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Les McKeown's Predictable Success Blog

  • April 17, 2021
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The Most Important Leadership Skill You’ll Ever Learn 

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A version of this article first appeared in Inc.com

Listen to Les McKeown read this blog post:

One of the precepts of Predictable Success is that the core of successfully growing any organization is simple: just make – and implement – good decisions.

Even simpler: just make one good decision (your next one). Then follow it by another. Then another. Then another.

Simple, elegant, logical.

One of the delights of my career has been meeting people who can do this like falling off a log. Leaders who, while they’re far from infallible, are able (more often than not) to make good decisions. And not just now and again, but repeatedly, in times of calm and in times of chaos.

The skill that such leaders share is not a subjective one – like good judgment – nor is it a hard-edged objective ability like numerical literacy. (Though these and many other skills are important and useful).

What differentiates serially-good-deciders from the rest of us is pattern recognition. This is the ability to see the generic and lasting patterns that underpin localized and ephemeral data, and which form the unseen framework around which lasting success is built.

Why Patterns Matter

Growth leaders with good pattern recognition skills see another dimension to data – like an aviation engineer who can see the wind flow around a wing when we see only a two-dimensional blueprint; the map-maker who can picture the entire landscape while we see only the contours on the page; or the practiced CPA who can diagnose the health of an entire organization while we see only columns of numbers, what they see is more than the sum of the parts.

Pattern recognition can be learned, and it’s a skill that every leader should develop, hone and practice consistently. 

"What differentiates serially-good-deciders from the rest of us is pattern recognition. This is the ability to see the generic and lasting patterns that underpin localized and ephemeral data, and which form the unseen framework around which lasting success is built." - Les McKeown, Founder and CEO, Predictable Success

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A great place to start is Christopher Alexander‘s expensive, but wonderful book, A Pattern Language. Although the book is about architecture and town planning, the precepts of pattern recognition; how to apply it; the benefits from using it, and good and bad examples have never been more eloquently expressed.

Pattern language is also at the core of the teaching of Ron Heifitz— in my opinion the best leadership thought leader writing today. It’s essentially what he means when he talks about “going to the balcony“– one of his key leadership precepts. 

Any of Heiftz’s books is worth reading, but Leadership on the Line explicitly addresses “going to the balcony.”

Just about everything the prolific Edward Tufte has produced glimmers with the essence of pattern recognition, and in my opinion, attendance at one of his one-day courses (now available online) is one of the best investments any up-and-coming leader can make.

Another great example of using pattern recognition to master a fundamental leadership skill (in this case, productivity management) is my friend David Allen‘s 2-million-copies-and-still-selling masterpiece Getting Things Done

Most people think of GTD as just being about time management or productivity, but really what David has achieved is to recognize the eternal, essential patterns of high performance and mapped them into a comprehensive system–pattern recognition at it’s highest. Highly recommended. 

What about you? How well honed are your pattern recognition skills?

Let Me Know In The Comments Below!

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  1. This is one of your best posts. And it's so important with the growth of the field of data analytics. Understanding and applying statistical methods is important, but the benefit will come from those who see things in that data (like the CPA you mention) that others don't. That's value.

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