Some thoughts on leadership and excellence


This morning I went to a breakfast seminar hosted by PER, a private equity recruitment firm that I have known for a long time. Business speaker Jeff Grout gave a talk on leadership and excellence with a focus on sport and business. It was very interesting, and if you get a chance to hear him apeak I recommend you take it. There are a couple of takeaways I want to share with you.

Firstly a story he shared about Michael Johnson (pictured above). Michael won four Olympic golds as a 200m and 400m sprinter and he still holds the 400m world record. He is considered by many to be one of the greatest long sprinters in the history of track and field. He was a winner. To become one he crafted his dreams into ambitions, crafted his ambitions into goals, and crafted his goals into plans. The message is that winners are planners.

Translating this into a business context great leaders and high performing companies have a clear answer to the question to which every employee knows the answer: ‘what’s the plan?’. They know where they want to take the company and translate that into a smalll number of priorities which are clearly articulated to the staff. 3-4 is a small number. 6 is too many. Jeff cited some research from Cranfield Business School which found that having a small number of priorities was the biggest indicator of a high performing company. Steve Jobs was famous for keeping Apple laser focused and every company benefits from that discipline. Everybody kind of knows this, but it is surprising how many people choose not to implement it. I think the reason is that focusing on 3-4 priorities means choosing not to do a lot of stuff, which many find hard, particularly if they aren’t sure which areas of their business they should focus on to drive success. Additionally, I think that over confidence in their own execution skills often contributes – many people find it hard to believe that they can’t get their business to focus on six things at once.

Do me a favour now and take a few seconds to think about how many priorities your company has. Is it too many?

Next Jeff told us about Duncan Goodhew, the British Olympic gold winning swimmer. He realised his dream by articulating an outcome goal – to win gold, translating that into a performance goal – swim 100m breast stroke in XX seconds, and then translating that into a series of process goals that helped him train – eat well, improve stroke, etc. Goodhew set himself the target of winning gold in the 100m breast stroke when he was twelve years old. He knew he had to learn to swim much much faster and process goals were the tool he used to break down that big challenge down into manageable chunks he could focus on day by day. 

The lesson here is that many businesses are good at setting outcome goals – e.g. become the market leader, and performance goals – e.g. profit of £XXm this year, but fail to translate those peformance goals into appropriate process goals, and their people are left foundering.

This all links to yesterday’s post about culture. Johnson’s ‘dreams and ambitions’ motivated him in the same way as missions motivate companies and his plans are the equivalent of a company’s priorities. The difference, of course, is that Johnson is one man, whereas a company has many people. Keeping them all pulling in the same direction and working well together requires clear communication and commonly held values.

  • neil_lewis

    Hi Nic

    Great to see you raising the issue of leadership. In my experience people buy into the leader before they buy into the vision. This is certainly true of business and startup leaders – but not the same in the individual sports world.

    The ‘leadership buy-in’ is partly about being able to articulate a vision – but many great leaders – especially those who are not famous – are particularly good at building really top quality teams around them and then enabling those teams to deliver.

    When I read ‘Good to Great’ by Jim Collins – what came across was that great companies are often led by self-effacing leaders who give credit and merit to the team. The CEO of Walgreens comes to mind – mainly because I can’t remember the guys name.

    If I may, I’d like to ask a question of CEOs who have found that people aren’t following or are unsure of their vision – have you reached out and connected with your people so that they buy into you as a leader first?


  • The goal is great execution, not support for the leader per se. I’ve seen teams strongly committed to leaders without a vision, but the results weren’t uniformly great…
    I totally agree that the many of the best leaders stand behind their teams rather than in front of them.