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Les McKeown's Predictable Success Blog

  • October 30, 2022
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How to be a Leader who makes a difference 

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A version of this article first appeared in Inc.com

Listen to Les McKeown read this blog post:

The greatest need we face within our organizations today is leadership that makes real, positive change in the long term.

And yet, because of the financial market’s short-term focus on results, the media’s need to fill column inches (or on-screen pixels), and a culture that fetes celebrity, we reward the new, the counter-intuitive and the loud, with little thought given to their potential long-term impact.

As leaders, our greatest challenge amidst all this noise is to find a way to build organizations that grow and are sustainable in the long term, which provide valuable and rewarding employment, and which contribute to a just and fair society.

Achieving this requires us to do more than simply rush to the next opportunity and extract the maximum short-term gain. It requires us instead to be leaders who think about, value and act in the interest of the long-term. Leaders who change lives, and who leave a legacy.

I get to spend every day with leaders from organizations of all sizes and types, and over the years I’ve come to believe that most leaders want to do just this, but find it hard to break free from the insistent demands of the urgent, to focus on the quieter needs of what is important and lasting.

I’ve also had the privilege of watching many leaders at close hand achieve true greatness –  becoming leaders who truly changed industries, cities, lives.

Here are the four steps I’ve seen all of them take, in becoming a leader who makes a difference:

1. Find A Place Of Solitude.

Every great leader needs a place where they can think. Somewhere away from the constant clatter of incoming information, somewhere quiet, somewhere contemplative.

A blessed few leaders have the mental strength to achieve this state of abstraction anywhere – in a crowded office, or anytime during the hurly-burly of a busy day.

The rest of us need to work at it.

For me, the mundane task of walking my dog three times a day gives me the time I need to think consciously, unpolluted by the dopamine-inducing ping of incoming alerts, or the lure of conversation (tip: leave your phone behind, or switch it off).

Other leaders I know use a visit to the gym, the act of making a meal, or have a favorite chair in a quiet room.

Where’s your place of solitude?

2. Discover Your Contemplation Trigger.

Solitude is a worthwhile state in and of itself, but we’re considering it here as a vehicle – a means to think clearly and deeply about matters of importance.

But with all the manifold possibilities, with the myriad of issues that press in on us every day, what should we spend time thinking about in more detail?

It’s alarmingly easy to emerge from an hour of solitude to discover that our lizard brain has hopscotched from topic to topic, or dwelt on matters of (merely) tactical importance.

Here’s what I use as my ‘contemplation trigger’:

What is the single greatest challenge I face today that will profoundly affect the success of my enterprise one year from now?

Put another way: What's the one thing I'm in danger of looking back on and bitterly regretting I didn't do? Or stop doing? Or change in some way?

The one-year horizon works for me in most cases because of the nature of my business – however, at least once a year, I set aside a week’s contemplation to focus on a three-year horizon. (Your mileage may vary.)

3. Develop A Gestation Routine.

We live in a time of instant gratification.

Read something semi-interesting? Post it on Twitter. 

Saw something funny? Share a photo on Instagram.

Cute cat trick? Hop on TikTok. 

Formed an opinion about something? Write a blog post. (ahem)

Leadership, especially leadership in the long term, requires us to forgo instant gratification - not simply as a repudiation of a banal, I-share-therefore-I-am zeitgeist, but because reflection and contemplation are the compost of great ideas and the genesis of deep commitment.

Time is the most precious resource you can give to your leadership. The sacrifice of time – choosing to pause, and investing in reflection – is the price we pay to build the depth of leadership that leaves behind a legacy, and not just a fast-vanishing footprint.

I like to use the ‘rule of 90’: 

  • Wait 90 seconds before sharing the brilliant idea that just struck you in mid-discussion;
  • Take 90 minutes before sending that email with your no-brainer tactical instruction;
  • Allow 90 hours (four days) for strategic thoughts to percolate before sharing;
  • Invest at least 90 days in ensuring your latest truly game-changing idea takes root.

Does this mean abandoning your intuition and forgoing on-the-spot improvisation? Of course not, but like any great football team, your no-huddle offense will deliver long-term success only with the discipline and solid foundation of well-planned, well-rehearsed, well-executed plays.

"Time is the most precious resource you can give to your leadership". - Les McKeown, Founder and CEO, Predictable Success

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4. Model More Than You Share.

In the over-sharing culture we live in, we’re in danger of forgetting that leadership comes through leading, not by telling.

Seeing it isn’t doing it. Sharing it isn’t doing it. Only doing it is doing it.

Try this: 

Next time you see a leadership need in your organization – whether it’s about how people should be treated (customers, clients or employees); how you communicate internally or externally; or what your long-term mission, vision or values are, try modeling the change you want to see without the use of emails, memos or powerpoint presentations.

See how long it takes your people to recognize and understand what you want from them, without merely telling them. To revitalize a much-cheapened saying:

Be the change you desire.

Mahatma Gandhi

Don’t have time to model change? Thinking, ‘Great idea, but it’s easier and quicker to send a memo‘?

That’s fine – no one will die and the sun will come up tomorrow. But remember, by focussing on the short term rather than the long term,  you’re leaving behind footprints on a beach when you could be changing lives.

What about you? What steps are you taking to become a leader who makes a difference?

Let Me Know In The Comments Below!

Feature Image Credit: Wooden Chessboards


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  1. Love this company I have to attend a business assessment centre on Tuesday and am looking for tips Inc is super

  2. Great advice, Les — your last point particularly resonates with me. I’m always troubled by leaders who employ the “do as I say, not as I do” approach — it’s unfair and unrealistic to expect your people to adopt behaviors that you don’t have the discipline to practice yourself. — denise lee yohn

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