Leadership Principle #1: Give Them Memories
The most important responsibility of leaders—no matter how busy they are and how many other priorities demand their attention—is to make their people feel like they belong.
Opportunities to make our followers feel they belong are all around us, opportunities to “give them memories” so that they know we care about them by investing in them our scarcest resource: time.
Leaders have to develop an instinct for communicating a sense of belonging to their followers and then be alert for opportunities to do so. A private word in the hallway. A compliment at a meeting. The willingness to listen for just a few minutes beyond our usual attention span. The habit of explaining in a constructive way how some paper, proposal, or briefing could have been done better. Beginning conversations with an inquiry about the well-being of the person or their family. A handwritten note to express condolences, congratulations, or appreciation. An unexpected phone call or unannounced visit.
Leadership Principle #2: Make It Matter
We all want to believe that what we do matters. That’s true whether we’re reflecting on our personal life or on our life in the workplace.
One of a leader’s responsibilities is to make sense of things for their followers. As “sense makers,” leaders help those around them understand how their contributions fit into the organization’s accomplishments. They help them appreciate how they matter. The best leaders do this deliberately and the very best do it often.
It’s worth noting that the responsibility to “make it matter” is shared by leader and follower. Each of us should recognize that our life can and should matter. Each of us should embrace the fact that we can make a difference—sometimes in big ways, more often in small ways, so that the aggregate of our lives ultimately matters.
Leadership Principle #3: Learn to Imagine
Imagining has something to do with anticipation and something to do with vision, but that’s just part of it.
Imagination is a learned attribute. It’s some combination of training, experience, and eventually instinct that produces creativity in complex environments at the speed of teamwork.
Not everyone will agree that “imagining” can be learned. Failures of imagination are common. In fact, after major crises, and even after many “catastrophic successes,” leaders will often say, “We never imagined that could happen.”
But leaders can learn to imagine if they place the emphasis on “learn.”
If they learn to listen and to seek to know what the most junior member of their team knows.
If they learn to be alert for weak signals and to avoid becoming complacent, satisfied with information affirming their beliefs.
If they learn to find advisers who will challenge them, encourage them, surprise them.
If they learn to connect disparate thoughts and to become uncommonly articulate.
If they learn to challenge assumptions and to ask the right questions.
If they learn to become comfortable with complexity and wary of simplicity.
If you’re a leader, you will need to exercise your imagination on behalf of your team. But learn first, and then you’ll be able to imagine.
Just like an elite athlete.
Leadership Principle #4: Develop a Bias for Action
As a leader in today’s environment, you may not find yourself responsible for the outcome of an ongoing evolutionary contest, but you will find yourself responsible for the outcome of a contest for the success, the trust, and the confidence of those who follow you in an ever-evolving, ever-changing environment.
And to prevail in that contest, you need to develop a bias for action.
A bias for action is a leadership instinct based on the belief that in order to decide, you must learn, and in order to learn, you must alter the status quo.
A bias for action is a leadership instinct that mitigates decision paralysis and helps you avoid the endless pursuit of that one exquisite piece of information that seems to be all that stands between you and clarity.
A bias for action is the recognition that, in our complex world, learning is active and iterative. We act, we assess, and we act again.
A bias for action is the recognition that facts are vulnerable and that speed matters in the era of digital echoes.
A bias for action won’t solve all of your leadership challenges, but it will energize your organization, keep you alert to both vulnerabilities and opportunities, and illuminate the often-hidden cost of inaction.
The military has a saying: “Lead, follow, or get out of the way.” That’s a bias for action.
Leadership Principle #5: Co-create Context
Decisions are always made in some context. As a result, they produce second- and sometimes even third-order effects that inevitably affect future decisions. So gaining the best possible understanding of context before making decisions produces better decisions.
For example, military commanders in Iraq and Afghanistan quickly learned that destroying infrastructure used by enemy forces might make perfect sense militarily, but in that environment and in that kind of conflict the adverse effect on local civilians could be detrimental to the long-term objective of gaining their support and ending the campaign. The decision to destroy buildings, bridges, and markets
or leave them intact depended on an appreciation of context.
An understanding of context is best achieved when there is collaboration at every level of the organization. We call this the “co-creation of context” to make the point that it is everyone’s responsibility and to highlight—again—that speed matters in the era of digital echoes.
Finding ways to gain the support and insight of the entire organization is imperative. Leaders must recognize that though their experience lends them a valuable discerning eye, a real and complete understanding of complex issues requires perspectives from every part of the organization. We can’t expect to solve our problems effectively until we have this thorough grasp of the problem.
Leadership Principle #6: Relinquish Control to Build and Sustain Power
Rather than attempting to dominate, we suggest that leaders instead learn to relinquish control. Instead of grasping at the control we may feel slipping through our fingers, we should embrace the changing nature of power. We should allow control to flow out of our hands and into the capable, trained hands of the members of our organizations.
The overall goal of leadership is to increase effectiveness and build a history of successes within the organization. In order to champion these successes, a leader must build and preserve power and order within the team. Power affords the leader the ability to act, and order provides predictability in the team’s actions. Preserving power and order, over the long term and at a sustainable cost, is the biggest challenge we face as leaders in our changing world.
Without power, we cannot expect to lead. But leaders often exert control when it is not needed, and at a cost that is not justified. In this new environment, concentrations of power cannot endure. While power remains necessary for effective leadership, the path to sustainable power is no longer through control.
Real power is measured not in degree of control but rather in the ability to find optimum, affordable, enduring solutions to complex problems.
In Iraq and Afghanistan, for example, U.S. military leaders and diplomats learned that to preserve their power to influence tribal, religious, and political leaders they had to willingly and transparently relinquish control over time.
Control is seductive because it creates the perception of power.
Control often produces narrow, suboptimal solutions that struggle to endure.
Control is expensive.