Why Clearly Communicating Purpose Is The Most Important Leadership Skill

If those you lead don’t understand what you believe in and what your big goals are, they'll never be able to maximize their collective potential. Take it from "Friday Night Lights."

My wife and I recently finished watching the TV series Friday Night Lights (by the way, one of the best programs ever). The show is about a small town in Texas, high school football, and all of life’s wonderful mysteries.

One of the lead characters in the show is Coach Eric Taylor. In the final season, he finds himself leading a group of talented kids who are losing the ability to play as a cohesive team, and thus are falling apart in slow motion. In one short scene, he enters the locker room, and writes a single word on the whiteboard: "State." Through the magic of television, lo and behold, everything starts to turn around. I won’t spoil the finale, but I think Coach Taylor demonstrated the secret to the most powerful leadership skill.

Take, for example, the embattled Yahoo, a company that has struggled for years to define itself and as a result has fallen behind all of its competitors in terms of search, email, news, etc. What the company needed was a leader with purpose, unafraid to choose a path and stick with it. The ultimate question being: Was it a media company or a tech company? While the tech world watched closely for signs of life, CEO Marissa Mayer sent the strongest indicator yet of true change at the company. She declared once and for all that Yahoo is a technology company, doubling down on efforts to improve the product. How has she fared? Over the last six months, Yahoo’s share price has gone from $16 to $24 a share. You tell me.

There are so many characteristics of great leaders. Different circumstances demand different leadership styles. But if I had to choose one characteristic that is most important, I believe it is the ability to clearly communicate your purpose. If those you lead don’t understand what you believe in, what your goals are, and what you personally are willing to do to help get there, they will never be able to maximize their collective potential. I’ve seen this many times with the organizations we work for. Those that do this well prosper and shine. But if leadership struggles with this, inefficiencies and even failures are all too common.

For the first 15 years of running my company, I will admit that this was not one of my strengths. I would always convince myself that I needed to leave my options open, or I needed a little bit more time to figure out the best way to say something—or overthink or complicate what we were actually doing. And I was pretty good at getting too deep in my own head in those days, which didn’t necessarily allow us to reach our full potential. Five years ago, I committed myself to changing this. For example, for years we had internal debates about defining who we were as a company. Were we a digital company? Were we a marketing strategy company? Were we a design studio? Were we an advertising agency? Because the truth is, we were a combination of all those things, and thus felt we were somehow diminishing ourselves by picking a specific label.

Well, I finally got sick of the debate and committed to being a full-service advertising agency, communicating this to everyone on the team. Were we already operating as a full-service advertising agency? Not quite. But by defining ourselves more clearly, we were able to set the course and build ourselves into the company we wanted to be. And the results started to come more easily—even winning recognition by industry bible Advertising Age as its 2011 Small Agency of the Year. Now, my job as leader is to continually articulate and evolve this purpose as both new clients and employees join the fold. Communication of who we are at our core is never over.

I really think this idea applies to all leaders, whether you’re heading a PTA group, a platoon, a sports team, a community, or a company. If you can clearly communicate your purpose, who knows, (spoiler alert!) maybe you too can pull off a miracle, just like the great Coach Taylor.

[Image: Flickr user Andrew Morrell]

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