White-Hot Leadership - Next Action Associates

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Pretty much since I’ve been in business, there has been a discussion about leading versus managing. Recently I got to wondering: what, really, is the difference between a “manager” and a “leader”? Great leaders need to manage, at least a bit, and great managers need to lead some of the time. Management has been described as deploying resources to reach objectives, but leading people involves something more.

This is because we all know that people, unlike say raw iron ore, produce dramatically different results based on how they think and feel about what they are doing. They can communicate, collaborate, and interoperate to create innovative gains that exceed the sum total of the “parts” involved. Ore can’t.

So how do true leaders (as opposed to just re-labelled managers) facilitate these kinds of gains with their people? There are countless books on the subject, but time and again I come back to a single, learnable skill that seems to make the difference over the long term between good leaders and great ones. In a word, it is: clarity. Just as the smelting pot clarifies out the good metal from the raw, rock-like input, so too does a truly white-hot leader create clarity for themselves and those around them—both in relation to the goals, and how to get there.

One aspect of clarity is inspiration. Antoine de Saint-Exupéry wrote, “To create a ship is not to weave the canvas, to forge the nails, to read the stars, but rather to convey the taste of the sea.” The more you can vividly depict what success is like and why it will be wonderful, the more people will want to come along with you. People also get inspired by those they want to emulate, and here is where “leadership by example” comes into play.

So, that said, how good are the pictures of success you have been painting for yourself and those around you? Are the projects in your GTD system clearly stated as recognisable outcomes? What about your goals and visions for the longer term? Do they inspire you? If not, chances are they are unlikely to inspire anyone else.

Another aspect of clarity is continual reinforcement of direction. Long-range missile guidance systems are now capable of hitting targets within centimetres of accuracy from hundreds of kilometres away. They do not do so by a “set it and forget it” approach, but continually adjust direction as they encounter new conditions along the way. The “leadership” mechanism inside them never loses sight of the target, and its feedback to the steering system is swift and actionable, based on a clear understanding of exactly what is taking place now and what needs to take place to hit the bull’s-eye.

So how are your Projects Delegated and Waiting-For lists doing? Do you know who has the next step with that major new initiative? Or perhaps the action is back with you–is it on your own list somewhere to respond  in some way to keep things moving forward? Creating clarity doesn’t just mean the “set it and forget it” of a one-time inspirational speech at the kick-off meeting. In my experience, the best leaders have not only grand visions, but an ability to hone in almost instantaneously when something is off course. Experienced in action, it can seem like the leader has a sixth sense. In practice, good GTD lists and clear action-and-outcome thinking are tried-and-true mechanics to make this happen.

People in positions of individual contribution often look up to line-level managers with envy, thinking their jobs are easier. Anyone who has been promoted knows that, in fact, a whole new skill set is required to tackle a whole new level of ambiguity. Likewise, transitioning from the line level into true leadership–or, in fact, exhibiting leadership anywhere, at any level of the organisation–requires a completely different type of skilled behaviour as well.

Observing and striving for this behaviour for many years, I have come to the conclusion that, all other things being equal, the most effective leaders over time are clarifiers. Anything and everything that comes into their world, they return with greater clarity in relation to the goal. In this day and age where we are flooded with emails–one vague and ambiguous subject line stacking on top of the next in our inbox–the people who can make things clear for us are truly inspiring, truly motivational, truly the ones we want to emulate. They are not only effective, but catalyse effectiveness all around them.

If you have made it to the end of this article, your reward is the following challenge: for the rest of the day, in your interactions with others and in processing your own raw inputs into your trusted GTD system, be conscious of how you are contributing to the sum total of greater clarity for yourself and those around you. Then notice how people respond to this clarity that you create. Perhaps you will see a few more smiles, or sighs of relief.

The decision to lead by creating clarity is a choice that is always available, moment to moment, and at every level of the organisation chart. The practice is an on-going discipline, but the rewards of this practice include greater motivation, innovation, engagement, and sustained success.

Go forward. Be clear.

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