Introduction: The Absolutes for Leaders

Chapter 1: Lead

Chapter 2: Purpose

Chapter 3: Strategy

Chapter 4: People

Chapter 5: Measure & Monitor

Chapter 6: Inspire & Empower

Chapter 7: Reward & Celebrate

Chapter 8: Anticipate

Chapter 9: Navigate

Chapter 10: Communicate

Chapter 11: Listen

Chapter 12: Learn


About the Author




To my esteemed colleagues.


As a coach for my son’s basketball team, at the end of every practice I ask a player to attempt a three-point shot. If the player makes the shot, the team gets excused from the last drill of running laps. Last season, we had a great team. There was one player, however, who was a little shorter, a little smaller, and not as athletic as the rest. In fact, this boy, Jason, hadn’t scored a single basket all year. But, unlike the others, he had never missed a single practice. ⇒

On the final practice before the championship game, I asked the team, “Who wants to take the three-point shot?” Nine pleading hands flew up; one hand did not—Jason’s. Something compelled me to give him the ball as the others grumbled about the laps they were sure they’d be running.

When Jason shot the ball, it hit the back of the rim, bounced high off the iron, and grazed the basket on the way down, unsuccessfully. Immediately I did something I had never done before: I gave him the ball again. Jason didn’t hesitate and the entire team watched as the ball swished through the net. Jason’s grin was a mile wide as the other kids jumped up and down in celebration. Out of the corner of my eye, I caught a glimpse of Jason’s dad with a satisfied smile. Later, he said to me in a voice choked with emotion, “I don’t care if Jason scores any points on Sunday, that made the entire season for me.”


Leadership is making others believe, turning vision into reality.

We did win the championship, but frankly I don’t remember the final score or how we did it. All I remember was the beaming smile of a 12-year-old boy and the wet eyes of his father.

Leadership is making others believe—in themselves, in the organization, in the impossible—then, translating that belief into reality.

Leadership requires you to forget all the lauded, impressive qualities that helped you climb the ladder and to shift your focus outward; your measure of success will be in what others achieve. Easy to intellectualize, but elusive to actualize, leadership is part strategy, but mostly judgment. It’s sense, and sensibility.

Fortunately, there are certain fundamental elements to guide you, elements that are as critical in today’s hyper-connected technosphere as they were in the days when contracts were written on the skins of animals.

This book is a compass for discovering these absolutes. Every organization starts with a vision and a PURPOSE—the “what” and the “why” of its existence. Then comes STRATEGY, the “how” and, more subtly, the “when” of its game plan to realize that purpose. PEOPLE are truly the essential element, embracing the purpose and executing the strategy. MEASURE minds the organization’s progress—what is working and what is not. EMPOWER means to delegate to people, not just as individual performers, but as teams aligned with purpose and strategy. When success arrives, keep people motivated with REWARD—a celebration of who they are, not just compensation for what they’ve done.

Next are the Absolutes that define the activities in which you, as the leader, must constantly engage. They are ANTICIPATE, to make calculated bets about tomorrow; NAVIGATE, to adjust and correct your course in real time; COMMUNICATE, to connect emotionally with others; LISTEN, to welcome the truth and gain trust; and LEARN, which must be a lifelong passion for every leader—all of which culminates with LEAD.

Leadership can be learned and absorbed only by doing, starting with the most important lesson of all: To lead others, you must first lead yourself. May you find in these pages both information and inspiration as you define your leadership path—a journey that, ultimately, is about empowering others.

Gary Burnison

CEO, Korn/Ferry International

Chapter 1

The First Absolute for Leaders: LEAD

“THE change you want to see in the world starts with you.”


Remember the thrilling rush of freedom, the motivating jolt of pride, the first time you pedaled all alone on a two-wheeled bike? As you propelled yourself forward in that glorious moment there was, for most of us, someone looking on that made it possible. In their seemingly modest actions can be found the DNA of powerful leadership: a mode of being that is less about analytics and decision-making, and much more about aligning, motivating, and empowering others. ⇒

Your people drive financial performance: Who’s on the bikes and how they feel is more important than where those bikes are going. The nearly irrefutable lesson gleaned from over a century of management theory and practice—a message reinforced by endless data and anecdotes from the great business gurus like Tom Peters and Jim Collins—is that great companies that get the people part right tend to get everything else right, too.

Fact is, we hyper-focus on numbers because numbers are, in a word, easy. They follow rules; they can be manipulated at will. People, well, not so much.

So here’s the question. How do you get your people pedaling with that freedom and pride?

How do you get the people part right?

There’s a story about Gandhi, perhaps apocryphal but widely told. A mother brought her young son before the Mahatma to ask him to help cure him of his obsession with sugar. Gandhi said, “Bring your boy back in a week, and then I will speak to him.”

A week later the mother returned with her son, and Gandhi told the boy, “Stop eating sweets. They are not good for you.” Realizing that was it, that was all the great leader was going to say, the mother was understandably confused.

“You could have told him that last week—why did you have us come back?” she asked.

“Last week,” Gandhi replied, “I, too, was eating a great deal of sugar.” Moral of the story: The change you want to see in the world starts with you.

Leadership is grace and restraint.

The line between confidence and cockiness is humbleness.

Spirited e-mails filled with bold announcements, rah-rah company retreats, or enlightened HR policies and the like are all meaningless abstractions unless they’re grounded in the everyday concrete example you, as leader, set for the organization. Gandhi may have introduced us to this model of the humble leader leading by example, but it’s been validated more recently by the capitalist gurus found at the corporate ashram we know today as IBM.

A few years back, IBM researchers huddled up to identify the traits of their most high-impact employees. What they found was that ambition alone was only mediocre; ambition plus intellectual humility was the winning combination. They dubbed this trait humbition. Summed up by William Taylor, the co-founder of Fast Company magazine and the author of Practically Radical, “They understood that if you want to have an impact today, your job is no longer to be the smartest person in the room, and your job is not to solve every problem and identify every opportunity. Your job is to ask yourself: What does it mean to be an impact player in a world where nobody alone is as smart as everybody together?”

Balance heroics with humility.

In other words, great leaders must be constantly ready to find their next best ideas in the mouths of their most junior employee. Being a leader isn’t about enforcement, but empowerment—which means being all in, all the time, living and breathing the success of the organization. Being “the change you want,” with employees, and with customers, too.

When people hit the top of the corporate pyramid, they can start to feel isolated, a cohort of one sitting on a very sharp point. And then another pyramid appears, inverted and pointed down at them, filled with layer upon layer of constituencies: media, stockholders, analysts, unions. . . .

To avoid being speared, you must focus your best energy on the only two groups that have more power than you to make your company successful: your customers and your employees. Everything else is a distraction.

As the leader of an organization, therefore, you must maintain two perspectives. One is “outside in,” understanding how your customers perceive and interact with your organization. The other is “inside out,” constantly putting yourself in your employees’ shoes. Do they feel cared for? Do they have ample opportunity to grow? Do they know they matter? It’s your job to tell them, again and again, by building a culture that constantly celebrates their efforts.

Leadership also requires you to find the careful balance between two faces: your authentic humanity, with all its fickle rhythms and unvarnished blemishes, and your symbolic role as the head of the organization. Although your focus is always on the people—the individuals—on your team, in their eyes you are at times a function, and not a person. Having a “gray day” doesn’t relinquish your responsibility to set the team’s reality. People must be able to look in your eyes and feel in their bellies, “We will make it together.”

Words motivate, actions inspire.


Which brings us back to Gandhi and humbition. Leadership requires a unique ability to balance confidence, restraint, and authenticity with the humility and good sense to rise above “me” to embrace “we.” Paul “Bear” Bryant, the legendary University of Alabama football coach, got it perfectly when he said, “If anything goes bad, I did it. If anything goes semi-good, we did it. If anything goes really good, then you did it. That’s all it takes to get people to win football games for you.” And, it can be said, to get people to win at the game of business.

Your road is the “high road”—always, with no exceptions.

True leadership isn’t heroism. Heroism is episodic, while leadership is systemic, defined by a hundred things, big and small, mostly sacrifices, done every day with consistency and sincerity. It’s not your job to be a hero, but instead to help create and celebrate them. image

To lead others, you must first lead yourself.