3 tips for leading with clarity

by | Jun 25, 2012 | Blog | 0 comments

Clarity is the “it” leadership skill.

Two well-respected thought leaders and authors are actively pushing for this simple, back-to-basics approach. When leaders are clear, they and the people in their organizations can move faster with less rework and improved performance.

In his insightful new book, The Advantage: Why Organizational Health Trumps Everything Else in Business, best-selling author Patrick Lencioni devotes three of his four disciplines to clarity.

(Disciplines 2, 3 and 4 are “Create Clarity,” “Overcommunicate Clarity” and “Reinforce Clarity” respectively. Discipline 1 is to “Build a Cohesive Leadership Team,” which is a necessary foundation for clarity. Otherwise, the leaders will talk and act independently, rather than from an agreed-upon playbook, which can translate into a forecast of constant fog rather than clear skies with even clearer creek water.)

Lencioni has abandoned his usual parable style for straightforward prose in this new book, which is refreshing. (When will parables, beets and jungle prints go out of style?…By the way, this digression demonstrates how tough it is to stay focused and clear….)

When striving for clarity, keep in mind these three C’s—call to action, context and consistency—that I encourage my clients to adopt.

(While Lencioni provides practical suggestions in his book, he says others have more knowledge than he does about basic communication. That’s why I’m including my three tips here.)

These three C’s help you put yourself in your customers’ shoes. When you are customer-centric, you generally can deliver clearer messages that resonate better.

1. Call to action. Before you decide what to share, consider what you want people—such as employees—to do. That will help you articulate not just interesting, but also useful information—information that’s actionable.

With so much data now available, some experts warn that information without action just contributes to the clutter. So if you want to mobilize people, create a clear, concise compelling call to action.

When you know your intent, you get more focused and precise about what you want to say or write. And as a result, you can be clearer with your directions, which makes it easier for everyone. For instance, do you want employee-facing customers to say anything to customers? And if so, what? Or, do you want employees to stay silent on this issue for now?

(For more on this topic, see 7 steps for a compelling call to action.)

2. Context. Put your points into context of your goals and the day-to-day events and actions that support them. And continue to give concrete examples that show the connections.

For example, if you’re introducing Kaizen events as part of your operational excellence strategic initiative, be sure to give regular updates on what you’re learning and applying. Plus, address the value the organization and customers will receive from improving processes. All too often, leaders don’t continue the conversation about these initiatives, which makes them appear to be the “event du jour.”

3. Consistency. Make sure your words and actions are in sync and aligned with the points you’re making. Consistency also needs to extend across the organization—unless you and your peers want to strengthen the silos. That’s why it’s always helpful for teams to take a few minutes at the end of their meetings to discuss what their talking points will be. These talking points don’t need to be elaborate. Instead, they need to capture what the team is doing, especially around mobilizing others to help them.

From an individual perspective, the consistency of words and actions is critical for building and maintaining credibility. For example, if you’re a leader who is emphasizing respect for team members and customers, you need to make sure you practice what you preach. Don’t do what one leader I know often does. He likes to tell people “You’re wrong.” That reaction ruins, not fosters respect.

In addition to these three C’s, regularly reinforce your messages with words and actions. Lencioni writes that great leaders see themselves as “Chief Reminding Officers” as much as anything else. Based on my experience, I’d rename this “Chief Reinforcing Officers” to emphasize the necessity of matching words and actions.

Leaders too need reinforcement about the value of clarity.  Clarity is the simplest way to get alignment and avoid confusion, differences of opinion and wasteful actions.

According to Lencioni, many leaders have a bias against clarity and the other elements of organizational health because they’ve never been presented as a “simple, integrated and practice discipline.” Plus compared to business school cases and the media, this approach may seem unsophisticated, boring and not all that measurable.

Yet, for any leader or anyone else who thinks clarity is for the naïve, check out the newly revised book, Leaders Make the Future: Ten New Leadership Skills for an Uncertain World by futurist Bob Johansen.

Clarity is the “ability to see through messes and contradictions to a future that others cannot yet see,” according to Johansen. “Leaders must be clear about what they are making but flexible about how it gets made.”

In my post Leaders Make the Future about his book, I wrote that this is the idea of practicing “tight-loose-tight.” You set a well-defined goal, give people options on how to achieve it, and hold them accountable to specific measures to hit the goal.

The simple, back-to–basics skill of clarity fits the times we live and work in, our VUCA world (volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous) world.

Since we can’t be certain—that is, be absolute—about our situations, we at least can be clear about the ambiguity.

How clear is this?


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