect engagement if we don’t engage people, if we leave them in the dark. Opening the enterprise and building relationships with strong communication skills is essential.

Provide good direction

Research clearly demonstrates that when people know clearly what is expected of them they have higher levels of performance and more job satisfaction. Yet so often I meet people who don’t know or are unsure about what’s expected of them. Learning how to provide direction well and how to avoid common pitfalls is essential. This is why I include eight keys to providing direction well in my work.

Provide lots of quality feedback

I’m convinced that every truly team building leader has great feedback habits. Why? Because teams are built one member one situation at a time and skillful timely feedback is the key. Time and time again I encounter leaders at all levels who don’t provide enough feedback as well as those who provide it poorly.

Coach

Legendary coach John Wooden wrote, “Every good leader is a natural and enthusiastic teacher.” I couldn’t agree more. Wooden’s UCLA Bruins won more national championships than any team in history. His book, Wooden on Leadership, is a brilliant volume on applied fundamentals. His efforts to build relationships and improve skills through coaching ranks high among these. Time spent developing good coaching skills is time well spent.

Build Culture

I would offer without hesitation that every significant team building effort I led at newspapers across the country featured purposeful work on culture – not what your team does but the way they do it. If the leader doesn’t do something to promote the right team culture and correct problems then who will? Culture drives performance and there is a right way to go about building it.

Make every performance count

Last on my admittedly incomplete list is the way great leaders treat performance. They insist that every team member earn his or her place. When someone isn’t they confront the problem with feedback and coaching first (here we are back at these two fundamentals) and when this does not solve the problem they know how to have those difficult conversations and make the necessary changes to the roster with skill.

I take a fundamentals first approach because 20 years of building the teams I led convinced me time and time again that they work. Today, when I encounter teams who are not living up to their potential it always traces back to fundamentals. It’s fundamentals consistently applied that will always drive the biggest improvements.

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5 Fundamentals: Taking Stock

In Leadership Articles (Archives) on January 3, 2012 at 6:30 am

“All of these principles are easy to comprehend, and all of them are damnably difficult to live and make happen. And that explains why truly great leaders are rare indeed.” 

Oren Harari. The Leadership Secrets Of Colin Powell.

Harari was describing an undeniable reality that I confront in workshops every week: good leadership sounds simple and even self-evident, and yet, it is indeed quite rare. Why? Because there is a very big difference between understanding something and applying it well. So with the beginning of a new year upon us, I invite you to think about how well you are applying five key fundamentals.

1. All truly great leaders have a vision for taking their teams somewhere worthwhile. They inspire their teams with the pursuit of this vision. Do you have a clear vision for where you are taking your team? How often do you talk about it? Would your team members be able to describe it?

2. All great leaders communicate expectations clearly. After all, people can’t work effectively if they don’t know what you want. If asked, would your team members be able to describe what you expect of them? Do you set clear priorities?

3. In his book Wooden On Leadership, legendary UCLA basketball coach John Wooden wrote, “I believe effective leaders are, first and foremost, good teachers.” I couldn’t agree more. When you teach you build new capacity and you demonstrate in a personal way that you have an interest in the individual you are coaching. Watch great coaches, or teachers, and you’ll soon see that it’s personal – they really care about the success of the individual they are working with. Teaching is what turns leaders into mentors, and followers don’t like disappointing mentors, they’ll work hard for a leader who is a dedicated teacher. How much time are you spending teaching? How strong are your teaching skills?

4. Now we arrive another leadership essential – a “must have” in my books – and a personal favorite – feedback. Great teams are built one person, one situation at a time, and feedback is the key. All great leaders provide lots of it, and that means both encouragement and correction. They watch the way people work (and you can’t do this unless you put yourself where they are every now and then), then they encourage more of what is working, and correct practices that create problems. All their feedback is constructive – provided to build up the receiver. The more I work with leaders on this skill, the more I see how difficult it can be to make progress. Most know they should provide more feedback, but talking about performance makes them nervous. When you have good feedback habits, followers will be able to describe what they do well and where they need to improve. They’ll know because you will have talked about it, and you will have been specific. So how much feedback are you providing? How skillful is your feedback and how could you improve it?

5. Rounding out our top five, is the reality that all great leaders surface and resolve the big issues about people and the work they do. Poor leaders avoid constructive confrontation, the great ones embrace it. When someone is not getting the job done, they do something about it. They try first to correct with feedback and coaching, but when these don’t solve the problem, they make a change. They end relationships that are not working. Have you been avoiding a necessary confrontation?

Discussion questions:

Just one more question this month: Discuss and rank your performance against the five fundamentals described. Which one or two offer the best opportunity for you to improve? Set a goal and write down a statement describing it.

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