When it comes to language I am a basic guy that likes to speak in plain English. I try to avoid flowery language or “corporate speak” because it can be distracting and time-wasting. I have limited time, like everyone else, and like to get the point as quickly as possible.

With this in mind I participated recently in a large group discussion about leadership and more precisely whether there is a universal job description for leaders. It was a great topic but the discussion meandered for several hours and never really got anywhere. Out of frustration and with less than an hour to go, I piped up and asked everyone to quickly complete the following sentence in 25 words or less –

“My job description as a leader is to…”

The answers produced were interesting and almost everyone agreed that the best answer was –

“My job description as a leader is to work on the big stuff and the small stuff and leave everything else to middle managers and staff to sort out.”

It was a simple but brilliant answer that cuts to the heart of leadership

The big stuff is obvious and involves spending time in deep reflection which ultimately leads to innovating, discovering a purpose, creating a vision, and choosing a strategic direction. It is future-focused and is an essential part of the job. Without it a business will be a rambling, unfocused, pointless mess. With it, it can be a juggernaut.

A key part of the big stuff is selling the vision and strategy to your team. If they buy in to it then you’re on your way.  To do that a leader must set a great personal example, demonstrate the possibilities, reassure and give the team hope for a prosperous future. The leader’s job is as much to inspire as to confront realities pragmatically. In the end they have to make people comfortable with what the company is doing and where it is heading.

The small stuff is important too and is neglected by many leaders. The small stuff can include those niggling, seemingly insignificant matters that seem to recur and take up company time to fix. They might be process matters or relationship matters with key partners (suppliers, customers, staff etc.) or anything else that slows progress.

Individually they might seem small but they may be pointers to much larger “iceberg” issues lurking below the surface that, if left unchecked, could be potentially disastrous later on. Good leaders understand this and are constantly looking for the points of vulnerability (or opportunity) in their businesses. They never ignore them or other vague warning signs that routinely cross their sights and intervene quickly to deal with them. This is the essence of focusing on the small stuff.

What leaders shouldn’t do is prescriptively tell people how to do their jobs. They need to let their people figure that out for themselves within the confines of the organisation’s overall strategy and business rules. This gives them freedom to think creatively and empowers them to get on with it. This is the anti-thesis of micro-managing. A generous delegation of authority (and trust) is required to do this.

The trick for leaders is not to sit in an ivory tower far removed from the practical day-to-day realities of their businesses. Nor should they get bogged down in an endless grind of daily minutia. Getting the balance right is essentially their job description (and ultimately their greatest challenge). The ones that do stand a greater chance of leading businesses that change markets and leave their competitors floundering in their wake…