SevenGuidelines For An Effective Leadership Mindset

Just Do It

For years, Nike’s tagline has been “just do it.” This tagline captures exactly the kind of mindset needed for effective leadership: a focus on action rather than on endless deliberation. Management gurus such as Robert Waterman, Tom Peters, Jim Collins, and Rosabeth Moss Kanter have all found in their research that organizations with this “just do it” mentality perform much better than other organizations. Accordingly, they argue that there is nothing worse than an organization that gets paralyzed by analysis—that is, stagnating because any decision is postponed until “all” necessary information is available to make the decision.

Perfect is the enemy of good

In his bestselling book Good to Great Jim Collins argues that “good is the enemy of great.” What he means is that many organizations tend to settle for something that is good enough or okay rather than trying to achieve something really great. In that way, “good” gets in the way of “great.” The opposite, however, is true as well. Aiming for something great—especially if it is the “perfect” strategy, policy or plan—can get in the way of effective leadership. Striving for perfection is like trying to find the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow: it will absorb a lot of effort, but it won’t happen. Therefore, it is useful to keep the “Pareto principle” in mind. It is better known as the 80/20 rule, saying that 80% of the outcomes can be achieved by 20% of the effort. The exact percentages don’t matter, but there is wisdom in this rule. Focusing on achieving 80% rather than 100% can save you a lot of time, money and effort that can be spent on other things, while still having good results.

You can’t have it both ways

In his other bestselling book Built to Last Collins, together with Jerry Porras, tells us that you shouldn’t focus on making choices between A and B, but on realizing both. Thus, you should focus on the long-term and the short-term, change and stability, and purpose and profit. Kim and Mauborgne, in their book Blue Ocean Strategy argue the same: create products that have the best price and the highest added value. That is all nice, but in practice, you will need to make trade-offs all the time. Of course, it is good to try to achieve as much as possible. At any given point in time though, you most likely don’t have the luxury (time, money, people) to get everything you want. Instead, you have to set priorities and make tough decisions about what to do and what not to do.


Find 10,000 ways that won’t work

Effective leadership requires an open mind and eagerness to learn and experiment; not only should you avoid striving for the single best and perfect strategy, policy or plan, but you should also actively try out new things about which you are not so certain. Thomas Edison (the inventor of the light bulb and about a 1,000 other things) had a nice way of saying this: “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” This is exactly the kind of mindset needed for effective leadership, with no fear of failure and even a willingness to fail deliberately, albeit quickly and cheaply. So, rather than sitting behind your desk or discussing things in a meeting room, effective leadership means you put things to the test, learn from this, and adjust.

Persist by pulling out

Most business literature assumes that organizations, and the world more generally, are rather malleable. This implies that organizations and environments can be designed and changed to your liking. Consequently, the advice is to persist and make it happen and “don’t accept no for an answer.” While persistence is crucial for effective leadership, you should also be realistic and flexible. This means that you should be prepared to pull out or change the plan that you are pursuing once you find that it is not feasible. You might perceive this as weak. But expert entrepreneurs also work in this way: they would rather change their goals than chase ones they cannot achieve. Thus, you are in good company. And keep in mind that giving up a particular line of action doesn’t mean that you are quitting. On the contrary, it means that you persist, but challenge your initial assumptions and look for alternative ways for unique and sustainable value creation.

Keep it simple

Organizations and the world we live in are complex and it makes no sense to pretend they are not. But over-complexity is also a problem. Not rarely do leaders develop and initiate complicated projects or programs that are hard to manage, monitor and execute. Such complexity results from trying to develop a complete strategy, policy or plan upfront, before one actually starts executing. This easily leads to “death by planning”—inactivity, delays, budget problems and no tangible results. Therefore, the right mindset is to keep things as simple as they can be. Not simpler, but also not more complicated.

No place for HiPPOs

Traditionally, leadership is a top-down activity. However, getting things done requires contributions from all over the organization. Therefore, what is required is a modest, serving kind of leadership in which leaders’ primary task is to do whatever it takes to get the best out of the organization. Of course, as a leader, you have to pursue your views and make tough decisions if necessary, or else you are not a leader. However, you should also acknowledge and embrace the possibility that others might know better, and get out of their way if that helps make progress. This means there is no place for “HiPPOs.” A HiPPO is someone who believes that the Highest Paid Person’s Opinion is all that counts. HiPPOs are leaders who are so self-assured that they think their ideas and instincts are superior to anyone else’s and any counter-evidence.

A pragmatic mindset

The mindset that is captured in these seven mottos can be best summarized as a pragmatic mindset. It focuses on results and getting things done, rather than finding and aiming for the best possible strategy, policy or plan. Pragmatism is not just a mindset. It is an entire philosophy, a relatively young one that developed in the late nineteenth century in the United States. It is mainly a response to overly rationalistic “truth”-seeking philosophies that are dominant in Western thinking. It is also an attempt to bridge the gap between thinking and doing—between ideas and actions. And that is exactly what we need in this undoubtedly challenging year.


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