Leadership Failures Part Two: Failing to Give Direction

Today continues a four-part series about leadership failures that I started last week. The focus of today’s post? Failing to give direction. 

Part 2: I Fail To Give Direction 

Today’s lesson is so basic that it is easy to discount. But it’s at the heart of the biggest organizational issue I hear repeated time and time again: communication. Whether I am in a benchmarking group surrounded by other business leaders, in an interview with a prospective candidate, or working on strategic planning with our executive team, communication is the culprit most point to in terms of organizational problems. We keep talking about it because we are not good at fixing it — fixing it is so basic we fail to do it. 

Allow me to explain with an illustration. 

More Important As Time Goes By

The day after I met my wife Sarah, I called her to try to arrange our first date — I wanted to make sure I acted quickly. Unfortunately, she didn’t pick up the phone when I called. So I did something I’d rather not admit: I left her a completely rambling voicemail. And I know this will sound cheesy, but at some point in my rambling, I told her that I thought she was amazing and unlike anyone I’d ever met. 

Thankfully, she called me back and didn’t think I was crazy. In fact, she told me months later that the word “amazing” got to her (note: this is probably the only time in my life I’ve ever left an effective voicemail!) 

At some point along our path, “amazing” turned to love. When we crossed into the “love” threshold, we used that word all the time  — as I’m sure you did when you first fell in love! We’d hang out on Tuesday nights, then would have to wait until Friday afternoon to see each other again. We counted down the minutes in between, surviving on phone calls. And, of course, each conversation ended with us telling the other how much we loved them. (Gosh, this is sappy — even I’m rolling my eyes, so I’ll totally forgive you if you’re doing the same.)  

Fast forward to the present, and we’ve been married for many years. We still say we love each other, but let’s be honest — it isn’t exactly the same as the “puppy love” stage of infatuation.

But here is my point: saying we love each other is just as important today as it was way back in the early days of our relationship. In fact, I think it may be even more important as time goes by.  

How Leaders Communicate

How does this relate to leadership? At some point along a leader’s journey, they become convinced that there are things they no longer have to communicate to others. For example: 

  • Affirmation (we will cover this in part 3) 
  • Direction 
  • Vision

And the list above is only the start. The temptation is to believe that the people we lead are smart enough to affirm themselves, know what to do, and understand where we’re going. We have this temptation because if we have hired correctly, the people we lead ARE SMART ENOUGH to know these things. 

But we still need to tell them — just like we need to tell our spouses how much they mean to us. 

Leaders Don’t Insist on Mind Readers

Words matter, so leaders use words. 

Leaders do not rely on their followers’ ability to read their minds. 

The failure above is why so many people point to communication being our biggest organizational issue. 

Just as I would be a fool not to tell Sarah how much I love her still, I would also be a fool for not telling my direct reports what is important and what isn’t. 

Putting it Into Practice

Last year, we lost one of our teammates to their father-in-law’s business. The best candidate to replace them was a very bright individual already working with us — and he’s done a terrific job so far in his new role. Yet, when I was reflecting on his first year, I realized I had failed to formalize a KRA (Key Results Area) with him. To be sure, we had talked through a lot of the things I would have included, but there was nothing formalized. 

I had failed to give adequate direction. 

So we met and talked through the first year. Kudos to him; he had done a terrific job. Our team was moving in the right direction, projects were completed on time and under budget, and his peers praised him. Put bluntly, he had outperformed my leadership. 

Clarity + Affirmation = Effective Communication

As we talked about 2023, however, we co-created a KRA for the year. The way I do this with executives is I allow them to create the initial draft, and then we meet to talk about their three strategic initiatives for the year. Because of our weekly check-in meetings, his three strategic initiatives aligned precisely with what I thought was the most important. Still, this process gave us space to validate it formally and gave us both clarity that this was the direction we were going. Before leaving my office, he commented that he was doing the same exercise with his direct reports. 

Clarity and affirmation are two of the most important seeds of communication. Plant those seeds, and the harvest is plentiful. To this end, a leader must use their words to clarify and affirm. It is not rocket science, so it is tempting to think, “I don’t need to do this.” 

But just like you should tell your spouse you love them, you should clarify the most basic things for your followers. Assuming they know will not only be hurtful but also a failure of leadership.