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Leaders: Let’s Train (Not Just Try). Here’s Why.

March 25, 2016 Matt Norquist

What is one thing that the most and least effective leaders have in common?

Surprisingly, they both possess a strong belief that they are willing to do whatever it takes to get the job done.

Recently, my research team and I were culling through more than 135,000 respondents in our Leadership Assessment database to evaluate what patterns of belief and behavior most strongly differentiated between highly effective and highly ineffective leaders. Imagine my surprise when I stumbled upon something that challenged my beliefs, in one of literally thousands of pages of data. What really matters.

From my days as a survey researcher at the Gallup organization, I learned that good questions sort between groups, meaning that questions high performers score well on also show results that low performers score poorly on. Here’s what caught my attention: Individuals’ belief that they are willing to do whatever it takes is a bad question. It’s the wrong question entirely. It is a question that both good and bad leaders universally respond that they are exceptionally good and consistent at.

What we learned and saw in over hundreds of thousands of data points was that the most effective leaders scored consistently highly in this predictive indicator: “Gains the trust and loyalty of others by fulfilling the commitments made to them.” No matter what group we looked at (whether an individual leader, his/her boss, direct reports, peers), effective leaders rated highly on this item and ineffective leaders rated poorly.

Not very sexy, right? But these are hallmarks of successful everyday leaders, whether they are CEOs of multinational companies or the principal of your children’s school. These leaders create the change that they want to see in the world on a day-to-day basis. These everyday leaders inspire me.

This got me thinking about what it takes to build trust and loyalty, and the key role that meeting commitments plays. Meeting commitments consistently builds trust, and allows us to measure incremental progress rather than “trying hard” by “doing whatever it takes.” There is a practical real-life metaphor that has worked for me, and for our team—to get us past the notion of trying really hard, and beyond “doing whatever it takes,” which we know is not all that effective when it comes to producing results. We’ve adopted the metaphor of “train, don’t try.” Let me explain what I mean.

Many of us are still keeping up with our health and fitness goals that we set at the start of the New Year. We’re getting to the gym. The thing is, just showing up and working really hard is not enough to improve. I used to work with a guy whose attempts to lead a healthier lifestyle were marked by intense daily workouts that left him in a pool of sweat. The day after, he always boasted about his efforts and how sore he was—time and time again.

And after a year, guess what? He looked exactly the same. No fitter, no stronger, no faster. Why? Because he wasn’t measuring himself on progress toward his commitment—he was focused solely on effort. Yes, he was trying really hard. He was “doing whatever it takes” in his mind. But, it was not enough. Compare that to one of my good friends, Eugene, who over the course of a year went from being a healthy guy in his mid-30s to an elite athlete with dramatically higher levels of strength and endurance performance. He followed a progressive plan of gradually adding more volume and intensity in his weightlifting and running. And, he didn’t just try. He trained. He had a plan with achievable outputs designed to help him work toward achieving his goal.

In an effort to produce results and to please others around us, we try really hard most of the time. And working hard is table stakes for most. But doing whatever it takes is simply not enough. We need focused attention on actively improving the measures that matter the most. We need to gain trust by fulfilling our commitments.

When we train, we gradually make and then fulfill more significant commitments. These can start small, and progressively get bigger. They begin with the ones that we make to ourselves—then lead to broader commitments that we make to our teams, peers, boss, and customers.

At Linkage, every one of our team members has their own training plan. Today’s workout in my training plan is focused on writing at least one piece of original content, something that I’ve committed to weekly, to stay on track with my plan.

As our research continues to unfurl, my commitment to you is to share more insights about what differentiates effective leaders from average leaders. My hope is that together, we can be on a path to achieving true greatness.

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