Why some Leaders Perform “When the Going Gets Tough”

Real business performance is truly tested during challenging economies. It is these trading environments that require leaders who are able to rapidly remove the non-essential and focus on those things that are going to make a real difference. Typically most strategy development processes do not struggle to generate a list of things that need focus, and opportunities that can be pursued. During good trading conditions one has the luxury of exploring multiple opportunities, however this can be fatal in tough times. The real challenge is to get teams to have the discipline to refine their thinking and get down to the essence of what is important, what will provide the strongest competitive advantage and returns. Most often we stop at the long list of priorities, without getting to the real priority. One that is shared and when it gets to execution will shape decisions and empower leaders and people across the organisation to say no to the non-essentials.

What will give the best return?

Bruce Lee was once quoted as saying “why kick someone when you can punch them”. Bruce Lee is highlighting a core principle of martial combat, which is conserving resources, focusing on speed of execution by utilising the most efficient means to achieve the desired outcome. A well-defined priority focuses clearly on a desired outcome, and prevents people being caught up in a convoluted set of unnecessary activity. It creates a clear sense of what is important, and what needs to be done. As with the above, the priority could be articulated as “knock your opponent down” or “utilise the maximum force possible from your strongest limbs, to deliver a well-executed blow.” The first statement creates clear focus on the outcome and defines success, creates urgency, and empowers the recipient to take ownership of the “how” to achieve this in the most efficient manner. The second does not focus on the outcome, becomes prescriptive of the how and introduces a layer of unnecessary complexity, which is likely to disperse energy and focus. Simple is better, simplicity sticks in people’s minds and is more likely to shape decisions when executing.

What are we saying no to?

Perhaps the toughest part of this focused approach to setting a strategic priority is what we have to let go or say no to. This is where the discipline really kicks in. As with any diet that one attempts it is what you choose not to put into your mouth that is critical. As any of us who at times have chosen a more disciplined approach to eating for health or weight loss reasons know the temptation to consume things that are not on our list is constant. This is true of any attempt to execute on a strategic plan, the to-do list will consistently be under pressure to tempt us into activities that are not linked to the strategic focus. The leader needs to create a clear behavioural translation of what we say no to that is clear and unambiguous for all across the organisation like  “customer first” . Focus is as much a discipline of creating clarity of what you want. As well the persistent and disciplined removal of those things that are unwanted to make space for what we want and in the end deliver something that is meaningful and truly impactful.