The Essential (and Often Overlooked) Elements of Leadership

         By Harry M. Kraemer, Clinical Professor of Management and Strategy

        Professor Harry KraemerWhen discussing leadership issues, I am often asked by my students about nature versus nurture. Are you born with leadership ability? Can it be developed? The short answer to both questions is yes. There are those who have a natural gift of leadership and those who have to work hard to develop it but they both have a lot to learn.

        Some people are born with tremendous athletic ability. They are just natural at running or playing sports. But if they don't eat right or train properly, they never reach their full potential. Yet there are other people who may have only a half or a third of the potential of that natural athlete. But because they are disciplined, focused, and consistent they become champions. The same goes for leadership. No matter how much you start with, if you are willing to train and learn and see it as a lifelong exercise, you can become a phenomenal leader.

        I believe that learning to be an effective, values-based leader begins with four essential elements.

        Learn to keep things simple
        As a leader you really want to keep things simple. Strong leaders are able to cut through the complexity and get down to what really matters. What is the issue? What is the opportunity? What are the alternatives? How are we going to choose among them? How are we going to get the job done? Yes, there may be complex issues involved, but it is the leader’s job to help the team cut through the complexity and get down to the simple issues or opportunities at hand.

        Early in my career people would come up to me and say: “Harry, I have to sit down with you. This is really complicated.” My natural impulse would be to do just that. But as time went by, when I heard that question I would say: “Wait a minute, I have a better idea. Why don’t you sit down, figure out how to make it simple and then we can talk about it.” Cutting through a complex issue and figuring out its essence is an essential element of leadership.

        Consider this: If you are early in your career, think about the last six times you discussed an issue with your boss. Did you lay out the problem and the alternatives? Or were you looking for him or her to do it for you? If you are a senior leader, do the reverse. Are you helping your team develop the ability to reduce a problem to its essence?

        Embrace common sense
        The second thing to think about is to employ good, old-fashioned common sense. I’m fond of paraphrasing something that Mark Twain, the famous American humorist once said: “If you stop and think about it, everything is common sense. The problem is that common sense is not common.” We’ve all been through this, and if we’re honest about it we know this to be the case. Many of us have been in meetings where someone will say: “I know this doesn’t make sense but…” and they keep talking. Nobody stops and says: “Wait a minute. If this doesn’t make sense why are we talking about it?” An effective leader keeps the issues under discussion in the realm of common sense, and if things get off track the leader is disciplined enough to get everyone back on course.

        Consider this: With a trusted colleague, talk through the thorniest issue you are dealing with. As you brainstorm solutions, keep asking if the solution would pass a common sense test. If not, it’s probably not the approach you are looking for.

        Begin early
        The third thing that is essential to leadership development is to get started as soon as you possibly can. Often when I talk about leadership topics with younger folks there is a sense that: “I know this is important. Someday this is going to be really relevant. But I’m just starting off and I don’t have people reporting directly to me.” Perhaps they only manage one or two people or just a small team and say: “I don’t have a lot of people to deal with so this isn’t that applicable to me right now.”

        My opinion is exactly the opposite. I believe that people who are leaders are people who start leading long before they have a significant number of people reporting to them. They see something that needs to be taken care of, and they just go for it. Rather than waiting for someone else, waiting for permission, they literally say: “Someone’s got to do something about it and that person is me. We’re going to make sure we attack this as quickly as we can.” These people do not let the organization get in the way. They actually believe that everyone in the organization is on the same team. And in a respectful way they are going to figure out how to get from here to there.

        Consider this: If you are early in your career, make a list of recent situations in which you had the opportunity to assume an “unofficial” leadership role. Did you take advantage of it? If you are a senior manager, are you looking for ways to encourage members of your team to take the lead? (If you are a parent, are you paying attention to the natural leadership capacity of your children and helping them build upon it?)

        Leadership is a journey
        The fourth element in leadership development is the realization that it is a journey. No matter how good we are as leaders, no matter how much experience we have, we can always get better. Every day is an opportunity to be better than we were the day before. An effective leader is one who realizes that as much as he/she knows, there is more to learn. Think about something you are getting pretty good at and you might say to yourself: “Hey, I think I’m a seven out of ten. I’m an eight out of ten. I’m approaching a nine out of ten.” Somewhere around there you realize; “I’m getting really good at this.” But when you reach that point you realize it isn’t about being a nine out of ten. It’s now really nine out of thirty; or nine out of fifty. The more you know, the more you realize how much better you can be. It’s a journey.

        A couple of years ago, Jeffery Immelt, the Chairman and CEO of General Electric, and I were having lunch before he delivered a commencement speech at Kellogg. I asked him: “Of all the challenges that you have in a company with more than $150 billion in sales, what are you most focused on?” His answer was: “Harry, I’m most focused on how I can be a better leader for my GE teams around the world.”

        If Jeff Immelt is trying to become a better leader, we can all work on figuring out how to become better leaders.

        Consider this: Reflect on your own leadership skills. You know that you have to build upon the areas where you are weak. How about the areas where you are strong? What can you do to build upon an already strong foundation?

        There is much to be learned about leadership. But I believe that getting started does not involve a lot of sophisticated concepts. You should be thinking: How do I keep it simple? How do I employ as much common sense as possible? How do my team and I get started as quickly as we can? And you must realize that leadership is a journey and that you can keep getting better at it every day.

        As the CEO of Baxter International, the $9 billion global healthcare corporation, Harry M. Kraemer was renowned for a leadership style that combined a relentless focus on results with a very human touch. After a 22-year career at Baxter, Kraemer joined Madison Dearborn Partners, a Chicago-based private equity firm as Executive Partner, and began a teaching career at the Kellogg School. Central to Kraemer's scholarship is his exploration of what it takes to be a great leader.

        Harry M. Kraemer's approach to leadership is the topic of his latest book, "From Values to Action: The Four Principles of Values-Based Leadership." Scheduled for publication Spring 2011, it can be pre-ordered through

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