quit complicating the uncomplicated

By that, I mean that leadership is not complex. Can it be difficult? Certainly. But we need to remember to keep things as simple as humanly possible.

We read books, articles, white papers, etc.… All in search of a silver bullet, a magic wand, or something that will allow us to leapfrog common sense and simple leadership techniques. We study “The Five Principles of Employee Engagement;” we listen intently to the webinar, “How to Increase Employee Commitment;” we read books on “Motivating Millennials.”

And we don’t get any better. In fact, many could make a good argument that as we study these “new and innovative” techniques our ability to actually lead people gets worse. In other words, the more we “know,” the less we do.

My advice then is simple: just stop it! (love me some Bob Newhart…)

Leadership is really simple. Truly non-rocket surgery sorts of stuff. We rarely get into trouble for failing to “engage” employees, or for failing to “motivate millennials.” Nope, we usually get in a bind because we forgot to set clear expectations, refused to diffuse known conflict, or maybe we just didn’t listen to the feedback we received from interested employees. This is not higher level math. Leadership hasn’t changed much in a couple of thousand years.

The business of leadership is inherently simple. A couple of years ago, I was at Champions Golf Club in Houston Texas as a guest of a good friend of mine (Roy). The owner of the club, Jackie Burke, used to be a PGA Pro, winning the Masters and PGA tournaments. Roy and I were having drinks in the locker room when Jackie came and sat down with us. As we were discussing the strange economic times, Jackie described an event from 50-some years ago. In Jackie’s words…:

chalkboard50I attended a Northeast liberal arts college, before business majors were mainstream. In one class, we had a visiting lecturer from a large nearby business. He explained that he was not a professor, but would do his best nonetheless. He divided our class of 20 into four groups of five; he then went to one chalkboard and wrote in large print the number 50. Walking across the room to the other chalkboard he wrote, in similar size, 51. He instructed us to work in our groups, and explain the significance of these two numbers.

You could feel the intense mental gyrations occurring in each group. These young upstarts, destined to be captains of industry, were churning away. Guessing, postulating, brainstorming… They were so intent at solving the riddle that the visitor had to loudly proclaim that their deliberations were over so they could discuss the results before the class time ran out.

He then asked each group to provide their answers and offer an explanation; and they were aplenty. “Perhaps it’s the age of the successful CEO,” said one group. “It’s the margins necessary for any business to succeed,” said another. Still another opined that perhaps it was the leverage to equity ratio required for long-term success in business. The room was literally abuzz with suggestions, opinions, and outright guesses.

chalkboard51Finally, the visiting gentlemen explain the correct answer: “if you make this,” pointing to the number 50, “don’t spend this,” he said, pointing to the number 51.


To quote Sean Connery, “there endeth the first lesson.”

Now, I always hate to simply offer opinions on matters in these articles. I like to provide some practical tips, so here goes… If you want to know “How to Simplify Leadership,” there are some simple ways:

  1. Communicate. I know, I know… It sounds so simple. Actually, it is. Set expectations — clear expectations — for those you lead. Then, give feedback, letting them know how well they are progressing toward reaching those expectations (or not). Get good at — and insist on — receiving feedback from those you lead. You can’t survive without it. Finally, listen. Learn to really listen. I don’t mean hear; I don’t mean notice; and I don’t mean simply acknowledge. I mean listen.
  2. Set a positive example. Sounds so simple, but we screw this up more than anything else. You must model the behavior that you want your followers to emulate. Remember that leading by example is not a choice, you do it every time you show up. And part of that example must be remaining positive. There is no place for bitching, moaning, whining and complaining in leadership.
  3. Integrity. You’ve gotta have it. Be honest, be consistent. Do what you say you’ll do.

That’s it. Sure, there are plenty of other tips, techniques and methods to fine tune your leadership approach and success. None, however, will trump the simplicity of the three listed above.

occamIn the 1300s there was a theologian and philosopher named William of Occam. Now Billy (I like to call him Billy) was a pretty smart dude. He came up with something (later named after him) called Occam’s Razor, which, simply stated, means that the simplest solution is usually the best. In other words, folks, if you hear hoof beats in the distance it could be zebras… It’s more likely, however, to simply be horses.

Words for leaders to live by.

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