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What Every Leader Should Know
Author: Jerry R. Strom   Published

  Leaders need to continually enhance their skills to meet the challenges of change, grow with their jobs, and increase their value to the organizations they serve. Gains in business acumen advance careers, while leadership improvements positively affect performance levels all around, and deliver business results.

But there’s a lot of information out there. So what’s most important to know … exactly? That’s the rub.

As leaders strive to improve themselves, self-development efforts require a point of emphasis — critical insights on what to address for success — priorities on which to concentrate.

Those thoughts led us to initiate an important leadership research project, “The Focal Points Leadership Study.” This effort spanned nearly a year — gathering opinions from hundreds of leaders across the American landscape. In total, 403 written surveys were collected; providing answers to the question, “What’s the one most important thing a leader should know?”

This study clarifies essential developmental focal points for leaders at all levels.

Focal Points Leadership Study: The top response in the study garnered over twice as many mentions (23.8% vs. 11.4% of the total) than the second highest factor.

    Now We Know Where to Focus

We found the majority of the data (81%) concentrates on just 10 mindsets/leadership skills that leaders should develop and possess. Further, data narrows near the top of the list, with the most highly rated skill accounting for nearly 1 of every 4 responses — which is more than twice the number of mentions than any other attribute. Thus, the first focal point in this study is easily highlighted as the top priority for leadership.

Additionally, we found the top-10 factors fall distinctly into one of two categories: either interpersonal skills or business skills. However, when you add the scores for each category, these two groupings are not equal by any measure — interpersonal skills absolutely dominate business skills — capturing 83% of their combined numbers.

    Thus, we can say with certainty that leaders need to focus on people.

The First Thing Leaders Should Know — Their People

  Since 23.8% of those surveyed emphasize the importance of “Knowing People” — the number one answer by a landslide — we need to consider one of the fundamental assumptions: “Assuming you as the leader know the tasks/goals/objectives at hand, you must know how to most effectively inspire those around you to take on the tasks that best suit them. It’s all about the staff — strengths, weaknesses, dreams, fears, likes and dislikes, items that hold importance to them — knowing and understanding is essential to leading people.”

[It’s interesting to note how this thought intersects with data from our earlier ‘Fault Lines Leadership Study’ — whereby leaders are often seen as having “poor evaluative skills; regularly misjudging people, failing to see what their real capabilities are, and lacking proficiency in distinguishing good performers from poor (as compared to how workers are perceived by their peers).” A rather disappointing evaluation of leaders who are expected to know better.]

“Knowing People” can be subdivided into 4 main aspects: their job skills, their perspectives, their drives, and their values. Let’s consider each:

  • Job Skills   Topping the list in terms of knowing people (33.3% of the subset) is the aptitude of each person to perform their jobs; their ‘talents,’ per se. “This tells you what your resources are, who’s strongest in certain areas, who’s struggling to keep up or trying to stay engaged.”

    You learn this by paying attention to their work product. Recognizing individual talents allows you to think freely on how to make work attractive to each person, and how they can accomplish their tasks efficiently and expediently. It gives you clues on how to utilize what each person can offer in their own special way.

    “People need to be nurtured regularly, and maintained just as you would your most sensitive piece of equipment.”

  • Perspectives   22.9% of this subset pointed to knowing people’s perspectives, which comes from their experiences and personalities; making up the unique attributes of each person. “A leader needs to understand the differences in people in order to lead a group. One model does not fit everyone.”

    You do this by learning more about them than what they can do at work — taking an active interest in them, asking questions, and finding out about their lives. “We need to know them beyond their title and job description — you cannot assume everyone perceives things the same as you do. Understanding how others process your actions makes you a better leader.”

  • Drives   Motivations (14.6%) give people the energy to achieve, participate whole-heartedly, or not. Recognizing the needs of people allows you to bring to the surface what motivates them. “A new mother would be best tele-working, while a new employee fresh from school would more likely need praise and reassurance. Do they thrive on time pressure, or are they intimidated by it? Do they need coaching, or to be left alone?”

    Motivations can range from the overall challenge of the assignment, to personal preferences about how to do the work, or what type of working environment the worker prefers. Learning what drives them takes a lot of thought, information, understanding and discernment.

  • Values   Everyone has opinions, but they don’t always express them. A person’s true value system is lived out in their actions. So pay attention.

    By knowing what’s important to them, the leader can modify his/her approach to speak most effectively to the team or team member. “Unless others feel you have their interests and needs at heart they will not fully trust your leadership.”

    Learn by appreciating where they’re headed and why they’re going there. “Knowledge at this level allows for relationship-building (mutual trust), and a greater respect for each other and the common goal. The leader should always take into consideration the thoughts and opinions of the group he/she is leading.”

Eight of the Top-10 Things to Know are Interpersonal

  People are more important than tasks — getting and keeping the right personnel is of the most importance. Therefore, if you’re an astute learner and take care of your people, the job or mission will be completed in an exceptional manner. “If you hammer people to get things done, you will get things done eventually, but the folks won’t respect you or want to continue following your lead/direction. If you work with them, communicate, share ‘why’ something is needed or share the impacts — you will get more cooperation, it will be easier, with higher morale, and people will repeat the behavior.”

Moreover, there’s an enormous synergy to be gained by proficiency in interpersonal skills from top to bottom: knowing people, knowing how to communicate/listen, knowing yourself, knowing what motivates, leading by example, needing and valuing people, having people skills/serving others, and showing flexibility. Excellence in the interpersonal realm of leadership offers a dramatic and unifying force for accomplishment.

Communication Links Interpersonal and Business Skills

  As a final thought to this analysis, it’s important to understand a key linkage between your knowledge of people and getting your business imperatives/tasks/mission done. Consider how the top-3 findings in this report work in concert with one another.

This study concentrates 46.2% of all responses in the top-3 skills: knowing people (23.8%), Knowing how to communicate/listen (11.4%), and knowing the business’ mission/vision and goals/direction (10.9%). It’s the communication piece in the middle that highlights how to pull the two sides together. “Knowing what gets your people going, both as a group and as individuals, can be used to discover processes, procedures, and means to engage them in believing the company mission. Articulating it well enables belief in the mission, which in turn supports achieving it and the goals of the company.”

A knowledgeable leader is a more focused and capable leader — an able facilitator of the group, “both telling and listening” — who pulls everything together and leads to the desired output.


J e r r y   S t r o m   &   C o . ,   I n c .

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The 'Focal Points Study: The Most Important Things a Leader Should Know' was compiled from data generated through 403 individual written surveys collected between November 2009 and September 2010. All participants in the study were actively working and their organizations were spread across the continental United States and Hawaii. Respondents represented widely-varying professions and careers, and held leadership positions from senior leadership all the way down to junior roles. Participants were ethnically diverse; and varied widely in their levels of career experience.

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