Choices are the hinges that open (or close) the doors of opportunity.

That reality is especially pertinent when it comes to your influence with other people. And if you’re a leader, your job is all about influence.

So how can you be smart about it?

That’s the question that Mark Miller asks—and answers—in his new book SMART LEADERSHIP: Four Simple Choices to Scale Your Impact.

Miller is vice president of high-performance leadership at Chick-fil-A and a bestselling author, leadership coach, and highly-sought-after speaker. He’s authored nine books to date, including bestsellers The Secret (with Ken Blanchard) and The Heart of Leadership, with more than one million copies in print in 25 languages.

In SMART LEADERSHIP, Miller provides a wealth of research-based counsel on how to deal with busyness, distractions, complexity, and many other struggles that leaders face. And he makes clear from the beginning that your impact is not dependent on your IQ, your education, or your role or level in your organization. Your impact is all about your choices—choices that are within reach for every leader at every level.

This is a book that can help you:

  • Enhance your leadership approach with fresh eyes and fresh thinking.
  • Boost your confidence in your ability to provide make-a-difference leadership.
  • Lead in ways you never thought possible.
  • Accelerate your learning curve.

Miller offers leadership coaching that you can put to practical use immediately.

Rodger Dean Duncan: You use quicksand as the metaphor representing the challenges many leaders face. Why?

Mark Miller: Leaders have always been under immense amounts of pressure—competing priorities, increasing complexity, and the never-ending expectation to do more. The pandemic has only made this worse. When you add to this the sheer volume of work and the busyness it spawns, you have a toxic mix.

If you want to go one layer down, you’ll find additional contributors to this mess—meetings, distractions, email, texts, social media and more. If all of this were not enough, for some you can add fatigue, aimlessness, and even success, to the long and growing list of things pushing and pulling against a leader who wants to make a difference in the world. We call this combination of elements quicksand.

When leaders find themselves in quicksand, regardless of its composition, they have only three options.

Sink – For many leaders, they just cannot do it anymore. They quit. They may not literally quit, but emotionally, mentally, and psychologically, they are done. At some level they die inside. Their hopes, dreams, and aspirations are extinguished.

Swim – This is by far the most common response I see around the world. Not that this is the most effective strategy, it just fits the temperament of many leaders. Many have a self-perception that the work is supposed to be grueling and they are supposed to keep swimming. There are several problems with this approach. The two primary issues are that swimming is quicksand is not sustainable, and you will never do your best work mired in the quagmire.Escape – This is the path of the Smart Leaders. They understand that despite their best efforts, they may from time to time be sucked in to the mess we’ve been describing. However, they know they must extricate themselves if they’re going to help their team or organization excel over time. You must lead from the high ground. Escape is the only reasonable plan of attack. 

Duncan: Choices, it’s been said, are the hinges to our destiny. You say a leader’s effectiveness hinges on four smart choices—Confront Reality, Grow Capacity, Fuel Curiosity, Create Change. How did you come to focus on those particular choices?

Mark Miller

Miller: We’ve been talking to leaders for more than two decades. We have interviewed and surveyed thousands of women and men around the world. Our team did countless hours of desk research. For this particular project, we were initially trying to identify what was impeding leadership effectiveness. As we began, we thought it was the quicksand we just described. Then, we realized there were some leaders who were not encumbered by these same elements. That’s when we shifted our focus and our search to the question—What do some leaders (we called them Smart Leaders) know and do that the rest of us can learn?

We ultimately decided the real villain in this story is not the quicksand. It’s us! Leaders have the power to escape. Our questioning then turned to “How?”  What emerged were the four choices you referenced in your question.   

Duncan: Of course, not all choices are created equal. You differentiate between smart choices and three other kinds of choices. Please elaborate.

Miller: Human beings make roughly 30,000 remotely conscious choices every day. These range from the trivial to the routine and habitual. There are also opportunities to make some choices with disproportionate impact. We call these Smart Choices.

We define a Smart Choice as one requiring more focus, energy, and intention, while at the same time, if made wisely, it can yield a high impact outcome. These are the choices Smart Leaders want to be sure to include in their daily routine. 

Duncan: We don’t need to look far to find leaders who fail to confront reality. What are some of the most common impediments?

Miller: This has been a fun question for us. I have begun asking leaders if they know “other leaders” who are unwilling to confront reality. In every case, the answer is yes. Of course, I never ask an individual leader, “Why are you unwilling to confront the truth?” Here are some of the answers I’ve been given:

  • Living in denial
  • Arrogance
  • Life is good
  • Short-term thinking
  • Appearance over performance
  • Disengaged
  • Distracted
  • Fear of failure
  • Too busy

Duncan: What specific practices can help a leader confront reality?

Miller: If a leader is willing to make the first Smart Choice to Confront Reality, she will need to activate this choice with action. The same will be true with the other choices. Intention alone creates no traction.

There are many things a leader can do to make good on this choice. One of my personal favorites is to Find Fresh Eyes. These are truth-tellers who help you see and confront reality. These can be consultants, coaches, mentors, colleagues, even a personal board of directors. If they do their job well, they will help you:

  • Challenge assumptions
  • Confront your bias
  • Ask the right questions
  • Introduce new ideas
  • Get your attention 

Duncan: What questions can leaders ask themselves to help in confronting reality?

Miller: There are an infinite number of questions a leader can ask to help confront reality. I find it helpful to bucket these. A few categories to consider include leadership skills, leadership character, performance, your team, and your organization.

Here are a couple of questions for each of these to jumpstart your own list of questions.


How well do you see the future?

How engaged are the people you lead?


Are you more optimistic or pessimistic?

Are you a serving leader or a self-serving leader?


How would my peers describe my performance?

How would my supervisor describe my performance?


Do you have the right people on your team?

Does your team have absolute role clarity?


How is our performance against our potential?

Is everyone in the organization fully engaged and excited about our future?

Duncan: You recommend “focus days” for leaders who wish to grow their capacity. Tell us about that.

Miller: One of the most interesting and counterintuitive findings in our research was the presence of margin in the lives of Smart Leaders. This was not confined to low level, low responsibility leaders with few direct reports or limited scope. We discovered the more responsibility a leader has, the higher the stakes, the more daunting the challenges, the more these leaders embrace margin. A 12-year, Harvard study revealed CEOs, on average, invest 28% of their week working alone.

Now, for those who might quickly say, “I don’t have time for a vacation,” I would say, you may be right. However, the type of margin I’m describing is a leadership discipline, not an energy replenishing strategy. We define margin as dedicated time to Reflect, Assess, Think, Create, and Plan. These activities, and how well you do them, will seal your fate as a leader. Margin is the key. 

Duncan: For an effective leader, what does fueling curiosity “look like” in terms of observable behaviors?

Miller: I have been asked for years, “Is there a leadership fountain of youth?” My historical response has been, “I hope so!” Like many of people, I want to add value until my last breath. While doing this work, we discovered the source of on-going relevance and vitality for leaders: Curiosity.

Regarding the observable behaviors associated with this choice, I would offer these—

  • Questions – Does the leader ask more than tell?
  • Sphere of Interest – Does the leader maintain a big view of the world?
  • Calendar – Does the leader consistently schedule learning opportunities?

Duncan: What seem to be the most common speed bumps facing leaders who want to create change, and how do effective leaders deal with those speed bumps?

Miller: The ultimate test of a leader is his or her ability to create positive, strategic, and sustained change.

For many leaders, the first speed bump is a belief in their own agency. Far too many leaders have an external locus of control. They believe they are the recipients of change, not the agent of change. If you do not believe you can create change, you will likely not.

Another tragic barrier is a leader who doesn’t have a preferred future to pursue. This can be quickly summarized as a lack of vision. If you don’t have a better tomorrow in your head and your heart, you will not be willing to do the hard work to create a new reality.Finally, many leaders do not use the tools, resources, and methods at their disposal. Every leader has a toolbox, fully stocked with all the widgets, gadgets, and latest technology to create change. These include measurement, accountability, recognition, teams, six-sigma, vision, strategic communications, planning, your passion for the work, and more. It’s time to dust off some of the old tools and put them to work. 

Duncan: Why would any leader want to make these Smart Choices?

Miller: Leaders are the indispensable levers needed to change the world. We know from physics that the force latent in a lever is minimal. However, when placed strategically and used wisely, it becomes a force multiplier. That’s why our role as leaders is so critical.

We can do virtually nothing of scale and consequence alone, yet if we steward our influence well, we can challenge, equip, and inspire others to do what was previously unimaginable. Everything rises and falls on leadership. Your team, your organization, your family, your friends and the world—they all need you to lead well. However, to change the world, we must escape the quicksand.

The good news is that every leader has a superpower, the ability to make choices. If you make the Smart Choices, you will scale your impact, change your world, and leave a legacy for generations.

Be Smart!

This column was first published by Forbes, where Dr. Duncan is a regular contributor.

Rodger Dean Duncan