The core of all effective leadership really comes down to this. It all has to make sense. Everyone has to be able to start with "I think...". Not "Mr. X says..." Not "policy is.." Not "I was told..." but "I think..."
For this to work, leaders have to be firmly grounded in a shared vision and they have to be committed to maintaining integrity in the sense above. Values, principles, objectives, strategies, communications, performance evaluations, policies, processes, commitments all have to be constantly integrated. Leaders who force themselves to be able to say "I think..." before a comprehensive view of all of these things can lead from the core. Just as it is painful to do the exercises to strengthen your physical core, so it can be painful to maintain core leadership strength in this sense. It is very easy to get "out of shape" by neglecting core values, objectives, strategy and execution alignment. But without a strong core, none of the most important leadership attributes - authenticity, inspiration, strategic vision, followership, transformational impact - are possible.
Leaders who "skip the abs work" can get some things done and, depending on their good fortune and / or cleverness, some achieve material success. But no one remembers them. No great change is ever led by them. No great leaders are ever developed by them. Leading durable transformational change and developing great leaders requires core strength.
So how do you develop core strength? A great mentor and an already established values-based vision and strategy can help get you started, but you always end up having to do the work to build your own core yourself. Here are some little exercises that can help. There is nothing particularly deep here and there are lots of variations on these practices. The point is to regularly and critically focus on core integrity.
Look-back sit-ups. Starting once a week and working up to once a day, look back on all of the decisions, communications and interactions that you had and explain how it is possible that one person did all of these things. I guarantee that if you are really observant and critical, you will find lots of little inconsistencies - things that in retrospect you can't say, "I think..." in front of. For each of these, you have two choices: either come up with an alternative course of action that, had you done it, would have made sense; or modify whatever aspects of your vision, strategy or values it is inconsistent with (or more precisely, resolve yourself to conceive and align the necessary changes with your team, your peers and your leadership). Done honestly, this is painful. Think of each example as a little integrity sit-up. Here are a couple of concrete examples.
- Suppose that last week you negotiated an extension to a service contract. In exchange for a healthy rate reduction, you doubled the term length and added minimums to the contract. This will help achieve your annual opex reduction goal; but your agreed upon strategy is to ensure supplier flexibility and aggressively manage demand in the area covered by the contract. Your decision basically said near-term opex reduction was more important than flexibility or demand management. Either your strategy was wrong or your decision was wrong. To be one person, you need to either acknowledge the mistake or harmonize the decision with the strategy.
- Last week you agreed with your leader and peers in a semi-annual performance ratings alignment meeting that one of your direct reports was not fully meeting expectations in some key areas. You agreed to deliver the "needs improvement" message in these areas in his performance appraisal and to adjust his overall rating downward. You did change the rating and some of the verbiage in the assessment; but when you delivered the review and he challenged the overall rating, you were swayed by his arguments and in the end you admitted that you had been told to adjust the rating downward. Here either you failed to consider everything when agreeing to the rating adjustment or you were overly influenced by the feedback.
Virtual 360 crunchies. Again starting once a week and working up to daily, imagine you are specific person on your team, in your company or a partner (alternate among randomly chosen people from these groups) and respond to the question, "What is most important to X?" where X is you. Don't just repeat goals or big initiative names or repeat your own communications. Actually try to imagine what it would be like being the selected person and what they really think is important to you and how that relates to what they do on a day to day basis. Think about how they would say it in their own words, not yours. If you can't do it, or what naturally comes out is far from what you see as your core, you have two options. Either you have a communication problem - i.e. there is no way this person can have a clear understanding of what is important to you because you have failed to communicate it - or you don't make sense from their vantage point. In the first case, you need to work on communication and in the second, you need to patch whatever holes exist in your vision, strategy or values that make you incomprehensible to this person. Here are some examples.
- You have recently been promoted from a marketing leadership position to leading an entire business unit, including sales and operations. You have communicated your growth strategy, which is heavily top-line focused. You are also facing significant cost containment pressure. You know that learning about operations is critical to your success and you have been asking a lot of questions of your operations leadership team, focusing on quickly identifying some areas where you can cut costs. Your broad-scale communications have made high level references to "operations excellence" and "empowerment," but you have not provided any details on your plans for operations. Now suppose your randomly selected person for virtual 360 is a first level manager in operations. It is hard to imagine that she would not say that what you care about is top line revenue growth and cutting costs and what she does on a day-to-day basis is "not important to you."
- You are a well-respected leader of a software engineering team. There are 10 products in your portfolio. You have developed a robust set of goals for the organization, cascaded effectively through the team. There are 5 top-level goals, each of which has been broken down by each of the teams in your group. You know every product and team inside out and you regularly do "deep dives" at the product level. Your communications are detailed, often focusing on knowledge-sharing across the group and encouraging collaboration among teams. Imagine that the virtual 360 candidate is an engineer working on one of the products. He might say something like, "Let me go look at the goals statement. I know the features we are working on are important because she mentioned them in the deep dive last week."
I have never met a leader who did not have small or large "core integrity" problems to deal with from time to time. The great ones recognize them quickly and get whatever help they need to build and maintain a strong core.