by Christopher Hoenig

TOTAL LEADERSHIP: A Disciplined Sixth Sense

Jan 01, 20016 mins
IT Leadership

The time for talking always comes to an end, and then something must get done. A leader needs to set the direction and kick-start action. The issue quickly becomes how to lead the implementation effort. Whether the initiative is long or short, big or small, how a leader handles implementation may be the ultimate determining factor in his success. Over the years, I’ve learned (often the hard way) that there are two enduring principles essential to that leadership: intuition and discipline.

The best implementations come from a combination of these mind-sets. Developing your intuition, respecting it and acting on it creates maneuverability and forward thinking. In starting my first company, I remember feeling that an early strategic partner might not be trustworthy. Four weeks later, the partner opened up a competitive operation targeted directly at our customer base. Following that instinct helped us anticipate and blunt some of the damage that was done.

In contrast, discipline is necessary—both for leaders and implementers—to make consistent progress, establish a cadence, achieve scale and get the best use out of scarce resources. Learning the essential habits of discipline is a vital insurance policy in any leadership effort. The most basic discipline is communication and review of progress, on a daily and weekly basis, with your team.

Intuition and discipline are often perceived as being in conflict. Disciplined folks are reliable and can be counted on to bring structure to an effort. But they can be rigid, inflexible and shortsighted. On the other hand, intuitive people make quick, instinctive judgments and contribute valuable insights. But if left in charge, they may quickly cripple an effort by expecting others to operate the same way they do.

The truth is, these two leadership essentials complement each other in an almost magical way if you can get the hang of switching between the different mind-sets. The fact is, intuition without discipline will run aground, especially in larger-scale or complex efforts. Discipline without intuition results in steady progress but a reduced chance of a major breakthrough and an increased chance of falling prey to a major unanticipated threat. The combination of both is a powerful approach to leading implementation that is tough to beat.

The Power of Order

The toughest place to institute discipline for me has always been in fast-moving startups—whether they are new businesses or critical projects. They are small, almost by definition chaotic, and with such fast-changing divisions of labor, the regular changes of direction that discipline requires seems impossible. Which is, of course, exactly why it’s so valuable. Without the right types of professional discipline, such efforts are nearly always doomed to fail. The most important elements are:

Drill down—A leader has to make regular probes into what’s going on, down to the very lowest levels of detail. Whether these are random spot checks or regularly scheduled operation reviews, the goal is the same: to create full transparency of what’s happening in your organization without making people feel like they’re being micromanaged.

Encourage dissent—Few things are more important for a leader than establishing a culture where problems are raised early, not buried to pop up and kill you at the last minute. Encouraging the principle of regular dissent, as well as self-critiques, generates the openness required to lubricate consistent execution. My personal discipline is trying never to leave a meeting without hearing alternative points of view.

Set direction—A leader needs to ensure that there are regular sessions for choosing directions, assessing progress and learning from experience. Whether it is daily conference calls, weekly reviews, monthly course correction or quarterly reports, leaders need to set a tempo around which a team can exchange information and set priorities.

The Magic of Intuition

The toughest place for me to encourage intuition has been in highly bureaucratic, large-scale environments—whether they are large corporate clients or government agencies. The simple fact is, people get used to the discipline of complex processes and well-defined roles that do not change frequently, and their talents for intuition atrophy. So the answer is to create small, fast-moving projects that exercise these intellectual and emotional muscles to bring them back into tone. The essentials of intuition are:

Anticipate—Learn how to develop hunches about new directions, about problems with people and about emerging risks or trends just around the corner. Don’t hold back just because you’re in a leadership position. And encourage your people not to hold back just because it’s an ill-formed feeling or instinct. Get people to sketch out one-week, one-month and one-year scenarios, and debate the possibilities and contingencies.

Be opportunistic—Take advantage of the unplanned possibilities that come into your path. Even though it may mean a small detour in the short run, that could turn into a shortcut or a route to an entirely new and better solution. I make a concerted effort to encourage any and all types of initiative in any effort I’m involved in. For example, I offered everyone in my company an increased stake if they helped bring in an outside investor. On impulse, one of our “young turks” corralled a financier after a speech and persuaded him to arrange a meeting. Two weeks later, he was ready to come in as a potential coinvestor.

Smell out risks—Be suspicious. Remember, just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you! Think about the unthinkable and how to prevent it from happening to you and your project. Don’t be afraid to fantasize about the worst cases, and discuss them, as long as you don’t dwell on them. The point is to use that habit of mind to uncover real threats, not to be overwhelmed by perceived ones.

Experiment—Play with ideas and approaches, test new techniques, evaluate different ways of doing things. With a healthy culture of experimentation, you’ll create a resource of potential ideas that have a way of coming in handy when they are needed to solve some tough implementation problems. One of our engineers started playing with a new approach. Eventually, it led him to spot a new piece of software developing in a university lab halfway around the world. A few weeks later he was on a plane, and we had discovered an entire component of our product that could be bought rather than built.

Speaking like a true leader, Thomas Edison once said, “There is no substitute for hard work. Genius is 1 percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration.” Implementation is always going to be about working hard. But I’ve always believed in working smart, not just hard. Adding some healthy discipline and some human intuition to your leadership effort will increase your odds of not only a successful and fulfilling conclusion, but also a good night’s sleep.