Dip into most corporate or business-school curricula on leadership and you'll find a mind-numbing list of skills that the aspiring leader must master, from motivating to communicating to counseling to managing conflict, and on and on. Corporate America has vastly overcomplicated the role of a leader, says Marcus Buckingham, and that's a shame, because those disciplines, while important, fail to get to the heart of true leadership.
For the past two decades, Buckingham, 39, an engaging Cambridge-educated Brit, has had a front-row view of great leadership in action. He spent 17 years researching the world's best leaders and managers for the Gallup Organization. Drawing on Gallup's studies of 80,000 managers and 3 million employees, he wrote two best-sellers: First, Break All the Rules and Now, Discover Your Strengths. Eighteen months ago, he decided to dig deeper. He left Gallup, and instead of focusing on the many, he set out to find the very few leaders who truly excelled. "I became more interested in the vividness of what excellence on the front line really looks like," he says. "By studying one person deeply, you might learn as much if not more than studying 10,000 broadly."
Buckingham sought out old-line outfits such as Walgreens, Best Buy, and Rio Tinto Borax — companies that, lacking the advantages that come with product innovation, must gain an edge by mastering the disciplines of managing and leading. He distilled his key findings into a new book, due out this month: The One Thing You Need to Know...About Great Managing, Great Leading, and Sustained Individual Success (Free Press). Here, in his own words, Buckingham maps out the core concepts that mark superior leadership.
Leaders are Compelled by the Future
There's something unique and different that makes a leader, and it's not about creativity or courage or integrity. As important as they are, you can have those attributes and still fail to be a great leader. A leader's job is to rally people toward a better future. Leaders can't help but change the present, because the present isn't good enough. They succeed only when they find a way to make people excited by and confident in what comes next.
Four years ago, I was at a dinner with Bob Nardelli, who left General Electric after he was passed over for Jack Welch's job. He had just become CEO of Home Depot, and all he talked about was how exciting it would be to take on the challenge of building a better future for Home Depot. And I remember thinking, This guy hasn't had retail experience in 20 years, he's going into a situation where people are expecting him to fail, and he's following two founders — Arthur Blank and Bernie Marcus — who were beloved. Why is he doing this? But listening to him that night, I realized that once he'd seen a better future for Home Depot, every other consideration became irrelevant. He couldn't stop himself. With leaders, the future calls to them in a voice they can't drown out. The future is more real than the present; it compels them to act.
Turn Anxiety into Confidence
For a leader, the challenge is that in every society ever studied, people fear the future. The future is unstable, unknown, and therefore potentially dangerous. So in order to succeed, leaders must engage our fear of the unknown and turn it into spiritedness. By far the most effective way to turn fear into confidence is to be clear — to define the future in such vivid terms that we can see where we are headed. Clarity is the antidote to anxiety, and therefore clarity is the preoccupation of the effective leader. If you do nothing else as a leader, be clear.
Be Clear about Whom You Serve
Leaders can be wrong. They can't be confusing. If we are going to follow you into the future, we need to know precisely whom we are trying to please. It's a scary thing to please all of the people all of the time. So to calm our fear, we need you to narrow our focus. Tell us who will be judging our success. When you do this with clarity, you give us confidence — confidence in our judgment, in our decisions, and ultimately in our ability to know where to look to determine if we have fulfilled our mission.
Denny Clements, the general manager of Toyota's Lexus Group, understands this implicitly. Clements says that the only people Lexus is trying to serve are those for whom time is their most precious commodity. Everything that Lexus does — from how it builds the car to what it puts in the car to the way it services the car — is based on time. Clements knows he doesn't have to be right, because there is no one right answer. But he does have to be clear. If he's clear about which audience Lexus serves, his clarity will infuse his people with the confidence to face the future. In the end, his followers will make him right.
Be Clear About Why You're Going to Win
I'm struck by how often leaders come up with four or five core strengths. We hear it all the time: "Our strengths are our people, our productivity, our creativity, and our efficiency." Somehow, many leaders think their job is to analyze the world's reality and complexity and reflect it back to their people. Not true. As a leader, your job is to make people more confident about the future you're dragging them into. To that end, you need to tell them why they're going to win. There are many competitors out there. Why will we beat them? There are many obstacles in our path. Why will we overcome them? The more clearly you can answer these questions, the more confident we will be, and therefore the more resilient, the more persistent, and the more creative.
Even if it doesn't incorporate all the reality of the world, find the edge — one edge — and talk about it all the time. The more you talk about it, the more it becomes true. So it goes with Brad Anderson, CEO of Best Buy. Best Buy's success over the past few years lies in its ability to identify its core strength and act on it. These days, Anderson is charging around the country telling anyone who will listen that Best Buy's strength lies in the quality of its blue shirts — its employees in the stores. Anderson believes that Best Buy will win if its frontline people are better — better selected, better trained, and better equipped to help the customer. Anderson is different from most leaders in that once he's decided on Best Buy's core strength, he doesn't really talk about anything else. He understands that his job as a leader is to distill the world's complexity and ambiguity — and out of that comes the notion that Best Buy will win because its frontline people are better.
Keep Your Core Score
Having told his people that their strength lay in the intelligence, insight, and creativity of the frontline employees, Anderson took the required next step and identified the one score that would track their progress toward a better future: number of engaged employees. Although Best Buy's success could be measured in a variety of different ways, the company uses 12 simple questions to measure just that. Scoring is even more vivid than saying frontline employees are really important. From a leadership standpoint, a score is actionable and unambiguous.
That clarity is lost if you end up looking at 15 different metrics. It's a terrible leadership failure to tell your employees that all of these measurements are important. When followers are presented with numerous scores, they get confused. The job of a leader is to say, "Of all the things we measure, this is the most important."
If You Want to be Clear, Act
Of course, a leader must take action — action leads to impact. But actions also possess a separate, equally powerful quality. Actions are unambiguous. If you, the leader, can highlight a few carefully selected actions, then your followers will no longer have to infer the future from theoretical pronouncements about "core values" or your "mission statement." We will simply look to see what actions you take and found our faith and confidence on these. But be aware that we respond best to two types of action: symbolic action and systemic action.
Symbolic action is just that — a representation of what the future can look like. Symbolic action grabs our attention; it gives us something new and vivid on which to focus. When Rudy Giuliani was elected mayor of New York, he decided to get rid of squeegee men — street people who demanded payment for cleaning windshields. His action was heavily symbolic: It didn't change New Yorkers' day-to-day lives all that much, but it was a powerful demonstration of what Giuliani meant when he talked about a better quality of life.
Giuliani also instituted a twice-weekly meeting in which more than 100 senior police officers would gather to explain the city's daily crime data and defend their response to it. Giuliani declared that these meetings encouraged accountability and transparency. But the meetings' real power was that they disrupted routines. For a leader, it's important to disrupt routines. Systemic action changes behavior. It makes people realize that the world is going to be different because they're doing different things. The future becomes clearer, and out of that clarity comes confidence.
Effective leaders don't have to be passionate or charming or brilliant. What they must be is clear — clarity is the essence of great leadership. Show us clearly who we should seek to serve, show us where our core strength lies, show us which score we should focus on and which actions we must take, and we will reward you by working our hearts out to make our better future come true.
Bill Breen is Fast Company's senior projects editor.
A version of this article appeared in the March 2005 issue of Fast Company magazine.