Leadership is an Art: But Superior Execution Trumps Everything Else in Business

John Cousins
February 7, 2023
3 min read

My previous posts make it sound like leaders do all the sexy and cool work. They do, but don’t be seduced into thinking leadership is everything and management is something prosaic, unintellectual, and not worth much effort.

Superior execution trumps everything else in business. Great management skills are based on understanding and being able to implement in practice key concepts of how to marshal and direct resources in order to accomplish defined goals. You can’t be an effective leader if no one is following or if you are not going anywhere.

To be an effective leader you must find a balance between planning and reacting to opportunities. You must decide when to plow forward in the face of obstacles and to persevere. You must know when to change direction in order to out-flank obstacles or, even more radically, to change the game altogether and pivot. You must have the wisdom of when to persevere and when to pivot and you must have trust in your convictions. This concept is as artful as life itself. This is art. Leadership is an art.

Effective leadership is about communicating a powerful vision and to continuously question and examine assumptions. It is also the ability to think and act strategically. You must develop alternative scenarios of the future, and assess and decisively pick the best one to pursue.

You need to remain realistic in your thinking without losing the power of imagination and be comfortable with continuously updating your models of the world. The wider ranging and flexible your curiosity, the more powerful and accurate you will be as a leader.

Being a generalist with broad interests is also a plus since you are aware of technological, social, and demographic changes, as well as critical changes in the legislative and political arenas. These all can affect the status and direction of an enterprise.

Strategic thinking is very much a leadership activity and quite different from what experts do. Strategic thinkers specialize in relationships and context, whereas expert thinkers specialize in well-defined disciplines and functions. A leader thinks in conceptual systems and their interrelationships.

Strategic thinkers act on intuition and instinct when information is incomplete. When data is incomplete, they focus on action, whereas experts pay rigorous attention to knowledge, evidence, and data, they focus on understanding.

A leader needs to employ strategic thinking and embrace an intellectual process that accepts change and ambiguity, analyzes the causes and outcomes of change, and attempts to direct an organization’s future to capitalize on the changes.

Leading in a rapidly changing environment means you have to analyze while still being decisive. You have to understand you will never have complete information or perfect understanding of the outcome. You must be opportunistic and act with only partial and imperfect knowledge in imperfect circumstances. Teddy Roosevelt said: “Do what you can, with what you have, where you are.”

Skip Business School. Educate Yourself.

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John Cousins
Author, Entrepreneur, & Teacher

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