To be more than merely a good leader, there is one thing you need. In the end, people want only a few things from their leaders. Among them is vision, the ability to see a different future and a path to get there. People also look to leaders for hope. The picture of the future must be one they can look forward to. One thing that distinguishes good and great leaders is the ability to simplify — cutting through the chaos and creating focus.
We see complexity and chaos all around us. In any given day and any given organizational problem there are innumerable factors to consider: technical, process, legal, timing, financial, people … and so on. Leaders who provide vision and hope help followers endure that complexity. Vision and hope create an anchor in the future as we fight off distractions and overcome obstacles. Vision gives a direction to head and hope generates motivation to endure the journey.
Leaders provide vision and hope, but if leaders provide only vision and hope, the risk of failure remains high. Our fast-paced, hyper-change, multi-cultural, multi-generational world is just too complex to rely only on vision and hope. Great leaders also help followers deal with the reality of complexity and change by simplifying.
General Colin Powell has said, “Great leaders are almost always great simplifiers.” Simplifying is the skill of seeing through chaos and discerning the truly important issues. Here is an interesting case in point. An important part of the story of Steve Jobs’ return to Apple in 1997 was the deal he struck with Bill Gates. You might recall that when Jobs returned to Apple, it was also announced that Microsoft had made an investment in Apple and a promise to continue developing applications for the platform. This was a stunning announcement to the industry because the two companies had been engaged in a very visible, decade-long copyright and patent battle. Jobs had said to Bill Gates:
If we kept up our lawsuits, a few years from now we could win a billion-dollar patent suit. You know it, and I know it. But Apple’s not going to survive that long if we’re at war. I know that. So let’s figure out how to settle this right away. All I need is a commitment that Microsoft will keep developing for the Mac and an investment by Microsoft in Apple so it has a stake in our success.1
Jobs had cut through ten years of legal, financial, historical, organizational culture, and personal pride issues and simplified the problem into an agreement that he and Gates would hammer out in only four weeks. I’m not sure if Jobs qualifies as a truly great leader. That is another debate. However, Jobs’ ability to simplify a truly complex and significant problem is an example of what great leaders do.
Are you a simplifier? There are three things great leaders must do to be able to simplify any problem.
In simplifying, great leaders tune into the proper “signals” and avoid the “noise.” If you turn off your radio’s digital tuning and manually adjust the frequencies, you will hear a tremendous amount of static. The static is caused by a variety of factors unrelated to the signals you want to receive. In your organization, you must learn to tune into the proper signals and ignore the static.
Great leaders help simplify problems by maintaining focus on the organization’s mission and values. Leaders cannot lose sight of why the organization exists and what is important in the pursuit of that mission. This focus helps simplify problems because while many things are important in the big picture, not all things are important to your organization.
Finally, great leaders simplify problems when they distinguish between heart issues and head issues. Both are important, but it is vital that leaders know the difference between the two, clarify this in communication, and deal with each appropriately. When followers confuse heart and head issue, problem complexity increases. Great leaders help followers navigate problems by helping them see the difference.
Followers, I have some guidance for you, as well. (Leaders, keep in mind that you are followers, too.) When dealing with a difficult problem, sit down with your leader and ask for help in simplifying the problem. Ask your leader to help you tune in the right signals, to help you focus on mission and values, and to distinguish between the heart and head issues. This might trigger an important dialogue that may spread to other followers.
Please share your comments on what you do to simplify problems.
1: Isaacson, Walter. Steve Jobs. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster, 2011. Chapter 24, section “The Microsoft Pact.”