I was having breakfast with a board chairman recently and we were tossing around our respective philosophies about the essential qualities of a CEO. While we each had our own list, what we kept coming back to was this notion of focus — or as I put it, managing complexity by mastering simplicity. As Bob Parsanko—my good friend, fellow executive coach and now co-author of our upcoming book—likes to say: Leadership is easy, until it gets hard. To find the core issues, the common threads or themes, the basic matter at hand is a tough discipline the great leaders have mastered. Rudyard Kipling said it best when he wrote “…to keep your head when all about you are losing theirs…” It is all about focus.
Over this and the next two blogs, I will share what my experience with leaders bears out as the top three areas of focus for a CEO. If nothing else, perhaps it may prompt you to refine, articulate and more purposefully live out your key qualities.
Focusing positive energy on a clear vision. This is more than strategy; this is a vision that people can see as their own, a unique and compelling purpose for your enterprise. Knowing why your business is here, the difference you are making in the lives around you, is the stuff of legend. Such sense of significance and ambition attracts the best people, inspires many to do better, and ignites a fierce commitment to the future. I say often that people follow people of purpose; it is no different to have an organization fueled by purpose.
The CEO is the voice of that vision. That voice needs to be unique — simple, consistent and using a vocabulary that is yours alone. (Challenge question: If your vision simply says you want to be the “leader” in your sector, you likely do not have a vision. Nobody knows what that means until you give them a picture of what that “leading” business looks like, acts like, feels like and is accomplishing.)
The other part of this, though, is this notion of positive energy. I see many executives drain themselves by focusing too much on negative influences and distractions in their ranks. Instead, invest fully in those who are standing there with their hands raised, ready to get in the game. Focus on their positive energy and they will pull the organization forward in ways you can never push on your own. If there are stragglers and saboteurs in leadership positions in your business, get rid of them. Seriously. The others will applaud you for it.
The CEO is like someone managing valves — turning some on, some off, but keeping the flow going in the right directions at the right time. Clarity, direction — focus.
Next time: Deciding How to Make Decisions