After carefully doing a research work on some remarkably talented business leaders, and having thought about what makes their leadership so powerfully effective, my observation is that their strengths can be distilled into four core common characteristics.

Exceptional leaders are:

  • Decisive
  • Definitive
  • Directive
  • Declarative

Bringing each one of these characteristics to life …

Decisive Leadership:
We live in a world of change:

  • we’re experiencing more change than ever before;
  • the changes we’re experiencing are arguably more significant than before;
  • the changes are happening more quickly than ever before.

From the perspective of work, this volume of change is creating a lot of ambiguity, uncertainty, disruption and instability. With change come options: the option to carry on as before, or the option to change direction. Whether we like it or not, options demand decisions (implicitly or explicitly).

Exceptional leaders are not fazed by the quantity, significance and severity of the decisions that they are asked to determine. Decisive leaders process options quickly and deliver their decisions robustly and confidently.

What separates truly exceptional leaders is that they are open-minded and not frightened to change their decisions based on new information received. And this is a skill that is increasingly important due to the amount of change happening now.

Definitive Leadership:
Exceptional leaders are not vague. They are specific. They don’t just communicate clearly, they communicate precisely. They choose their words carefully, and often they choose numbers even more carefully.

They avoid confusion by allocating accountability directly. They are quantitative and chronological – they name places, people, numbers and dates.

Exceptional leaders don’t just ask for something to be done more quickly, they say by how much; what they expect; by when.

Having made a decision, exceptional leaders are definitive.

Directive Leadership:
Exceptional leaders give clear direction. They articulate that direction with practical requests so that recipients know exactly what is being asked of them and what the desired outcome is. Great leaders take care to ensure that their directions are understood and that there is alignment about the direction.

Directive leaders understand the need to reiterate their directional instructions, and they take care to do so deliberately.

Great leaders are not troubled by people who ask sincere questions about the direction, especially if people have concerns, or are unsure.

Setting direction is often about setting a destination – great leaders are brilliant at painting a picture and selling a destination. They are also highly effective at taking key stakeholders on the journey with them.

Declarative Leadership:
Exceptional leaders are great communicators and influencers. Having set the direction, and made definitive decision, they are not slow or shy to make declarations. They declare their intentions and their requests so that there is no uncertainty, confusion or doubt about the path that the team is on or what is expected of them individually and collectively. Declarative leaders are reputable, they have integrity and authenticity – they use their declarations as a demonstration of their values. Being declarative is about being visible and accessible.

Declarative leaders purposefully eliminate doubt. They multiply energy and galvanize productivity and passion in pursuit of a common goal.

A real example of the 4 D’s in action:

For a major part of my career I worked for the mobile operator O2. In 2007 O2 sponsored the music venue, The O2 in London. It was a bold decision – the previous incarnation of the building ‘The Dome’ was built to celebrate the turn of the millennium and it had been a disaster. Working in partnership, O2 completely re-engineered and reconstructed the building as a music venue. That was not a trivial undertaking, nor was its subsequent success obvious. The company invested a lot of its resources and energy in creating a brilliant O2 experience. Now, ten years later The O2 is regarded internationally as one of the best live-event venues on earth.

The boss of O2 at that time was Matthew Key, a truly inspirational leader. Matthew decided that in order to ensure that The O2 delivered a fantastic O2 brand experience, the building needed to be robustly tested before it was opened to the general public. Not a just a sample-sized simulation, but a full-on road-test with c. 20,000+ attendees. This proved to be a genius decision. Matthew invited 14,000 O2 employees (plus partners) to an exclusive concert – which aside from being great fun, proved to be a complete car crash. Pretty much anything that could go wrong did go wrong. However, when The O2 then opened for its first live concert one month later, the experience was flawless. You may recall that the British Airport Authority and British Airways failed to do any live testing at scale of the new airport terminal at Heathrow ‘Terminal 5’, and that resulted in a catastrophic launch and a consequential media nightmare.

The point of the story however is that the logistics of organising The O2 staff concert is in itself a remarkable example of the 4 D’s of exceptional leadership. O2 is a national company, it’s headquarters are in Slough, it has engineers located across the country, and it had two major contact centres, one in Rugby the other in Leeds. Staff located and living in the south can easily get to The O2. However, it was necessary for staff travelling from the north to book hotel accommodation. Due to the numbers of people, very quickly all the hotels near The O2 became fully booked. And then subsequently hotels across London became fully occupied. Some employees persuaded themselves that due to a lack of availability, it was legitimately necessary to book themselves into some of the most expensive hotels (on earth), despite the Company’s guidelines.

When Matthew became aware of this unfolding situation, he made a decision. He decided that all accommodation that had been reserved, be un-booked and instead a temporary dedicated team of O2 staff would come together in order to manage the accommodation scheduling and booking for the whole Company. Matthew’s instructions were definitive – his command absolutely directive. His instructions were declared swiftly, clearly and with no ambiguity. What followed was equally remarkable. The hotel booking for the O2 staff event became singularly the biggest hotel booking that London had ever experienced. The logistics were managed with precision. The costs were negotiated exponentially. Everybody got booked into quality accommodation and all had an amazing time. Where possible the team even organised the transportation of peoples’ luggage delivered to directly to their rooms together with an O2 goodie bag full of surprise treats.

Decisive. Definitive. Directive. Declarative. 

And quite delightful too.

Culled from: Simon Devonshire OBE

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