The secret to good leadership? Keeping it simple

Image courtesy of Flickr user Erik Charlton

Sometimes our best intentions get the better of us, and we end up failing to do our jobs. Often it's because we ignore the simple things.

Jim Collins and Morten Hansen write about the virtues of simplicity in their new book, Great By Choice. One concept they posit is dubbed SMaC -- "Specific, Methodical and Consistent." As the authors explain, "SMaC is not the same as a strategy, culture, core values, purpose or tactics."

Rather, it is a "set of durable principles that create a replicable and consistent success formula." In other words, if it works, is repeatable and it adds value to what you do, it is worthwhile following.

SMaC, as the authors explain, "also includes practices 'not to do.'" This exclusion is helpful because it enables the manager to limit the options and focus on what to do and when to do it.

While process and procedure are the foundation of hard science, they are less common in the softer science of management. Too often, proven approaches to do things well and doing them right fall by the wayside. As a result, execution suffers.

Michael Useem wrote similarly of such issues in his new book, The Leader's Checklist. By itemizing what leaders want to accomplish with how they can do it -- step by step -- it provides a backstop that prevents leaders from dropping the ball.

Useem, who teaches at the Wharton School and is a friend, said in a published interview: "I became convinced that everybody needs a leader's checklist by virtue of watching leaders in action who didn't have it. They made -- call it 'an unforced error,' or sometimes a couple of unforced errors. Simply having a piece of paper that says, 'Don't forget to honor the room,' or 'Don't forget to talk about a company strategy,' would help people avoid these kinds of mistakes."

Step by step, you can get things done if you apply your mindset. And that goes for leaders, too.

As a head start on the process of developing your own checklist, SMaC or otherwise, it is important to consider what you have been doing right and what you have been doing wrong. Consider how you can improve the process by either adding things or subtracting them. Then ask yourself:

-- What is our goal? Always keep the outcome in front of you. When working on project, it's easy to get sidetracked or, as we say, wrapped around your own axle. Keep the goal firmly in mind.

-- What can we do to simplify things? Consider what you can stop doing. It is often easier to stop doing something than adding. By looking to remove things, you can add to simplicity. At the same time, don't look to cut for the sake of cutting. Value comes from doing what it is right.

-- What can we do to ensure consistent outcomes? If what you are doing is not repeatable, you may not need a checklist. But ensuring consistent outcomes is why we need to adhere to process. Ensuring that people know their jobs and are properly trained is essential.

Complexity is the enemy of simplicity, and for one good reason: it's easy to make things complicated, often because we do not take the time to think through our actions before we take them. The discipline of establishing a checklist will help you. The challenge is using it, and that's where leadership arises. Good leaders do what's necessary to get things done the right way, even when it comes to following a simple set of guidelines.