What YOU Really Need to Lead – Book Summary

leadership - what you really need to lead

What you really need to lead by Robert Kaplan

Despite what you may have heard about leadership being a natural ability or something you’re born with, leadership is a skill that can be learned. Some people may have innate traits, but this doesn’t mean they will be an effective leader. On the flip side, even if someone is missing certain innate traits, it doesn’t mean they can’t be an effective leader. Many people have a hard time deciding if leadership is natural or if it is a skill because leadership means something different to everyone.

What does leadership mean to you? Is it someone who inspires, takes charge, motivates others toward a common purpose, and predicts future trends, or is it someone who has vision, charisma, and empowers and serves others, or is it someone who gets results and creates an environment that enables subordinates to be proactive and innovative? Ideas of what it takes to be a leader vary. For us to decide if someone is a good leader, we have to clearly define what leadership is. That’s what this book aims to do. Remember, leadership is something you have to work at, and it may be harder for some, but anyone can become an effective leader.

The ownership mind-set

Think and act like an owner

You don’t need a written invitation to be a leader. It is a mind-set and way of behavior that begins today

I recently read Extreme Ownership, and that’s what this section of the book is all about. First and foremost, you have to have the right mind-set to be an effective leader. What is the Ownership mind-set you ask? It’s the “willingness to put oneself in the shoes of a decision maker and think through all of the considerations that the decision maker must factor into his or her thinking and actions.” It’s about thinking bigger – you want to think beyond your narrow set of specific responsibilities. Pretend you’re responsible for the whole situation; pretend you’re the boss. It may feel uncomfortable, but try to think several levels up.

Ownership mind-set involves three essential elements:

1 – Can you figure out what you believe, as if you were an owner?

  • Put yourself in the owner’s shoes. Consider all the factors, gather all the information, consider alternatives, analyze, and seek advice and input to come up with a balanced judgment.

2 – Can you act on those beliefs?

  • Find a way to act, even if there are risks and fears.
  • Leaders don’t want yes men. So, don’t play it safe – speak up on your convictions
  • Don’t agree with the boss just to please. Effective leaders want your input.
  • Act as if you were the owner

3 – Do you act in a way that adds value to someone else? Do you take responsibility for the positive and negative impacts of your actions on others?

  • Great businesses and profitability come as a result of adding value
  • Do you create an environment where your people are empowered, encouraged, and rewarded for acting this way?

Leadership is about what you do, it’s not about your title. You must take ownership of your convictions (what you believe should be done), actions, and impact on others. How can you enhance your ability to behave with an ownership mind-set? What’s holding you back?

Tackling the challenges of leadership

Making a commitment to learning, asking the right questions, seeking advice, and fighting through isolation

I have come to believe that, for the most part, people fail to reach their potential and lead because they neglect (or are unable) to build their capacities to clearly understand their situations and, even more importantly, to understand themselves.

No one has all the answers, and the same is true if you’re a leader. Leaders who think they have all the answers are putting themselves at a real disadvantage. We have to stay open to learning, asking questions, and seeking advice. Are you able to admit when you need help or don’t know? Are you able to give up power by empowering others?

Leadership is a journey, so you will never “arrive” – your capacity to learn and adapt will never end.

  • Listen (really listen without interrupting) with an open mind and a motivation to learn
  • Be open to changing your mind. Don’t blindly defend your position. Be open to new information.
  • Be willing to admit your mistakes.
  • Harness the power of the team – Leaders must ask the right questions and then empower their group to step up, debate, and resolve issues.
  • Don’t be afraid to ask questions and admit what you don’t know.
  • Increase face to face interactions
  • Ask for feedback (ask supervisors, peers, and subordinates for suggestions/advice).
  • Involve everyone in the decision making process
  • Be yourself and don’t be afraid of vulnerability (humanize yourself – remove the “mask”)
  • Confront issues, give feedback, and share concerns with colleagues so you can work toward a solution

If we are to lead, it’s critical that we fully understand the situation and ourselves. Using the advice above, you will better understand the circumstances more clearly and be better equipped to act. Working with your team is going to yield far superior results rather than a top down approach.

Mastering the essential processes of leadership

A regimen for learning how to think and act like an owner

1- Get clear on your vision, priorities, and alignment.

Leadership is about framing the right questions rather than having all the answers.

Vision – Where are you going? Why? How do you distinctively add value? You vision should be about adding value rather than making profits. Are you articulating your vision to your employees? When you do, you empower them to figure out what they believe and then act on those beliefs.

Vision is the why of what the company is doing every single day

Priorities – Tasks that the company needs to execute at a high level of quality in order to add value that is distinctive.

Top priorities might be: attract, retain, and develop key staff; build superb relationships with key customers; innovate new products and services; invest in world-class information technology to manage inventory and analyze customer information.

Work with your team and get their input when developing these priorities. Once you have developed these priorities, they must be communicated across the organization.

Alignment – These are the everyday actions and decisions you make. It is vital that each action you take is in alignment with the overall vision and priorities. When you have to make a key decision, bounce it off of the vision and priorities to see if it lines up or if it needs to be adjusted. Kaplan suggests some design factors that you should ensure are in alignment with your vision and priorities: the people you hire, key tasks you must do well, doing the right key tasks, formal organization, leadership style, and culture.

Each decision you make should be through the lens of whether this decision helps you achieve the vision and accomplish your key priorities.

Clean sheet of paper exercise: Get 4-5 of your key players or top performers. Ask them how they would structure the organization, who would they put in key roles, what tasks would the organization focus on, what leadership style would work best, etc. This is a great way to get a new perspective and to identify your blind spots.

2 – Understanding yourself – you can’t reach your potential if you aren’t willing to look in the mirror and ask some tough questions about yourself.

You have to own this process. Your capacity to understand yourself has an impact on your ability to do your job every day.

Do you know why you do what you do? Do you know what your trigger points are? Do you know your strengths and weaknesses? Get clear on what your strengths and weaknesses are. It may be hard to identify these yourself, so ask for feedback from your peers and supervisors. The first step is not to make an action plan on how to fix these weaknesses; the first step is to become aware of them.

What skills do you need to be great at your job? What tasks do you need to perform at a high level of competence? How do those tasks fit in with your strengths and weaknesses? Remember, you don’t need to be awesome at everything – you don’t have to do everything your self. When you understand your strengths and weaknesses, you will become a more effective leader – you will know your limitations and where you need help from others.

Calibrate your skills in light of the top three or four tasks you must perform at a high level of competence in your current or prospective job.

What are you passionate about? Passion is the fuel that drives performance. You may have bad days or weeks, but passion is what’s going to pull you through those times. What do you love to do? Based on your passions, would you find a different job, would you focus on creating stronger relationships?

The truth is that you can add value to others throughout your life. Get in the habit of trying to understand your passions. It will help you shine. It will also serve as an excellent lens for deciding how to structure your job at work, what to delegate, and how to identify your dream job at every stage of your life.

What’s your story? Kaplan tells us that we tell two different stories about ourselves: our success story, which we tell others, and our failure narrative (self-doubt narrative), which we tell ourselves and keep to ourselves. Kaplan suggest that we write down our failure narrative so that we can become aware of how it might be having an impact on your behavior. Do you know why you have these self doubts? How do your self doubts impact your ability to lead?

What are your values? Where are your boundaries when it comes to legal, economic, and ethical factors? What are your standards of behavior? These standards start at the top, so it’s important that you identify where you are at with these issues.

You can’t do this alone

Learning to build relationships and harness the power of a group

You’re much more effective as a leader when you use the power of the group. By harnessing the power of the group, you will be able to see blind spots and get different perspectives that enable you to understand the situation more clearly. Key elements of working with others isn’t about charm, speaking ability, and a winning personality, it’s about:

learning to act and interact with others: disclosing passions, sharing your ideas with others, confiding your doubts and apprehensions, asking questions of others in order to learn from them and about them, listening with an open mind, and seeking feedback and advice.

A relationship requires three components: mutual understanding, mutual trust, and mutual respect.

Ironically, for all the efforts that we all put into being liked by those around us – our peers, friends, bosses, and subordinates – mutual trust, understanding, and respect turn out to be far more important to building a sustainable relationship.

How to build strong relationships

1 – Self-disclosure – telling someone something about yourself (passions, stresses, in-depth information, etc.). We are very guarded these days, especially at work, and with e-mail, and less face to face interaction. When you disclose something to someone, you build trust, understanding, and respect for one another.

2 – Inquiry – People are very hesitant to share information about themselves unless you ask. Even then, it may take some prodding, but generally, people will open up after a bit. Ask about their lives and passions and they will appreciate that you are trying to understand them better.

3 – Seeking advice – Seeking advice is a great way to show that you respect their opinion. You will learn a new perspective and you will also feel closer to the other person – win-win.

Another key to building strong relationships and teams is to seek feedback. As you know, you probably won’t get feedback unless you ask for it. Don’t just seek feedback from your supervisors, but also look to your peers and even your subordinates. It’s perfectly acceptable to ask your subordinate (one on one) for honest, constructive feedback. Ask them point blank – “Could you give me one specific piece of advice regarding how I could improve my performance?”, “What could I do better or differently.” Really urge them to give you something and don’t intimidate them. Once they have given you some feedback, thank them for it.

When you ask people for their feedback, they will respect the fact that you’re trying to develop yourself and hone in on your weaknesses. Don’t take it personally either! You may not particularly like the feedback.. it’s hard to hear honest feedback at times, but remember, this will make you better in the long run. It’s vital that you identify blind spots – you don’t know what you don’t know (even when it comes to your own behavior).

The power of the group – As you know by now, the power of the group will help you get better insights. When you ask a group for advice on a situation, they take more of an ownership mentality, they feel empowered, and they will probably come up with better solutions than you could alone. Your job as the leader is to frame an issue for them to debate (share info, do in-depth analysis, and ask framing questions to draw out insights). The group has to have all the pertinent info and a shared understanding of the problem.

It’s vital that everyone is on the same page and are making the same assumptions. If they can’t agree on the basic facts, then they will all have a different analysis, and they won’t agree on anything else. Always start with laying out the facts and getting a shared understanding when you are facing a challenging issue. Then they can ask questions of each other, brainstorm options, come up with pros and cons for each, and think through the details each option (impacts, considerations, second and third order effects).

Brainstorming is a very specific variant of this process. In brainstorming, you are not trying to get to a solution. You are trying, instead, to relax constraints and use your imagination to develop potentially useful ideas.

Seek feedback and empower your people to give their views as if they were owners

Most leaders fail because they become isolated and lose their ability to learn. This is why it’s so important to really listen to those around you, be proactive in sharing information, continue learning, and seek feedback – build relationships and teams.

What actions could you take to improve the number and nature of your relationships?

With whom do you practice self-disclosure, inquiry, and seeking advice? If the list is short, why?

The ownership path as a lifelong journey

Taking steps and making use of tools that will help you become a better leader – recap

Leadership is not about the position you hold; it’s about the actions you take. It’s about having an ownership mind-set. Leadership is about what you do rather than who you are.

1 – Take ownership and responsibility of your life – write down your strengths and weaknesses. Find out what you’re passionate about. It’s ok to have weaknesses as long as acknowledge it, know how to compensate for them, and stay open to learning.

2 – Don’t let a setback or injustice throw you off of your game. Assume that justice will prevail.

3 – Focus on adding value to others (consistently and over time) – Don’t focus on profits, focus on adding value. Profits are a byproduct of adding value.

Aspiring to add value ignites your passion and makes you more likely to shine. As wonderful as money, power, status, and other visible manifestations of success may seem to you, they will remain elusive unless you are passionate about the day-to-day content and purpose of your work.

4 – Be open to learning. Don’t let your ego, insecurities, and mental models of leadership get in the way. Be willing to admit when you don’t know, when you are wrong, when you’ve made a mistake, etc. It’s not a sign of weakness, it’s a sign of strength.

5 – Create a shared understanding by getting all the facts out there.

6 – Ask framing questions – framing questions create a new perspective. Ask, “why do you work here? What’s great about this company? What is your dream for this company? What do you hate about working here? What are we doing wrong? Can you suggest one specific action for how we can improve? Framing questions are a great way to get participants to express their views, think about the issue more deeply, learn from each other, and operate more effectively.

7 – Learn to listen – effective listening is more important than effective speaking.

8 – Ask your employees what they would do if they were in charge. What would they do if they knew they wouldn’t upset the boss? What would you do if you had a huge amount of money? What about if you only had two years to live?

9 – Do an inventory of your relationships – Do you have people you can confide in, discuss difficult issues, and be authentic?

10 – Give and receive feedback (even if there is a little confrontation there).

11 – Keep a journal – This will help you gain perspective, get clear on your beliefs, and take action.

12 – Interview your people – sit down and ask them questions and get to know them.

Leadership is about taking ownership. It’s about seeing an issue and not waiting for someone else to address it. It’s about your mind-set.

Think about the challenges in the world that you care about. Find a way to get involved.

More great book reviews on leadership:

5 levels of leadership by John Maxwell

Colin Powell on leadership by Oren Harari

Lincoln on Leadership by Donald Phillips

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