Dwight Eisenhower gave us great food for thought when he defined leadership as “the art of getting someone else to do something you want done because he wants to do it.”

Still, the recipe for effective leadership is one of the most elusive questions in the worlds of relationships and organizational behavior.

It’s safe to say that,10,000 years ago, hunter-gatherers practiced leadership differently than people do today.

But we don’t need to look that far into the past to see how the practice of leadership has evolved—and continues to do so. The changing roles of women provide a dramatic example. When General Motors was founded in 1908, women couldn’t even vote. Today, a woman is GM’s CEO.

In addition, today’s leadership studies include concepts from neuroscience, evolutionary biology and behavioral economics. And in current public dialogue, some subjects—love, justice and happiness come to mind—seem to defy complete description. Leadership seems to be one such subject.

I recently read a new book that sheds some helpful light. It’s The CEO Test: Master the Challenges That Make or Break All Leaders. Don’t miss that subtitle. This is a practical playbook for executives at all levels.

The authors bring exceptionally well-informed perspectives to the subject. Adam Bryant has conducted in-depth interviews with more than 600 CEOs, starting with the Corner Office series he created at The New York Times and now in his role as managing director of Merryck & Co., an executive mentoring firm. Co-author Kevin Sharer spent more than two decades as president and then CEO of Amgen, the world’s largest biotech company. He’s served on many boards, taught strategy and management at Harvard Business School, and is a sought-after executive mentor. 

Adam Bryant

Adam took time to talk about their findings.

Rodger Dean Duncan: Whether a first-time manager or CEO, where does an investment in time and energy seem to produce the greatest return on effort?

Adam Bryant: At the top of the list, my co-author Kevin Sharer and I believe that creating clarity around strategy is the foundational cornerstone of any successful enterprise. And while that may sound obvious, leaders run into difficulty because there is no shared understanding of what the word “strategy” means.

In our consulting work, we often find that when we ask people to describe their strategy, they respond with high-level general descriptions about what the company does, or they dive down into granular details about all their priorities for the next quarter.

What’s missing from these discussions is a concise and simple plan of what the team, division or company overall is trying to achieve in a set time period—the three or four key levers that must be pulled to reach that goal; the three or four main challenges that must be overcome; and a scoreboard for measuring success. Many leaders, regardless of their rank, do not spend enough time on this exercise, even though the return on investment to get it right is immense. This is the art of simplifying complexity, and it‘s a crucial skill of all effective leaders. With effort, it can be learned.

Duncan: In this information-bloated age, many leaders are swamped with data. In what ways can they gain meaningful experience in quickly grasping the conceptual essence of issues—what you call a high “get-it” factor?

Bryant: It’s a discipline and habit of mind that can and should be practiced. It requires a kind of passionate curiosity and relentless questioning when faced with a new issue or challenge. Why is this important? What’s unique and surprising? What is the underlying theme? What are the consequences that people might not appreciate? What are the three most important insights for somebody who is learning about this? In some ways, it’s about getting in touch with our inner child and always asking “why?”

Duncan: You urge leaders to “Beware of ‘Expert-itis.’” What does that mean?

Bryant: When leaders are too close to their subject—for example, knowing all the nuances and subtleties of the company’s strategy—that can lead to a dangerous trap of assuming that everyone else has the same level of knowledge. So, what is clear in a leader’s mind is often not clear to everyone else, leading to a common blind spot. Leaders need to push themselves to see the world through the eyes of their employees at all levels—those who don’t share that same level of expertise. A key sign of expert-itis is a leader saying, “Everybody knows that.” Chances are they don’t. This is related to the art of simplifying complexity mentioned earlier. The complexity has to be simplified so that someone encountering it for the first time understands it clearly.

Duncan: In addition to “walking the talk” themselves, how can leaders most effectively close the gap between the organization’s professed values and the daily behaviors observed in the workplace?

Bryant: The values have to be reinforced at every opportunity so employees understand that the guardrails of expected behavior are real and that they matter. Companies that are intentional about reinforcing their values use them in the hiring and onboarding process, as well as in their decisions to let people go. Whether people live the values is a factor in assessing performance and should even be included as part of incentive compensation. They are rewarded in quarterly and annual awards, with stories to bring them to life. And there can be no exceptions made for the proverbial high-performing jerk. If the rules are not enforced evenly, employees will spot that in a second, and those lapses will breed cynicism about a culture of double standards.

Duncan: What do you recommend as the leader’s primary areas of focus on the team?

Bryant: Too often, leaders pull together a team without giving much thought to how the team will operate. And then the leadership team meetings are often simply gatherings with no agenda other than people taking turns to provide updates to the leader. We believe team leaders need to address each of these four threshold questions that are often overlooked:

  • What is the purpose of a team?
  • Who should be on the team?
  • How will the team work together?
  • What is the leader’s role on the team? 

Duncan: You quote New York Times publisher A. G. Sulzberger as saying that “tradition needs to be constantly interrogated.” How does that apply to leaders, and how does that application vary according to where the leaders are on their career paths?

Bryant: We are in an era of constant disruption, meaning that every leader has to drive a transformation agenda. Status quo is simply not an option. But transformation represents risk and uncertainty to employees, and so they often resist efforts to change. Leaders must therefore be explicit about what is going to change and what is not going to change. As Sulzberger told me, organizations need to separate mission from tradition.

“Mission should never be tinkered with,” Sulzberger said. “You mess with mission at your own risk. Tradition needs to be constantly interrogated. Now tradition isn’t necessarily bad. There are traditions that, once you interrogate them, hold up perfectly. And some companies undergoing change will tear up tradition for the sake of tearing up tradition, and that’s a mistake. But traditions also shouldn’t be kept around for their own sake.” It’s a clever shorthand to encourage employees not to simply do things because that’s the way they’ve always been done.

Duncan: How can leaders foster and reinforce a work environment where people feel comfortable in exchanging their unvarnished opinions?

Bryant: It’s a huge challenge for leaders, particularly as they move up in the ranks, to get honest feedback and information about what’s really going in their organization. After all, it’s human nature to not want to deliver bad news to the boss, and so data are massaged and reports are given a two-thumbs-up, everything’s-great topspin. There are many examples over the past decades of how bad news was tamped down, often to disastrous effect (the explosion of the Challenger shuttle because of a faulty O-ring problem is probably the most infamous example). Leaders must learn to not only be effective listeners in 1:1 and small-group settings, but they also have to make intentional effort to seek out opinions.

For example, when she was leading A+E Networks, Abbe Raven would regularly host small gatherings for breakfast, lunch, or coffee with employees at different levels. She said: “My opening question was always: ‘If I had been a CEO who came from the outside and you were meeting that CEO for the first time, what would the topics be that you would talk about? What should we change, and what shouldn’t we change?’”

Duncan: What leadership behaviors seem to be most effective—and appreciated—in times of crisis like Covid-19?

Bryant: Two come to mind. The first is prioritization. Before the crisis, if you were to ask leaders about their priorities for the quarter or the year, you would likely hear a long list of initiatives. The impulse to be comprehensive is understandable—leaders want to show that they have their arms around the breadth and complexity of their businesses, and they want to be ambitious. The problem, of course, is that having too many priorities leads to a lack of focus, making it hard to achieve real progress on any of them. The COVID-19 crisis made prioritization a necessity by forcing leaders to confront challenging questions. What matters most? What are the top three things that are needed to steady and reset the business, and what can be pushed to the back burner?

The second is humanity. Although much has been written about the need for leaders to show more humanity and vulnerability, there are still too many whose default mode is command-and-control, who pretend that they know more than everyone else, and who keep their emotional distance. Those approaches don’t work when the future is so uncertain. And any leader who wanted to maintain a wall separating work and personal lives is unable to do so anymore, given that people are working from home and dealing with additional stresses and strains.

Duncan: You urge leaders to manage seemingly conflicting behaviors—such as being confident and humble, being urgent and patient. How can they best learn to handle such balancing acts?

Bryant: The first step is to recognize that leadership is a series of balancing acts. Many leaders don’t understand this, and they adopt a style that is too rigid, expecting the world and their employees to bend to their will. Instead, it’s much more useful to adopt the framework of understanding leadership as a series of contradictions or paradoxes. Should you be confident or humble? Compassionate or demand accountability? Urgent or patient? Optimistic or realistic? The answer is yes, all of the above. But the most appropriate actions will depend on the unique circumstances. Understanding leadership with this framework will help leaders stay more centered as they try to navigate the relentless challenges.

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

Rodger Dean Duncan