The Case for Clarity: A Key Leadership Quality
“Effective leaders don’t have to be passionate. They don’t have to be charming. They don’t have to be brilliant…They don’t have to be great speakers. What they must be is clear. Above all else, they must never forget the truth that of all the human universals – our need for security, for community, for clarity, for authority, and for respect – our need for clarity… is the most likely to engender in us confidence, persistence, resilience, and creativity.”
~ Marcus Buckingham, The One Thing You Need to Know:…About Great Managing, Great Leading, and Sustained Individual Success (Free Press, 2005)
There’s a lot to be said for clarity and simplicity. When top executives make short, clear statements about their defined customers, core strengths, desired future, and action plans, they prevent employee confusion and anxiety.
They generate confidence throughout all levels of the organization and replace uncertainty with resilience and creativity. In fact, the quality of clarity may be the most essential element for leading large groups of diverse employees toward an optimum future.
Warren Bennis, founding chairman of the Leadership Institute at USC’s Marshall School of Business and advisor to four U.S. presidents, once noted that he found more than 800 definitions of leadership.
With leadership accounting for 15 percent of an organization’s success, according to Bennis, we need to truly understand its fundamental principles, how to identify those who demonstrate it, and how to nurture its traits in their potential successors.
Every leader is unique, but each shares similar “ingredients,” as Bennis refers to key characteristics:
- A guiding vision
- Integrity (to include self-knowledge, candor and maturity)
In their book Primal Leadership: Realizing the Power of Emotional Intelligence, coauthors Daniel Goleman, Annie McKee, and Richard Boyatzis delineate 19 traits that effective leaders possess, including:
- Emotional self-control
- Building bonds
And former New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani further narrows the list in his book Leadership:
- Know your values
- Be hopeful
- Be prepared
- Show courage
- Build a great team
- Love people
Leadership and management guru Marcus Buckingham, quoted in the introduction to this newsletter, sums it up as follows: “Great leaders rally people to a better future, by discovering what is universal and capitalizing on it.”
Preoccupation with the future and the ability to communicate one’s vision with clarity are drivers of leadership, he asserts. This does not mean great leaders are primed to outperform your competitors, increase productivity, or help others achieve success; rather, they are dissatisfied with the status quo, envision a better future, and strive to share it with others to achieve success.
Great leaders clearly appreciate current challenges and believe they have what it takes to conquer them and forge ahead. They remain optimistic and have strong egos, without becoming egomaniacal.
Great Managing Versus Great Leading
Every manager’s starting point is the individual employee. Managers must assess talents, skills, knowledge, experience, and goals to design a specific future that fosters each employee’s personal success. No manager can excel without hiring good people, setting clear expectations, recognizing and praising excellence, and demonstrating a sense of caring. As Buckingham puts it: “Great managers discover what is unique about each person and capitalize on it.”
Leaders begin with an image of the future. They then focus their attention on persuading others that success awaits within this vision.
The One Thing a Great Leader Must Do
Great leaders play a different role from that of managers: They rally people toward a better future. They are instigators driven to bring people together to realize this future, regardless of individuals’ unique personalities, levels of excitement, and initial commitment.
While great managers discover each employee’s unique qualities and capitalize on them, great leaders do the inverse: “Discover what is universal and capitalize on it.”
Every leader quickly learns that most people have some basic fear when confronted with uncertainty – and the future is always uncertain. Leaders must consequently find a way to guide people through uncertainty and change.
Anthropologists and scientists, in fact, have discovered five basic fears that are universal, each of which correlates with a basic need:
Fear Correlated Need
1. Death (our own and our family’s) Security
2. The Outsider Community
3. The Future Clarity
4. Chaos Authority
5. Insignificance Respect
Source: Donald E. Brown in Human Universals (1991)
Of all of these universal fears and needs, the most essential one leaders must confront is fear of the future. The modern-day leader is challenged by the unknown. Even with a strong ego and optimism, leaders know they must deal with many complexities and uncertainties. Their success depends on finding a way to engage employees’ fears of the unknown and transforming them into a spirited commitment to a vision for a better future.
Clarity is the tool used to accomplish this. A great leader must define the future in vivid terms and through actions, images, and exemplary heroes that allow others to see clearly where they are headed. Clarity is the antidote to anxiety, so use it to increase our effectiveness.
Four Points of Clarity
Clarity in leadership applies to four key areas:
- Whom do we serve? Who are your customers? How can you define them based on what they want and/or need from you? To develop ideas for defining them with laser-sharp clarity, ask questions like: “What do you get from us that has real value to you?” Compiling information from customers enables you to craft a vivid customer definition – one that helps your employees visualize clients and understand their concerns and values.
- What is our core strength? By defining your organization’s core strength, you educate your employees about how they will prevail in the future, using their edge to best competitors despite any obstacles. When a leader instills confidence in core strengths, resilience replaces anxiety about the future. As Buckingham states: “The strengths you pick don’t have to reflect current reality. You don’t have to be right. You just have to be clear. It is also essential that your people believe that you believe they can excel in the ways you’ve defined.”
- What is our core score? To ensure clarity, avoid measuring several employee behaviors or skills at once. Senior management can track several scores, but leaders must define only the most important core score for employees to achieve focus. Make sure the selected behavior falls under employees’ control, as they must have the power to influence their scores. Select a metric that fits the customer or quantifies the group’s core score.
- What actions can we take today? Symbolic action occurs when a particular goal is achieved to create confidence and success. Systematic actions include new activities that focus on the needs of customers, highlight core strengths, and lead to success on core metrics. Symbolic and systematic actions serve as behavior plans to success.
Embedding clarity in day-to-day operations requires focus and discipline. While clarity is an innate talent in some people, discipline and practice are required to develop this quality in leaders.
How Do the Best Leaders Achieve Clarity?
Most leaders are skilled at distilling and dissecting complexity to find clarity. How do you refine this talent and increase your capacity to fulfill your leadership roles?
All leaders develop certain disciplines to help them achieve greater clarity. Here are a few suggestions from Buckingham:
- Take time to reflect. Most great leaders take some time out of their busy schedules for reflection. This time dedicated to thinking is incredibly valuable, allowing high-performing leaders to achieve remarkable success, in spite of complexity. Some use their travel time for reflection; others utilize exercise or meditative practices. Any chosen method should allow you to sift through the clutter, define essentials, and focus on what really matters.
- Select your heroes with great care. What gets recognized gets repeated. The individuals you recognize and celebrate become role models for others. Look to the people and events that you want others to emulate. When you recognize a high-achieving performer, be explicit in your recognition by explaining, in precise terms, how he or she served your defined customer, the core strength he/she demonstrated, how he/she met or exceeded your core metric and the actions he/she took to bring the desired future one step closer.
- Practice. Discipline yourself to practice using your words, images, and stories in a way that helps employees perceive the future with clarity. The best leaders don’t try to come up with newer and better speeches; rather, they practice and refine their favorite speeches, focusing on the material that is real and pertinent. They aren’t afraid to repeat themselves. Discipline in refining your descriptions of the future will enable you to lead your people through uncertainty and anxiety toward a clearly defined goal.
Leaders must never forget the universal need for security that is created through community, clarity, authority, and respect. Clarity is the most likely element to engender confidence, persistence, resilience, and creativity.
Today’s most respected and successful leaders are able to transform fear of the unknown into clear visions of whom to serve, core strengths to leverage, and actions to take. They enable us to pierce the veil of complexity and identify the single best vantage point from which to examine our complex roles. Only then can we take clear, decisive action.
The ideas and concepts described in this article are attributed to Marcus Buckingham, author of The One Thing You Need to Know:…About Great Managing, Great Leading, and Sustained Individual Success. Buckingham is co-author of two best-selling books: First, Break All the Rules: What the World’s Greatest Managers Do Differently (coauthored with Curt Coffman) and Now, Discover Your Strengths (coauthored with Donald O. Clifton). He is a leading authority on employee productivity and the practices of leading and managing.
Bennis, W. 1994. On Becoming a Leader: The Leadership Classic – Updated and Expanded. Perseus Publishing.
Bennis, W. & Nanus, B. 1997. Leaders: Strategies for Taking Charge. HarperBusiness.
Brown, D. 1991. Human Universals. McGraw-Hill.
Buckingham, M. 2005. The One Thing You Need to Know:…About Great Managing, Great Leading, and Sustained Individual Success. Free Press.
Giuliani, R. & Kurson, K. 2002. Leadership. Miramax Books.
Goleman, D., McKee, A & Boyatzis, R. 2002. Primal Leadership: Realizing the Power of Emotional Intelligence. Harvard Business School Press.