It’s Not That Complicated – 7 Simple Truths For Leadership Success

ComplicatedWe tend to over-complicate things in life, and when it comes to defining what successful leadership looks like, we really, really, over-complicate it. Much of what constitutes leadership success comes down to common sense, but unfortunately it’s not common practice.

Searching the shelves of your local bookstore (do those still exist?) or doing a search on Amazon.com would lead you to believe that in order to be a successful leader you’ll need to find some keys, take the right steps, follow the proper laws, figure out the dysfunctions, embrace the challenge, ascend the levels, look within yourself, look outside yourself, form a tribe, develop the right habits, know the rules, break the rules, be obsessed, learn the new science, or discover the ancient wisdom. Did I say we like to over-complicate things?

I don’t think leadership should be that complicated. If you’re looking for leadership success, consider these seven simple truths (argh…I did it myself!):

1. There aren’t any shortcuts – Leadership is hard work and most of it is on the job training. Formal education and ongoing development are essential parts of developing your leadership competency, but don’t think you can transform yourself into a great leader by reading a certain book or taking a particular training course. Great leaders are built by being in the game, not by standing on the sidelines or sitting in the classroom.

2. Great leaders started by being great followers – Most successful leaders were successful followers at some point. They learned how to be part of a team, put the needs of others ahead of their own, and work toward a goal bigger than themselves. In our hero-worshiping culture we tend to place the spotlight on the individual achievements of leaders and not pay much attention to how they cultivated those winning ways earlier in their career. Learn to be a good follower and you’ll learn what it takes to be a good leader.

3. There’s no mysterious secret to leadership – Contrary to the titles of popular leadership books, there is no single, mysterious secret to unlocking leadership success (see truth #1). All those books that I lovingly needled offer valuable insights about various aspects of leadership, but most of them tell you what you already know to be true…which brings me to the next point.

4. You already know what it takes to be a good leader – Not to plagiarise Robert Fulghum, but you probably learned in kindergarten most of what it takes to be a good leader. Be nice. Play well with others. Say please and thank you. Do what you can to help others. Of course you have to mature and apply those fundamentals in adult ways like being transparent and authentic with others, challenging them to strive for their goals, holding people accountable, and having difficult conversations when needed.

5. The difference between management and leadership is overrated – Tons of books and blogs have been written debating the differences between these two concepts. Yes, each has its own unique characteristics, and yes, each of them overlap significantly in the practice of leadership and management. Leaders have to manage and managers have to lead. Learn to do them both well because they are much more similar than they are different.

6. Leaders aren’t special – We’re all bozos on the same bus. Leaders aren’t any more special than individual contributors and everyone is needed to have a successful team. If you view leadership as service, which I happen to do, you should consider your team members more important than yourself. Get your ego out of the way and you’ll be on your way to success.

7. Leadership is much more about who you are than what you do – This is probably the most important truth I’ve learned about leadership over my career. I view leadership as a calling, not a job. As a calling, leadership is about who I am—my values, beliefs, attitudes—and my actions are the visible manifestation of those inner ideals. If you want to be a successful leader, your primary focus should be on the inner work that is required, not on behavioral tricks or techniques.

So there you go, those are my seven simple truths. What do you think? What would you add, delete, or change? Feel free to leave a comment with your thoughts. Just don’t make it too complicated.

90 Comments on “It’s Not That Complicated – 7 Simple Truths For Leadership Success

    • Absolutely Trevor. My list should have something about self awareness because it’s vital to leadership success. Most of the interpersonal problems I see in the workplace are a result of people being clueless about how they “show up” to other people.

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

      Randy

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      • You did, Randy. The last point says that, just not in those words. Knowing who you are includes self-awareness, emotional and social intelligence–i.e., knowing how you fit into the scheme of things on a grander scale–and awareness of others as they relate to you.

        I like what you’ve said here!

        Like

  1. I really couldn’t agree with you more. You made it so plain and simple. This is pretty cute. It kind of feels so pleasurable and theuraputic. Thanks so much.

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  2. Thank you so much for sharing, Randy; really nice and simple. Lovely to read on a sunday, and great to put into practice during the week!

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  3. What a great list, Randy! I especially find #7 to be essential. If you’re a jerk or have poor character nothing else will enable you to be a good leader.

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  4. Great thoughts! At times it just could be complicating to be Simple with some of the kind of leaders we have around who make leadership success seem mysterious. Thansk Ken for sharing

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  5. How true! Yes. We make things complicated. We can’t be a great leader if we are not true to ourselves, our values, beliefs and attitudes.

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    • Thanks for your feedback Sidhu. It’s essential that leaders stay true to their beliefs and values because that’s where true leadership starts – on the inside!

      Take care,

      Randy

      Like

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  7. Great list. I think Lincoln would have enjoyed it. Leaders inspire/mentor others to stretch – to reach for their full potential and while doing so try not to get in their way.

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    • Great point Eric. Leadership involves the whole person. You can’t separate who you are as a leader at work versus home or anywhere else.

      Take care,

      Randy

      Like

  8. Against popular belief, leadership isn’t something that can be gleaned from a lifetime of work and/or being assigned “above” others. No more so, than an LVN scrub nurse can one day assume the role of neuro-surgeon, simply by hanging out in the O.R. for 30 years. In both instances, there is a heaping of fundamental science in the middle, learned from years of purposeful study of scientific/published literature, before one begins the “practice.” The famous Jack Welch’s replacement at G.E. is on record saying a German Sheppard could have run G.E. during Jack’s tenure. Jack wasn’t a ‘leader,’ he was just out taking a walk, because no one at G.E. was following him anywhere (90% were actually running FROM him). A cursory look at business leadership literature (e.g., published research performed by doctoral-level practicioners in academia) would find more than 15 significant journals and thousands of papers on important leadership considerations, such as job-embeddness (why people come to and stay working at a particular company, and how to embrace it). Is that mounain of data (and are the findings) moot? Things to ignore as you Lord over people (even nicely)? Is medical school and the equivalent mountian of science research moot? Something for an LVN to skip right past on the way to performing brain surgery? I could hear it now, “You know, in all my 35 years of being around the Operating Room (as an LVN, nonetheless), I’ve “gleaned” the best way to make the first incision through the frontal lobe is……!” Keep thinking ‘leadership’ is something that can be learned on-the-job (or in Kindergarten), and I’ll show you leaders (mostly elderly, with this antiquated notion) who have narcissistically grown into an inflated ego. The nurse will see you now….

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    • I appreciate your feedback Bailey. There is no doubt that formal training and education are invaluable for developing into a leader. Any occupation requires a person to study, train, and gain real-world experience in order to be a “success.” The field of leadership is vast and there are many dimensions to what it means to be a successful leader. I view leadership as an influence process, and at the core of influencing someone are the simple truths that I shared.

      Thanks for stopping by,

      Randy

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      • From my experience, far too many people believe that ‘leadership’ is an aside/optional “hat” (er….add-on “occupation,” as you claim) that an aspiring person can simply put on. In other words, something that can be assumed by those so inclined to ‘lead’ others (and receive the corresponding pay/perks, nonetheless). I can aspire to be a rocket scientist, but take it from me, you’d be well advised to not let me slip on a scientist frock and design the next NASA orbiter (there would be a Slushie machine one board, for certain). I used the neurosurgeon and now the rocket-scientist example, beause it’s very obvious those skills come with much study (of professional literature), and my point is that TRUE leadership does as well. Far too many people are convinced they can simply “wing” leadership (e.g., touchy-feely things), just because they’ve been around for decades (wasn’t Jack Welch 118 years old when he released the reigns?). A great deal of research has been published on countless leadership issues, and how many “leaders” actually immerse themselves in this body of work? I guess somewhere around, 0.00002%, because too many self-centered go-get’em types are convinced they were born leaders, or smart enough to have single-handedly figured out the secrets over their career – those are always the folks that heuristically boil down leadership into a few touch-feely, easy to grasp tenets.

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      • Well said Bailey. Becoming a well qualified leader is a lifetime journey and not a destination that one will ever reach.

        Take care,

        Randy

        Like

  9. Loved this! There are way too many books that try to make leadership sound academic, when it is really about being in the trenches, responding (as opposed to reacting), putting the group/organization first, and vision. Getting your ego out of the way is so important – one of my favorite books, for this reason, is Leadership and Self-Deception. Thanks so much for this great summary.

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    • I just finished reading Leadership and Self Deception last week and thoroughly enjoyed it! Thanks for adding your perspectives Helane.

      Randy

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  10. Thanks for your article Randy! I agree that It’s that simple, but it’s not really easy. I have leadership success boiled down to three things (aka The Clover Practice tm) 1. Tell the truth, always
    2. Speak for yourself and 3. Declare your interdependence. These practices also are simple but not easy, but they are my touchstone as a leader.

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    • Hi Kathleen. I love the concept of The Clover Practice! If leaders practiced those three things we’d all be better off.

      Have a great week,

      Randy

      Like

  11. In #2 you mentioned you start out as a good follower. The leader must also HAVE followers to be a leader. If you are leading without followers, you are only taking a walk (think that comes from John Naisbett).

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    • Great point Bill. If you’re a leader and people don’t want to or won’t follow you, you’ve got some serious problems.

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts,

      Randy

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  12. Terrific list, thanks for sharing. Your ultimate point–about leadership being more about what you are, than what you do–is especially interesting to me. Theodore Roosevelt often spoke in those terms as he publicly evaluated the contributions of various leaders. TR and others in his generation viscerally comprehended leadership as fundamentally about character, both in those who aspire to formal and informal leadership, as well as those they would serve by leading.

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    • Hi James. You captured the essence of my point perfectly! It may be a little bit of my fondness for nostalgia speaking, but I do believe that previous generations (the Greatest generation and prior) seemed to have a better appreciation for the character-side of leadership. Personal integrity carried much more weight, and when you compare it to leaders today like Anthony Weiner or Bob Filner (mayor of San Diego where I live), there seems to be an idea that you can separate your personal character from your “job” as a leader. I completely disagree.

      Thanks for adding your insights.

      Randy

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  13. Great Leadership guidance and I would always add the terms authentic, transparent and honesty when leading others to success.

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  14. Leadership is not a role, its a lifestyle – thank you for sharing your thoughts
    my own model is based on FLOWERS Leadership – simply put when we are in our FLOW with key areas of Life.

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  15. Mostly good points, but I think point 6 is dead wrong. Great leaders inspire followers with a powerful vision of a better future. That visionary capacity is rare and essential and even the best teams will fail without it. A large part of why this is critical is that without a visionary leader, most organizations are hamstrung by a group of warring egos in management that will not come together to work selflessly toward the group’s success.

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    • You make a good point Reed and I don’t think inspiring others with a powerful vision is mutually exclusive of “leaders aren’t special.” Casting an inspiring vision may be a unique talent or skill among certain individuals, but all of us are leaders in some context in life (“leader” defined as someone trying to influence another) and we all have the capacity to develop our leadership abilities. Our culture tends to want to place people on a pedestal and view them as special, different, or one of kind (granted, there ARE extraordinary individuals who fit that bill). Leaders are usually people like you and I who have had to work very hard at developing our skills.

      Thanks for your insightful comments, I appreciate it.

      Randy

      Like

  16. Enjoyed your writing and its elegant simplicity. Especially # 7 – “Bozos on a bus…” What are your thoughts regarding ‘pay for performance?’

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    • Thanks for your feedback Shawn.

      “Pay for Performance” – At it’s core, isn’t that what most compensation systems are about? With the exception of systems where you get paid a certain amount based on rank, level, or tenure (e.g., government, military, education, or union), that’s what work is about – you do a good job, you get paid more (hopefully).

      In the classic sense of Pay for Performance, I think it has to be within the right context. Research has consistently shown that money isn’t the top nor best motivator for people’s performance. The most engaging workplaces provide people with a sense of autonomy (control over their work), relatedness (meaningful relationship connections), and competence (gaining mastery over your work).

      Take care,

      Randy

      Like

  17. This is a great article! It really is that simple … and that difficult … to be an effective leader. Mostly we just need to get out of our own way! Thank you so much for your simplicity and elegance in sharing!

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  18. I have always believed that you lead people and you manage projects. Leadership involves the interaction between individuals working together towards a goal. Management is the provision of direction and advise on actions taken by individual on a particular project.

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  20. Everything you mentioned about the leadership is true for the people who are in the group with the same culture and background, who can support eachother, and recognize the leadership of each individual and put the trust and promote that individual to the right position to lead the pack. We have not reach to the universal selection of our leader yet just based on the talents, skills, knowledge, personality, characters,…, what I try to say is most of the work place the leader is who play the best political game.

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    • Thanks for your comments Dao.

      Politics is a factor in all organizational cultures and there will always be individuals who try to manipulate others to achieve personal success. Leaders that don’t earn the trust and respect of their followers may achieve short term success by playing politics, but they usually don’t enjoy long-term effectiveness.

      Take care,

      Randy

      Like

    • I’ve lost count of the number of unhealthy narcissists that rise to the top of the organizations I’ve worked in, from academia, to hospitals, public corporations, and government. Interestingly, the new DSM-V (diagnostic bible for psychology) has chosen to combine the diagnostic terms of narcissist and psychopath, claiming them to be one in the same. At the heart of these ‘political’ movers and shakers it the workplace is a heaping dose of “it’s all about me!” with no true regard for any other human. These are the people that unnecessarily ruin other people, saying things like, “It’s just business!” or, “That’s what it takes to get things done!” Over the years, having been characterized as “back-stabbers” etc., etc. – they’re all the same. Ego-ridden, self-absorbed, self-centered, narcissists who believe they are “leading” others, when, truly, they are parasitizing the corporate workplace, and EVERYONE beneath them in the organization. Dr. Stone (famous psychopath researcher) estimates that at least 25% corporate workplaces are of this ilk, and the C-suites have nearly 100%, save for a few companies like SAS and W.L. Gore.

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  21. I kinda don’t agree that manager and leader are the same thing. I don’t mean it academically. I mean it in real life. Are they correlated, absolutely. But Manager is a title that’s given to people – by no means mean they are leaders. Poor managers are poor because they are not leaders. They still have the title of manager though. There is also the concept of micro-manager – again, example of manager that cannot lead. Then again, there are leaders who have no official capacity to manage, they just are natural born leaders who make morale go up even if they have no one reporting to them what-so-ever.

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    • Hi Jeannie! It’s ok to disagree with me and you make excellent points. We are actually in agreement in the sense that in the truest sense there are distinct differences between the two concepts. I think many people get a little too twisted in dissecting the differences rather than leveraging the similarities.

      I appreciate your input!

      Randy

      Like

      • That is an absolute truth Michael. One of the most powerful behaviors in building trust with others is to admit your mistakes, take responsibility, and learn from them.

        Thanks for adding your insights!

        Randy

        Like

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  23. “Great leaders started by being great followers” I agree with this 1000%. Lots of successful leaders will know what it takes to be part of a team and will take notes from other great leaders as well. Awesome post!

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  25. Thanks Randy for this wonderful post. You have touched the very basics of leadership that has been forgotten by many in today’s world. The values of honesty, truthfulness, helping others, selflessness, true love for others, etc, has eroded over time in this corporate world of greed.

    It is greed that has erased all these fundamental values that make a true leader. Even the leadership skills and techniques being taught today focuses more on how you need to outbeat and succeed as an individual rather than winning as a team and nurturing and developing others.

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    • Thanks for your comments Abdul. I agree that we have lost focus on the character aspect of leadership and how it drives everything else.

      Best regards,

      Randy

      Like

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  27. Terrifiic post Randy. A few thoughts. I feel pretty strongly that Leadership and Management are distinctly different, and I recognize you are saying we often have to do both. I agree distinguishing between and manager and a leader may not be fruitful, since we need to be adept at both. And I think the difference between the two activities is huge. We manage things and we lead people.

    What I like about the bozos on the bus point is that, yes, we are all human beings with equal worth. Bestowing some kind of special status on people because of position, or even because of great leadership ability, obscures the fact that great leaders are just as human as any one of us.

    Lastly, I couldn’t agree more… great leadership originates NOT in any behavior or skill, but rather, in the inner wisdom that great leaders cultivate and allow to lead their own behavior.

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    • Mike – I’m grateful for your feedback. Your description about all of us having equal worth was brilliant. I wish I would have described it that way. And, you make cogent points about the difference between management and leadership and I agree with you more than I disagree. I recognize there are distinct differences between the two and I was trying to be a little provocative because it seems that many of us in leadership circles like to debate the differences between the two rather than focusing on their similarities.

      Thanks again,

      Randy

      Like

  28. A good, succinct article on what it takes to be a leader. I’m sure there can be many different situations in which one’s leadership capability is tested, but at the heart of the matter are these 7 simple truths.

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  30. Randy – Excellent article! I think many “leaders” want it to appear complicated as a means to elevate their experience and achievements in the eyes of others – which helps minimize their competition too; or so they think. I agree with the prior posts concerning the vast differences between management (of things), and leadership (of people), but I believe your point is we spend too much time focusing on the differences, not enough on the similarities, and by spending inordinate time there, we’re wasting time needed on more important discussions.

    When we put people up on pedestals, we often forget their human frailties. What brings them down is they start believing their own press. “Why yes, I truly am a great person, just look at what I’ve done/accomplished.” Also, Ms. Chan’s post about not all leaders have the title refers to the very important “informal” leaders in an organization. They can and frequently do, steer a team to success even if it is formally “led” by an incompetent manager. Again, thanks for a great, thought-provoking article. – Russ

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    • Thanks, Russ. I appreciate your thoughtful comments. You understood my point about the difference between management and leadership. Bottom line is that leader’s need to be good at both.

      Your last comment about leaders not needing a title is spot on. If you define leadership as an influence process, then all of us are leaders in some capacity in our lives.

      Take care,

      Randy

      Like

  31. Reblogged this on Leading Change and commented:
    I really like this piece. Randy Conley has done a great job of getting to some essential thinking about leadership. My favorite line – which reveals my deeply held personal belief about what makes the difference between authentic leadership development and the multitude of cookie-cutter leadership training approaches – is this: “If you want to be a successful leader, your primary focus should be on the inner work that is required, not on behavioral tricks or techniques.”

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  35. Most interesting article, and then the comments to follow. It seems we still struggle with the idea that at times Leaders must manage, and Managers must lead……….but I suspect most of that struggle comes from those who have never held such a position.

    Given this thinking has occurred throughout the Ages it seems, why can it be that those who assess Leaders and Managers don’t take on board the combined wisdom of both practitioners and academics? See, I work on the basis that there are, or should not be, bad Leaders and Managers if those who assess did their jobs properly. I guess what I’m saying is they are allowed to be or become inefficient. [Bad doesn’t sound very good huh?].

    Cheers. DonR.

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  38. Yes, its not really that much complicated. The basics are basics which include education and having information. Emotional intelligence is all what it takes. The idea of copy paste leadership styles is not really functioning well, either domestic or globally.

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    • Copy/paste leadership…great way to think about it! We each have to carve our own path and not rely on copying what others are doing.

      Randy

      Like

  39. Smile more often, appreciate that appeals, love truly, kiss slowly, eat good and pray well; all it takes to make life simpler. I guess rest everything is already said 🙂 Thanks for sharing wisdom through words, I loved it.

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  40. Thanks for the feedback Randy, I have been reading you post,, a couple of them and I believe that they are wonderful. Keep it up and just go on motivating 🙂

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