What do leaders really do?

Everything it seems, from the collapse of society to sporting success can be put down to good and bad leadership. Such is our fascination with leadership that a quick internet search will reveal more than 100,000 books on the subject. Most of these will cover theories and models, but it seemed to me that it would be better to learn about leadership from people who knew about it first-hand, so I set out to meet with a number of leaders from business, the military and sport to ask them what it was that they really did.

So what did I find? In essence, great leaders do three things:

- They dictate the direction of their organisation- They narrow the vision of the organisation down to a simple, clear objective and a narrow range of priorities- They recognise that setting goals and objectives is essential for success

On this third point, the former world and Olympic 400 metre champion Michael Johnson put it beautifully when he said: “I craft my dreams into ambitions... I refine my ambitions into goals... I turn my goals into plans.”

The British Olympic swimmer Adrian Moorhouse says much the same thing when he tells the story of how he won gold. Moorhouse planned to become Olympic champion at the age of 12, having just watched the 1976 games. With the help of an understanding coach, he worked out the difference between his own best time in the 100 metres breaststroke (78 seconds) and the time they expected the gold medal winner to race in eight years' time... 63 seconds. The coach explained to Moorhouse that the 15 second gap would be closed if the budding athlete improved his performance by less than 1/5,000th of a second per day over the next eight years. Moorhouse rose to the challenge and duly delivered the gold medal in 1988.

Moorhouse, it turns out, was using a 'goal setting' technique that's been employed by countless Olympians: first set an outcome goal (in this case, Olympic success) then attach a performance goal (63 seconds). After that, it's all about focusing on the process of delivering those outcomes.

To focus on this process, however, your team will need to be motivated and a key element of motivation is communication. Good communication is 'two-way' and great leaders go to great lengths to engender two-way communication. When Greg Dyke became director general of the BBC he was very aware that his predecessor John Birt had been accused of being remote, aloof and, particularly, London-centric. So, very deliberately, Dyke spent his first 100 days out of London, visiting locations that no BBC director general had ever visited before.

Dyke used this tour as an opportunity to speak to as many people as he could at al levels of the organisation, asking them all the same two questions; “What one thing should we do to improve our service?” and “What one thing should I do to improve your working life?” Dyke then spent his second 100 days implementing as many of those suggestions as he could. The whole process took more than six months, but when it was finished Dyke had 17,500 employees of the BBC onside, following him. Dyke realised that without followers, you're not a leader.

Not everyone can spend 200 days on a communications project, but all leaders need to find the time for dialogue. Every day, every leader will be approached by at least one member of their team asking if they 'have a minute'. What these people are really asking is 'can I have a few moments of your undivided attention?'

Some year ago, I interviewed the YO! Sushi founder Simon Woodroffe in front of a live audience. This began as quite a disconcerting experience as there was a marked pause between the end of each of my questions and the beginning of Woodroffe's reply. However, all became clear after a few minutes when Woodroffe explained, saying “A few years ago I realised that when I was in conversation, about half way through the other person speaking I began to formulate my response an, as a result, was no longer listening 100 per cent. So now I've taught myself to listen and, only when the other person has stopped talking, consider my reply.” Most leaders live very much in 'the now' and find it very difficult to give such undivided attention, but it's something that many should learn.

Perhaps the biggest challenge faced by any leader is the management of change. Change is generally a good thing;  change delivers innovation, change delivers continual improvement and change can deliver better performance. However, there is one major drawback to change... human beings don't like it. Change change is complicated, change is stressful, change is inherently messy.... but change will probably be a necessity for your organisation to remain successful. Leaders need to recognise the need for change, mus be motivated to make that change and must be prepared to take others with them.

If you are to change, though, you will need to challenge and question everything. None of us will ever have all the answers and I take the view that If you're not going to have all the answers you need to equip yourself with most of the questions. Einstein was once asked 'If you were given an hour to solve a problem that your life depended upon, what would you do?' Einstein replied that he would spend the first 55 minutes determining what was the right question, because he would be confident that he could answer it in five minutes.

So are you asking the right question? I wouldn't presume to tell you what the right question is, but I would offer you four questions which will provide debate and discussion around your organisation’s performance:

- What are the good things you do that you must keep doing?- What are the bad things you do that you must stop doing?- What are the things you do occasionally that you must do consistently?- What things don't you do that you must start doing?

The last of these is the most difficult, because we don't know what we don't know. A good way to find out, though, is to ask someone who's relatively new to your organisation. This will work even better if you've already taken the time to establish good two-way communications.

Successful organisations learn from their past performance; they review both successes and failures because, as Lord Coe once put it “If you don't know why you've failed, how can you improve and if you don't know why you've succeeded, then it must have been an an accident.” The reality is that most organisations examine their failures and celebrate their successes. In fact, they should examine both because it's success that they're trying to replicate... not failure.

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