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The World's Shortest Leadership Course

By Marty Nemko

Even if you’re just a clerk, you can become a leader. A wonderful leader. Here’s how:

Envision yourself as a leader in your own image. Great leaders aren’t alike. They come in flavors. The naturally great speakers spend more time speaking. The brilliant strategists stay in their office strategizing. The masters of efficiency focus on making every aspect of the business hum. Before you get your first leadership position, assess yourself: What are you best and worst at.? Mold your leadership style to emphasize your strengths, and plan to delegate or outsource the rest.

Hire cleverly. No matter what flavor, leaders must hire wisely. Nothing is more important. Don’t waste time placing ads--there’s too much dishonesty in resumes and cover letters. Better to ask everyone you respect for solid candidates. In job interviews, don’t bother asking obvious questions such as, “What is your greatest strength and weakness?” It’s easy to prepare smart answers to those. Instead, simulate tasks the candidate will do on the job, then grade his or her performance. When you’re down to a few finalists, ask each for 10 references. Call them at night, when you know they won’t be in the office. Leave a voice mail saying, “I’m considering Joe Amazing for a very important position. If you think he’s truly excellent, call me back. If not, don’t call.” If you get seven or more calls, you have the right person.

Speak well. I’ll be honest with you--if you’re a dullard, you could learn all the speaking techniques in the world and still be a terrible speaker. But assuming you’re bright, here a a few keys to effective speaking: Keep it simple. Use anecdotes and metaphors where appropriate. Speak at a moderate pace, and in your most pleasing tone of voice. (Try different parts of your vocal range in a tape recorder. Learn to use your favorite.) Do the same in everyday communication, but remember that the key to effective conversation is listening: to what is said, and also to what is not said. Also watch for changes in body language. Listening well is much more difficult than people think. And it’s crucial.

Develop an inspiring vision. You can develop an exciting vision for your employees, no matter how mundane the organization. Let’s say you’re heading the long-term care division of an insurance brokerage. All but the most jaded employee would be inspired by your saying, “We are going to ensure that every one of our customers gets the very best insurance at the very best price, which will give them the peace of mind and security they deserve, without breaking their budget. We’re going to trumpet our excellence so we get ever more customers. And with all the money we’re going to make, I’m going to ensure that you are all well paid, and we’ll adopt a local school. I’ll give them five percent of my own salary, you can give money, time, or neither as you see fit. We are going to make a difference in our community.” Throughout every moment of every day, live the realization of that vision. Work hard to follow-through on implementing that vision, and celebrate even little accomplishments along the way. Be generous with praise, cautious with criticism.

Fire fast. If quick efforts to remediate a bad employee don’t work, fire the person quickly. A bad employee can infect the rest. To avoid lawsuits, try to counsel the person to leave voluntarily, offering to help the person find a position at which he or she might be more successful.

Prioritize decisiveness over inclusivity. The best managers know when to encourage team involvement in decision-making and when to act unilaterally. Today’s corporate-think too often emphasizes decision-making by consensus. Usually, the result is a tepid idea that took a long time to generate. It’s hard to get a bold idea that an entire group will agree on. Great leaders generally get a modest amount of input and then make bold decisions on their own.

Know just enough tech. You don’t need to be an expert at IT, accounting, or the science behind your product. In fact, acquiring high-level tech expertise is usually not a good use of a leader’s time. You must simply know enough about these fields to be able to understand, ask questions, and then provide direction to those technical experts. Often, the best ways to do that are what I call, the “Hey Joe School.” You simply call an internal or outside expert in those fields, and say, “Hey, Joe, would you meet with me a couple of times to give me an overview of what I need to know about computer servers [or whatever]?”

Manage time. Constantly have a little voice on your shoulder asking, “Is this a wise use of your time?” Nothing is more important than making the most of your time: Not a PDA, not a Day-Timer, not a filing system, not anything. Effective leaders don’t rush, but they recognize that time is their most valuable commodity. And they’re miserly with it. That means saying no, or delegating a task when you could better use your time. It also means that everything doesn’t need to be done perfectly. Sometimes, good enough is good enough.

Look good. Alas, we live in a shallow, beauty-obsessed society. So, if you don’t look good, you start out with a strike or two against you. Fortunately, leaders are not expected to have Hollywood looks. But it’s worth a bit of primping to persuade all those shallow folks to think of you as leaderly. Wear attractive suits in timeless designs. Choose moderate hairstyles and makeup. Tip: If you’re on a budget, rather than buy cheap new clothes, shop at high-end thrift shops. That $500 suit can often be bought for 75 bucks.

Work long hours. I’d rather disappoint you with the truth than anesthetize you with lies. No matter what you may have heard from Oprah, success at the top generally requires you to work long, and work smart. In addition to accomplishing more, working long hours provides a role model for your workers. If you want to work just 40 hours, fine, but don’t expect to be a great leader. I know dozens, and their average workweek is 60+ hours. But there’s a big payoff: Being an effective, beloved leader of an important enterprise is one of the best ways to feel like you live a meaningful life.

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