The first, and maybe the most important, is that great leaders maintain a realistic picture. That means that they have a realistic picture of themselves and of their organizations.
It’s important to know yourself as the philosopher enjoins us. That means knowing your strengths and weaknesses. Once you identify those strengths and weaknesses, though, you have to do something with it. Great leaders build on their strengths and work to make their weaknesses irrelevant.
That’s important, because it’s different from what a lot of management development literature tells us. We’re told often to shore up our weaknesses. We’re not told much about developing our strengths. But when you look at great leaders, they build on the strengths that they have and they make those weaknesses irrelevant.
How do you go about making weaknesses irrelevant? There are a couple of specific ways. Way number one is that you get good enough at the area where you have a weakness. You don’t have to be great at it, or even as good as everybody else. You just need to be good enough.
Tactic number two for making your weakness irrelevant is to delegate it or outsource it. Get someone else to handle it. A variant on this is to get someone else to help you with it, such as an Administrative Assistant.
The third thing that you can do to make your weakness irrelevant is simply ignore it. Lots of times the things that we see as major dramatic weaknesses simply aren’t that important. Try not doing the things that you need to do any better for awhile and see if it really makes a difference overall.
It’s not enough just to know yourself, to build on your strengths and make your weaknesses irrelevant. You also need to maintain a realistic picture of your organization and industry. The leaders that I would call great have two particular behaviors that support this.
First, they develop a parallel reporting system. The fact is that when you’re the boss, people tell you what you want to hear when what you need to hear gets muted. That means you have to have alternative ways to get the same information.
One fellow that I studied, the head of a seven million dollar business, opened the company mail every day. That sounds eccentric, but it was his way of staying in control. At some large companies, top executives take a few hours every week to catch calls on the complaint line, or to answer complaint e-mail. You need to find something like that that gives you reporting from outside.
Another behavior that lots of leaders do to get this done is simply wandering around. They get out of their office and into the field. They call on customers. They talk to vendors. They get information directly that otherwise would come through filters.
One more thing, if you’re going to maintain a realistic picture of what’s going on, you have to drive to get behind the information that’s presented to you. Look for the underlying facts. Take aggregate numbers apart. Aggregate numbers that come to you in pieces. Look at things in different ways. Ask questions