February 9, 2015

The Four + 1 Primary Tasks of the Senior Leader

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I’m sure you’ve heard of some version of the 80/20 rule. One version is that 20% of the folks do 80% of the work. This seems true to me at times, but that’s not my favorite 80/20 rule. My favorite applies to senior executives.


Most senior execs spend 80% of their time doing what someone else could do and only 20% doing the things only they can do.

The most successful leaders, however, flip it. They spend 80% of their time on what only they can do.

It sounds simple enough, but it’s a fight to get here. Senior execs usually are well experienced and full of talent and opinions, so they can find themselves in the weeds daily.

Instead, we must find our swim lane, which is almost always narrower than we think. From my experience and research, a senior leader has just five primary assignments:

Directional Clarity

Where are we going (and not going)? There are any number of directions a company or organization could possibly go. And it is not simply deciding between the good options and the bad options. Rarely do we knowingly steer an organization into a bad path. Instead, we’re usually deciding between the good and the best or between the present cost and the future reward. This is the same question as What are we going to do and what are we NOT going to do?

Daniel Goleman opens his HBR article on “The Focused Leader” with the sentence, “A primary task of leadership is to direct attention,” and he goes on to argue that great leaders are able to pay attention to themselves, their people, and their organization … all at the same time. They steer the ship in the right direction because they can see the “down the road” in light of the “right now.“

Do you have a clear company aim? Do your daily practices reflect that aim?

Strategic Movement

The senior leader ultimately decides not just the direction but also the pace and risk of advancement. If you move too fast, you deplete your organizational energy and flame out halfway through the race. If you move too slow, you are irrelevant at the finish line—the  race is over and the trophies have already been given out.

It’s all about choosing the right next step, not just the biggest one. Your company doesn’t always have to be in full-scale mode (regardless of your size). Every year doesn’t have to outpace the previous year in every metric. But you must ensure that the organization hasn’t stalled out, that it’s not spinning its wheels in sideways or backwards energy. Every leader knows sideways and backwards energy is for real.

Remember, all good strategy still has to be triggered through choice gates. So make the right, forward-moving choices.

What are the two biggest choices you need to make right now? How are you making those choices?

Culture Cultivation

Your culture needs to be the place where people can thrive. If you take culture for granted, however, it goes bad. It can be taken captive by the loudest voices or the meanest spirits. Instead of taking culture for granted, senior leaders must constantly sow seeds of culture into the organization.

Every effective senior leader is a bit of a farmer. No good crop happens without weeding, planting, watering, sunshine, and a bit of luck. The farmer has to be intentional.


  • It doesn’t happen just because the farmer announces to the world he wants a great crop of strawberries this year.
  • It doesn’t happen just because the farmer gets a plan on paper, has everything organized, and constantly monitors the weather.
  • It doesn’t happen just because the farmer has a shiny new tractor or a rock star new helper.


Make the jump with me here: The senior leader has to cultivate and root a great culture. It doesn’t just appear. It doesn’t just happen.

How do you do this? You identify your values. You ask questions like, “If we value _____________________, then how will we market/buy/scale?” You listen to what your employees and customers say about the company (and then figure out how to improve it). And you never stop farming.

Resource Stability

One of my old mentors used to say his primary job was to clear the roadblocks and make sure the water stations were ready for his hard-charging team (a team that managed a $9,000,000,000 business).

The effective leader needs to make sure adequate resources are readily available to the team carrying out the strategic initiatives. Your team should move faster and be more efficient and productive because of you (not the other way around).

If the senior leader does not deliver resource stability, high performers become frustrated, handcuffed, and unmotivated to run fast and hard. And one of the very reasons you chose them is marginalized.

And make sure your definition of resources is big enough—money, time, organizational stability, a coherent plan, evaluations, leadership, vision and inspiration, empowerment, enough manpower and the right talent, to name a few—and then make sure these resources are sustainable.

5. (the +1)  Reason for Being

It is the senior leader’s job to know “Why we exist” and to not just understand the narrative but deeply believe and practice the narrative. Simon Sineks’ book Start With Why unfolds the necessity and value of this overall concept. Connecting to your raison d'être is becoming such a common expectation that the classic 4 P’s of all successful businesses is now adding the fifth “P of purpose.” It seems that the rest of the business community is trying to catch up with Patagonia. Listen to their mission statement—Build the best product, cause no unnecessary harm, use business to inspire and implement solutions to the environmental crisis.

Those guided by the Gospel must discover the “redemptive edge” baked into their purpose for being. This brings the coherence, beauty, mystery, and motivation to leading well and serving long.


I’ve outlined five straightforward tasks—directional clarity, strategic movement, culture cultivation, resource stability, and reason for being.

It will be very hard for an effective senior leader to get these five tasks done if she is tied down doing things that other folks can do. And if he doesn’t get these five things done, it may not show up today or tomorrow, but the organization is racing toward a needless detour or a screeching halt.

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