Doing Leadership is about leading through our actions and choices rather than simply knowing what to do or depending on titles or credentials. Anyone can lead by doing the things that leaders do. And if leadership is defined by the actions you take, it follows that one of the key principles of doing leadership is that leaders act, and they act boldly.

To pass the test of leadership, you must be able to get things done.

Of course, leaders must have ideas, strategies and vision and be able to articulate that vision and influence those around them. But all of those efforts must flow toward a final outcome: implementation and execution.

Leaders possess what I like to call “High IQ”. No, not intelligence quotient, but implementation quotient. The best ideas, plans, and visions are worthless if they are badly implemented or not implemented at all. Having an idea is easy; implementing it is much more difficult. Have you ever seen an idea successfully achieved by someone else and said to yourself, “Oh, I thought of that years ago.” Yes, but you didn’t do it.

Some ideas are out in the open for anyone or any company to try. But can they execute it? Consider Southwest Airlines, for example. Southwest is a low-cost carrier with no frills, short routes, standardized fleet and service, and multiple hubs. It is a simple concept that others have tried it but only Southwest executes it.

The reason many ideas don’t get executed is that there are barriers between ideas and execution. Over thinking, or “paralysis by analysis” is a familiar barrier that keeps ideas pent up in the planning stage. In other cases, the fear of taking risks prevents us from following through on our ideas. Sometimes, ideas never make it past the talking stage because meetings don’t end with a call to action or assignment of responsibility. Finally, doubt and resistance that are often just excuses in disguise can hang implementation. These are all barriers that leaders must overcome on the road to execution.

A few years ago, a now classic Fortune study of CEOs who had failed found a common culprit. In 70% of cases it was the failure to take action. As the authors put it, “It’s bad execution. As simple as that: not getting things done, being indecisive, not delivering on commitments.”

3 Things to Know

Almost Any Action is Better than No Action. Rosabeth Moss Kanter of Harvard Business School puts it eloquently, “The only way to activate potential is to support action. Sometimes it doesn’t seem easy. Organizational cultures, autocratic bosses, uncooperative co-workers, long losing streaks, the uncertainty of shifting industry conditions, and big world events like natural disasters and revolutions can stop people in their tracks. But those who emerge triumphant, and get the most done anyway, are the people who would rather take action, any action, than wait around.”

Leaders Benchmark to Improve Performance. Pushing yourself and your team on to the next step is at the heart of execution. A mill among Charles Schwab’s holdings was not meeting its goals. He visited and asked the shift leader how many units they had produced. “Six,” was the reply. He chalked a big “6” onto the plant floor for the next shift to see. The night shift made seven. The next day, the day shift made ten. Eventually, the competition between shifts made the mill the most productive in the company.

Execution makes the difference. According to Michael Dell, execution is the “secret” to Dell’s success. Dell’s “direct business model” is no secret at all. In fact, their business plan has been published! But Dell executes it and no one else does. “We execute it,” he says. “It’s all about execution.”

4 Things to Do

1. Avoid “Death by Deliberation.” Find the point at which thinking is done and sufficient: no further information will improve this idea. If you over study an opportunity you may miss the window to pursue it. Once you’ve done due diligence, act.

2. Face fears down. Consider the risks of inaction equally with those of acting. Any worthwhile venture will involve risk. By avoiding action you may avoid the possibility of failure. But it’s certain that if you don’t step forward, you’ll be stuck where you are. And you may even lose more in fearing to act than you would in striving and falling short. Leaders understand and are willing to take reasonable risks in the pursuit of important results.

3. Assign responsibility. Leaders must outline “next steps” that everyone on the team is responsible for. Meetings are great for deliberation and reflection on the vision. However, a team should leave a meeting with a plan to reach that goal, and each team member should have assigned tasks that are part of that plan. Make sure everyone knows what steps to take before leaving the conference room.

4. Turn obstacles to opportunities. Obstacles to executing your vision will come back to you in the form of “explanations.” “We couldn’t get it because…” or “The reason I wasn’t able to do it is…” These explanations can amount to a list of excuses why your vision wasn’t executed. Don’t accept obstacles as excuses. Instead, address them as problems to be solved as they arise. Solving problems will overcome the obstacles and strengthen your vision.

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Mark Sanborn
About Mark Sanborn

Mark Sanborn, CSP, CPAE, is president of Sanborn & Associates, Inc., an idea studio dedicated to developing leaders in business and in life. Mark is an international bestselling author and noted expert on leadership, team building, customer service and change. Mark Sanborn graduated cum laude from The Ohio State University. In addition to his work as a business educator and author, Mark continues to be an active leadership practitioner. Most recently he served as the president of the National Speakers Association.

One Response to Doing Leadership. Part 5 of a Series.
  1. While words can inspire, there is something about taking action that really connects a leader to their followers. It gives followers confidence that the leader is worthy of their loyalty, and that even if things are unfavorable for them, it is only temporary. When a leader executes on a vision, the followers know momentum is on their side, increasing their opportunities for success, rather than hindering them on their journey. And, when the leader chooses patience, telling their followers it is advantageous to wait for the right time to act, the followers know that decision is not caused by fear or cowardice, but by wisdom and strategy. The ability to execute is critical to a leader having followers.


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