The mindset of great leaders

Do computer geeks and math geniuses smoke? Of those surveyed, 12.8 said yes. istockphoto

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(MoneyWatch) The most common feedback I get about my leadership seminars, whether at the University of Southern California where I teach or at corporations, is, "I thought this was going to be garbage, but I was surprised -- it's really good!" People say that as if they've given me a great compliment. But such faint praise is  actually a serious criticism of my field, and one every leader needs to take seriously.

Would a surgeon feel about good a patient telling them: "I assumed you didn't know what you were doing, being a surgeon and all, but you correctly removed my gall bladder, not my left leg!"

Except that the critics are right. Most of what passes for leadership advice is fluff -- platitudes, repackaged conventional wisdom and broad principles that lack any rigor.

Prove your worth

In one sentence, here's how to become a better leader and make your organization more effective: Do what the evidence says to do, and then go beyond what's known and imagine what's possible.

I'm an empiricist (in the same way some people are Republicans or Democrats). That means I make decisions based on data, not just on what others are doing, not on philosophy or intuition, and definitely not on what most people are doing. If the data says an action will get a better result, empiricists try their best to do it.

When leaders become empiricists, they are guided by all available evidence, letting that data tell them the right thing to do. When they reach the edge of the cliff of what is known, they jump off, creating visions or futures of what can be. The result is great companies, like Agilent Technologies (A), Intuit (INTU), or Edwards Lifesciences (EW) -- all companies that have impressed me with their focus on empirical decision-making.

What often surprises people in "empirical leadership" sessions is that there is an emerging new way to lead. It doesn't require believing anything other than empirical data. It gets better results than what's dominated the field for the last century. Employees love it, shareholders enjoy the benefits and the methods delight customers.

Ignorance isn't bliss

The problem is, we don't do it. Here's what typically happens instead:

We hire people based on the number of years of industry experience they have, and then wonder why our company is just like our competitors. We tell people to be inspired by the company vision, when they had no role in setting it and will never be asked their opinion about how to make it better. We ask employees to do as they are told and to feel empowered while doing as we tell them -- and wonder why they think executives aren't very smart.

We ignore learning styles when we put people in jobs, and then try to figure out why people are always scrambling to catch up. We focus people on bringing their weaknesses up to the company standards instead of building on our strengths, and wonder why our company isn't best in class.

We learn what our competitors are doing (called "best practices") and do the same, and scratch our heads about why we aren't leading our fields. We work sitting down rather than moving around, and complain about the 3 p.m. energy drain. We discourage power naps.

We praise employees who respond to email in minutes, almost guaranteeing that people aren't thinking about the long term. We tell people to add more responsibilities without giving them someone to offload some of what they're doing, and wonder why they aren't thrilled with their increase in responsibilities.

Company vending machines are filled with products that make employees obese and slow-thinking. We have corporate retreats where the executives lecture from PowerPoints, rather than engage in discussions.

We issue orders (like "fly coach"), while executives fly first-class and hope no one notices. We reward our top performers with a raise that is barely above the average, and can't figure out why we have a motivation problem.

We hire for skills, not values, and then wonder why we don't have good teams. We make decisions about what companies to acquire based on strategic or operational synergies, ignoring culture, and then wonder why the two groups don't integrate.

We tell people how they're doing in the same conversation that we ask them how they'd like to develop, and can't figure out why they aren't more passionate about their personal growth.

We hire consultants to tell senior management what most employees already know. We elevate decisions to the highest possible level, and wonder why we have organizational cultures where people don't think for themselves.

We tell people it's safe to fail and fire those who don't hit their numbers when they try something new. We turn culture and values over to the human resources department rather than the CEO owning the effort, and can't figure out why no one takes the effort seriously.

Where the evidence leads

Now here's what we'd do if we implemented what the evidence says to do:

We'd turn control of the company over to the values that the employees share. This would mean starting with the employees we already have, and discovering what principles, for them, "without which, life wouldn't be worth living."

We'd seek places in the market where our values and strengths would give us the ability to earn high margins and win the loyalty of great customers.

We'd find intersections among what we're uniquely good at doing, our values and those needs for which people are willing to pay a premium.

We'd hire only people with both the skills for the jobs and the values that match the employees we already have. CEOs would own "organizational culture" in the same way most own EBITA (earnings before interest, taxes and amortization).

We'd make M&A decisions based primarily on cultural alignment, not just on opportunities for integration through cost-cutting. Companies would run experiments, in which the goal was actionable insights, and we'd turn that learning into the next decisions we make. Decisions would be made at the lowest possible level, and closest to the customer.

We'd build loops of communication from the customer to the people making decisions, so that each decision becomes more informed, faster and brings us closer to maximizing our potential as a company.

If leaders were empiricists, this description would be normal. So why isn't it? Two reasons. First, what passes for "leadership training" often amounts to personal philosophy, platitudes and motivational speeches, rather than practices grounded in evidence. Second, the change needs to start at the top. Most of the CEOs I know are empirical leaders, and their companies are almost always considered best in class.

One of the greatest experiences in the Executive MBA is taking students to one of these companies, meeting with key leaders and then asking the student: "So how is this different than where you work?" Often, they just keep saying things like "wow," and "this is really inspiring." Who would have thought that following the evidence trail could be so fun?

Empirical leadership should extend to our personal lives, as well. Read about what a personal life looks like when it's guided by evidence in my personal blog.

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    Dave Logan is a USC faculty member, management consultant, and the best-selling author of four books including Tribal Leadership and The Three Laws of Performance. He is also Senior Partner of CultureSync, a management consulting firm, which he co-founded in 1997.

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