7 Things All Great Leaders Do (Part I)

If you were asked, “What are the handful of things that all great leaders do?” what would you say in response?

Note: If you can’t respond immediately (or aren’t sure at all), that’s a big problem. Why? Because if you’re not clear in your mind as to what great leaders do, then chances are you’re not regularly engaged in those activities. And if you’re not regularly engaged in these seven activities/practices, then you’re hindering the growth of your business.

Why would I say that? Because, as I say all the time, the senior leader of a business or organization is both the primary reason for that business’s success as well as its primary bottleneck since no business or organization can consistently perform at a level beyond their senior leader’s capacity. Which means that if you’re not regularly engaged in these seven practices, you’re not leveraging all the potential power that great leadership can unleash in your business.

So, if you’d like to turn that around and start creating more leverage and accelerated growth for your business, here are seven things that all great leaders do on a consistent basis that you can do as well.

I. Clarify What Really Matters

By definition, leadership is a forward-looking endeavor. You can’t lead people someplace if you’re not clear on where that someplace is. On any given day, there are ten thousand options available to you and you people. It’s your job, as the leader, to narrow those options down and say, “Here’s where we’re going and here’s how we’re going to act in the process of getting there.”

Unfortunately, way too many business owners and entrepreneurs leave way too much up for chance. Note: this is not about micro-management. Rather it’s about painting boundaries.

For example, if you think the key to success for your business this year is to stay focused on one vertical but you don’t want to “hinder the spirit” of your sales people so you allow them to pursue any vertical/lead they want, that’s not great leadership. On the other hand, if you believe that the key to success this year is going to be expanding outside the vertical that you’ve been in for the past ten years, but your sales people feel most comfortable calling on people in that vertical, that’s not great leadership either.

Great leadership is about defining the playing field. It’s about saying, “Here’s where we’re going to play this year.” And then letting people play within those boundaries. Abdication is not leadership. Clarifying what matters is.

Furthermore, it’s about clarifying how your people are supposed to act on the way to getting there. For example, your people can do “good enough” work or they can do remarkable/excellent work. If you’re not consistently calling them to excellence, chances are they won’t consistently achieve it. Why? Because the tug/pull to the mean is normal and natural—apart from an external call to greatness.

Culture is present in every organization. Poor leaders let it just happen. Great leaders shape it by clarifying what really matters.

So, how are you doing at clarifying what really matters for your people—both in terms of where you’re going and how they’re supposed to act on the way to getting there?

II. Cast Vision Continually

Once you’ve clarified what really matters, the next step is to cast that vision over and over again until, as I’ve written before, your people begin imitating you saying it. It’s virtually impossible to over-communicate and cast vision too much.

Unfortunately, most leaders mess up here. If they do cast vision, it’s once a year when they unveil the new strategic plan for the year (and then move on). However once a year doesn’t work. Why? Because vision leaks … typically within 24-72 hours. And why is that? Life gets in the way. Once your “vision meeting” is done, your people go back to their jobs and the 273 items on their to do lists. Then they go home, where they have another long list of to do’s, etc. and within one to three days, they’ve completely forgotten your vision piece.

In other words, if you want to be a great leader, you have to stop thinking about vision casting as an event and start thinking about it as a way of life. You should be casting vision every day and in virtually every encounter and communication you have with your people. Call them to something bigger all the time.

For example, if Sally isn’t filling out her forms fast enough or accurate enough, don’t just critique her on the forms, remind her why these forms matter.

“Sally, the reason we need you to fill these forms out faster and more accurately is because we’re in the business of supplying scientific supplies to the National Institutes of Health. Which means we’re in the business of helping scientists cure diseases so that all of us can live on a healthier planet. So, while you may think this is just another requisitions form passing across your computer screen, it’s not. It’s something much bigger. You actually are playing a role in helping us create a healthier planet …”

Likewise, if someone isn’t following a core value, then don’t just critique the action, remind them of the value. For example,

“George, when you saw Angela was in need and you chose not to help her, do you know why that was the wrong choice? It was because you violated one of our core values (service, collaboration, generosity, teamwork, etc. you pick the value). What you did was wrong because you acted in a way that’s inconsistent with who we are …”

Every day in every way, from written to spoken language, you should be casting vision. So, how are you doing? If you need a quick test to help you evaluate just ask yourself, “How many times have I cast vision over the past week?” Whatever your answer, double it (unless it’s zero, of course).

III. Assemble the Best Team Possible (and leverage them)

All great leaders are talent connoisseurs. Why? Because they know that the people who they surround themselves with will determine their success. As you’ve heard me say many time before, leadership is about producing results through other people. Leadership isn’t about what you do, it’s about what your people do. So, the better your people are, the better your results will be.

Unfortunately, way too many leaders settle for and surround themselves with less than A players. Sometimes it’s because they just want to hire someone fast and aren’t willing to wait for the right person. Sometimes, it’s because the B or C player is a friend (even worse, someone who was an A player years ago who is now a C player). Sometimes it’s because they don’t want to pay for an A player (thinking that filling a position is the same thing as producing results). Sometimes it’s because they thought they could coach the C or B player into becoming an A player. And sometimes it’s because they’re intimidated by people who are better or smarter than they are (i.e. it’s an esteem or ego issue).

Regardless of what, what amazes me is how long business owners and entrepreneurs will hang on to underperforming people. They’ll argue and try to justify hanging on to people who they know can’t take them where they need to go. Why? Makes no sense to me. Leadership is about creating leverage. And the better your people are, the greater the leverage.

Talent is just about everything in business. If you get the right team together, the sky is the limit. If you don’t, you can’t. Every great leader gets this, which is why they’re always on a talent search. Every encounter, every meeting, every conference they’re building their virtual bench of who they’ll invite on the team now or who they could tap if they need to at some point in the future because they know they need the best team on the field possible in order to win.

Then, once they have those talented people on their team, they coach and resource those people as needed so they get the maximum amount of leverage possible.

So, based on that, how are you doing at assembling the best team possible (and then leveraging them)? If you want to honestly check how you’re doing, pull out your org chart and put a letter grade next to everyone in your organization. Are they all A’s? If not, you know you have some work cut out for you (especially, if your direct reports aren’t all A players). You can’t build a great business with B and C players. You need A players.

Now, I know I originally promised you a list of seven things all great leaders do in my title (and we’ve only gotten through three). However, since I’m guessing you’d prefer not to read a 3,000 word blog post, I’ve decided to cut this post into two parts. But, hopefully, I’ve given you have enough thought provoking content for one day.

1. Clarify what really matters.
2. Cast vision continually
3. Assemble the best team possible (and leverage them)

Next week, I’ll give you the remaining four.

To your accelerated success!

P.S. If you have some comments on these first three or would like to suggest your list of top leadership practices, just add them below in the comments section (or click here >> if you’re reading this by RSS or email)