A must-read leadership book: Leadership Without Excuses

by Jamie Flinchbaugh on 02-15-15

There are 1,000s of leadership books out there. And for good reason. Leadership is one of the secret weapons of success whether it be in lean transformation in a Fortune 50 company or running a 3-person startup or running a high school science class. It’s really far too important to be condensed to one topic…leadership.

So which book do I start with, or read next?

I highly recommend Leadership Without Excuses: How to Create Accountability and High-Performance (Instead of Just Talking About It), especially for those in roles of managing managers. Working through tiers of of management causes big challenges in alignment and commitment and Leadership Without Excuses strikes at the heart of these issues. Written by my friend Jeff Grimshaw and his colleague Gregg Bacon

Jeff and I have connected as he a leadership guru who is a strong lean thinker, and I’m a lean thinker who has focused on leadership engagement. Leadership Without Excuses outlines 3 categories of people, the Saints, Sinners, and Savables.

Saints are always accountable. You can consistently rely on them to do the right things. To make smart choices. To follow through on commitments. To operate in compliance…What you can’t do is give them more work to do to compensate for your failure to hold poor performers accountable…Sinners are the opposite of saints. You can’t count on them to do anything consistently except make excuses why they aren’t delivering the performance and results you need. Maybe they’re fundamentally bad people. Or just fundamentally bad hires. Either way, sinners reflect negatively on you as a leader…Instead, this book is focused primarily on leading the third kind of people: save-ables. Most people are saveables. Sometimes they make good choices; sometimes they don’t…Specifically, the very predictable problems with the all-too-human saveables are that (1) they can’t read your mind, (2) they’re selfish, and (3) they’re frequently delusional.

The book focuses on the Saveables through mechanisms such as clear communication of expectations, creating and enforcing clear boundaries, and role modeling. The book combines a great balanced of research and pragmatic examples. It is also littered with very nice connections for the lean reader, from RACI charts and force field analysis to 5 whys.

Jeff highlights problems that we see with lean journeys, in this excerpt, where lean is supposed to be inclusive yet is often treated as a private club:

We know lots of people who, in their well-intentioned but misguided effort to share the gospel of lean Six Sigma or some other creed, use specialized language. They present themselves in such a way that they would do just as well to shout, “I am from a different tribe. And I don’t mean from over the hill. I’m talking way distant tribe here. And the longer I stay, the more likely it is that I am going to seriously mess with your way of life.”

I have too many highlights from the book to share, but this passage on coaching is a useful nugget worth sharing:

We start by asking questions: First: “To produce the results to which you’ve committed, who are the stakeholders (people over whom you have no positional authority) you need to effectively influence and engage over the next six months?” We encourage the leader to pare down the list to 12 people, at least to start; few people can effectively focus on cultivating more than a dozen relationships. Next, we ask for each key stakeholder: “If you flawlessly build and nurture this relationship, what will be true six months from now?” For example, what will this stakeholder have done or be doing? What will he or she believe about you? What kind of relationship will you have? After the leader has thought about and articulated his or her goals for each relationship, we help the leader to identify, for each key stakeholder, the next single action he or she will take to move toward the desired outcome. Building trust is a gradual process and almost always involves multiple steps. But it’s also an iterative process, which is why we focus on identifying only the next action (instead of mapping out the next six actions for any particular relationship, which is usually a waste of time). Next, we set up a plan to talk with the leader every two weeks or so to review progress and to identify the next round of actions for each key stakeholder relationship. And the process continues for as long as necessary.

There is much in this book worth reading, and so I encourage you to pick up a copy for yourself, highlight as you read, and most importantly, put it into practice.