The Importance of Clarity - pt I

Posted on 27th April, 2009

The Mayor of London recently gave a wide-ranging interview to the Evening Standard.


With his usual flamboyance, Boris covered everything from Cincinnatus and his plough to the sacking of Britain’s most senior policeman. Readers of this blog, however, will be most interested by his comments on leadership:


“People don’t care what decision you make, they just bloody well want a decision”


It’s an unusual – and somewhat risky – thing for someone whose job depends on votes to say, but is he right?


Marcus Buckingham thinks so. In his compelling book, The One Thing You Need To Know, Buckingham argues that the number one priority of leaders should be to offer clarity.  


Indeed, leaders have a duty, he continues, to set out beyond a shadow of a doubt where they stand and what they will or will not tolerate.  


This duty of clarity is so acute because it is what those being led want. And they want this, says Buckingham, more than anything else at all – including liking or agreeing with whatever is being said.


It’s an interesting idea: that whether or not we like the decision is of secondary importance to actually getting that decision. And I’m interested to hear whether or not readers of this blog agree.


Certainly the anecdotal evidence I have (and it is only that) suggests that Messrs Johnson and Buckingham are indeed telling us an uncomfortable truth about ourselves.


Take a second to consider the most effective leader you can think of – business, political, even social. Is that person clear? Indeed, would you go so far as to say that being clear – even when that clarity drives you crazy – is one of their defining characteristics? This is certainly my experience.


In making and implementing clear decisions, one way or another, leaders set the agenda. It may not be an agenda that others like, but at least we all have something to react to. Even die-hard opponents of an idea ultimately tend to want a clear decision: it gives them something tangible to be “against”.  As countless political opposition parties around the world have found, it is very difficult to mobilise people either for or against mere ideas; uncrystallised, embryonic thoughts.  Ask the boys and girls behind The Project For A New American Century: they were desperate for a “catastrophic and catalyzing event”. (They got it.)


Staff opinion survey after survey that I have run also suggests to me that Buckingham et al are on the right lines here: well-intentioned employers earnestly asking their people what they think, only to find themselves being hammered on the questions on leadership.


Hearing a CEO recently lamenting the slow decision-making process of his customers was equally interesting. “We’d rather have a ‘no’ than a drawn-out ‘maybe’” he told me.  Whilst a “yes, we would like to take advantage of your product” was always preferable, this individual argued that a “no” at least freed up his employees to concentrate resource elsewhere rather than hang on interminably for a decision that might never come.


Dithering has never had a good press.


Take a decision, good or bad, and one way or another you set the agenda. 

For leaders, this is a core responsbility - to themselves if no one else.

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Comments (1)

I have to disagree. Leaders are far too quick to act these days. Look at the second war in Iraq as a prime example which costs thousands of innocent lives. However, appreciating due consideration among those in power is very dfiferent from supporting a flip-flopper like Bruno, which is perhaps the worst type of leader. Obviously as a wanabe academic these days, I believe that consideration in general is a positive human trait and that decisiveness leads to unnecessaryly incorrect decisions and perspectives!