by Michael Useem, Professor of Management and Director of the Leadership Center, Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania
A checklist is only as good as its underlying foundation, and the foundation is only as solid as the materials and engineering that go into it. That also applies to effective leadership, which I believe can be distilled into a set of core principles that help leaders navigate complex challenges around the world.
To build a Leader’s Checklist, I have tapped not only my own experience but also that of an array of investigators, researchers, thinkers, and managers. I have concluded that management experience points to a core of just 15 mission-critical leadership principles that vary surprisingly little among companies or countries:
1. Articulate a Vision: Formulate a clear and persuasive vision and communicate it to all members of the enterprise.
2. Think and Act Strategically: Set forth a pragmatic strategy for achieving that vision both short- and long-term, and ensure that it is widely understood; consider all the players, and anticipate reactions and resistance before they are manifest.
3. Honor the Room: Frequently express your confidence in and support for those who work with and for you.
4. Take Charge: Embrace a bias for action, of taking responsibility even if it is not formally delegated, particularly if you are well positioned to make a difference.
5. Act Decisively: Make good and timely decisions, and ensure that they are executed.
6. Communicate Persuasively: Communicate in ways that people will not forget; simplicity and clarity of expression help, as do elements ranging from personal actions to grand events.
7. Motivate the Troops: Appreciate the distinctive intentions that people bring, and then build on those diverse motives to draw the best from each.
8. Embrace the Front Lines: Delegate authority except for strategic decisions, and stay close to those most directly engaged with the work of the enterprise.
9. Build Leadership in Others: Develop leadership throughout the organization.
10. Manage Relations: Build enduring personal ties with those who look to you, and work to harness the feelings and passions of the workplace.
11. Identify Personal Implications: Help everybody appreciate the impact that the vision and strategy are likely to have on their own work and future with the firm.
12. Convey Your Character: Through gesture, commentary, and accounts, ensure that others appreciate that you are a person of integrity.
13. Dampen Over-Optimism. Counter the hubris of success, focus attention on latent threats and unresolved problems, and protect against the tendency for managers to engage in unwarranted risk.
14. Build a Diverse Top Team: Leaders need to take final responsibility, but leadership is also a team sport best played with an able roster of those collectively capable of resolving all the key challenges.
15. Place Common Interest First. In setting strategy, communicating vision, and reaching decisions, common purpose comes first, personal self-interest last.
To illustrate just one of the principles, consider the last, placing common mission ahead of personal interest, especially when its seems least natural to do so. This precept is well captured in a U.S. Marine Corps dictum: “The officer eats last.” In business, it appears in author Jim Collins’ appraisal as one of the defining qualities of those who lead their companies from “good to great.”
And it emerged as a vital theme when I interviewed Samuel Palmisano this past January. He said that if you don’t put yourself first, then leadership decisions become easier.
“Because if you’re worrying about your reputation or your legacy or whatever – you put something first beyond the institution – then it’s hard because your reasoning is clouded,” he explained. It is best to look at your leadership decisions and say, “No, it’s not about me. It’s about the future of the IBM company. How does IBM stay sustainable for the next 100 years?”
Editor’s note: This post is the first in an occasional series, NextGen Leaders, which presents expert points of view on what it takes to lead in today’s global economy.