An Hour to Learn the Leader’s Checklist

An executive briefs his top management team on plans for the coming year, referencing product launches, pricing pressures and analyst concerns. Managers hear nothing about how the executive views them collectively or what is expected of them individually. Even worse, they learn little about the larger goals and strategies they are pursing.

My work on leadership development confirms that meetings like this take place all the time to universal consternation. Sometimes the problem is a simple lack of experience. Yet my research suggests that applying a checklist can mitigate and eliminate leadership lapses, not only in routine meetings but also when jobs, businesses and even lives are on the line.

The Leader’s Checklist lays out 15 mission-critical, time-tested leadership principles that vary surprisingly little among companies or countries. Collectively, these principles are a template for decision-making.

In the brief time since The Leader’s Checklist was published, I have heard from managers who have held these principles up to the reality of their own lives and difficult economic times. They have reported back about what needs greater emphasis or tweaking, as well as on what struck home with special force.

Managers have reported that three particular principles have more often been missing in action than others. In some cases, the managers said, they had too seldom or inconsistently utilized them in the exercise of their own leadership. Just as often, they had too infrequently witnessed their use among other leaders. Either way, the result has been the same: compromised leadership at a moment when an enterprise cannot afford to flounder.

These three principles are:

Honor the Room: Express confidence in and support for those who work for you.

Communicate Persuasively: Communicate in ways that people will never forget.

Place Common Interest First: Common purpose comes first, parochial concerns last.

Many management cultures do not adequately emphasize or build these three mission-critical principles into their leadership development programs. Their absence is keenly felt and sometimes proves disastrous to company reputation, the bottom line and the national interest.

Several principles take on special salience when facing especially stressful times (like the present). These include:

Think and Act Strategically: Set forth a strategy for moving forward both short- and long-term, and ensure that it is widely understood; consider all the players and anticipate reactions before they are manifest.

Take Charge: Embrace a bias for action, of taking responsibility even if it is not formally delegated, particularly if you are positioned to make a difference.

Act Decisively: Make good and timely decisions and ensure that they are executed.

There is no more important time for leaders to remember to highlight these principles in action than when a company is restructuring, a country is floundering or a community is struggling. With wild gyrations on the stock markets, downgrades in sovereign debt and sputtering recoveries in many economies, enterprise leaders are all but compelled to redouble their strategic thinking, decisive decision-making and a willingness to take charge.

Editor’s note: This blog is adapted from the author’s expanded edition of The Leader’s Checklist (Wharton Digital Press, 2011). The book will also serve as the topic of an upcoming webinar on Sept. 27, led by Mike Useem.

Find additional information about upcoming programs in the Wharton Webinar Series here.

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