Great Leaders Simplify Complexity

Last week I had lunch with an entrepreneur that had an opportunity to work with a number of super successful business leaders 20 years ago including Jack Welch, Ted Turner, and Roberto Goizueta. Curious, I asked what it was about them that made them so successful. He said that all the great leaders were very different people, different personalities, and even differing levels of intelligence. The one thing they all had in common was actually quite straightforward:

Great leaders take complex strategies and simplify them down into key messages and action items that everyone can follow.

How good is an awesome mission statement if it’s too complicated and difficult to follow? What about this month/quarter/year strategy? Just think about all the complex situations that arise in business and in life. Having someone that can fully understand the situation, build a quality strategy, and get everyone on the same page, especially people at all levels of the business, is invaluable. Great leaders take the complicated and make it attainable.

What else? What are your thoughts on great leaders being able to simplify complexity?

7 thoughts on “Great Leaders Simplify Complexity

  1. I just read the Walter Isaacson biography on Steve Jobs. Simplification is a reoccurring theme throughout the book, and a key ingredient in Apple’s success. Over and over again Jobs would go to his engineers and say, simplify. It didn’t happen just with products, he hated powerpoint presentations, thought that they got in the way and lacked passion. The irony is we think of smart people being complicated and hard to comprehend, but there is the elegance and practicality of simplicity.

    1. Very true. We can often get all bogged down in what is happening, but a great leader is a great listener who can summarise everything very quickly in one short ‘simple’ sentence and then give one simple answer. (……which of course may be difficult to execute, but it is the right answer!)

  2. I was wondering if super successful business leaders like Jack Welch, Ted Turner and Roberto Goizueta excelled because they were fluid in both the analytical & creative. Leonardo da Vinci may be the top reference of what ‘Renaissance Man’ means, and he may be the choice by some as Man of the Millennium (Years 1000-2000), but to me and many he’s 2nd to the great leader; Gandhi. The Mahatma (or ‘great soul’) took a complex worldwide issue, violence, and addressed it with a simple message that everyone can follow:

    “Be the change you wish to see in the world.”

    I especially like Gandhi’s simple message that delivers purpose to all:

    “The best way to find yourself is to
    lose yourself in the service of others.”

    Gandhi’s messages are still sweeping the world meeting new minds and hearts, especially for these 2 reasons:

    1) In 1999, TIME Magazine voted Einstein “Man of the 20th Century” and since such a widely-respected, historical and analytical genius has certified the Mahatma’s simple message, then who but a fool could further doubt or ignore its relevancy? About Gandhi, Einstein stated:

    “Generations to come will scarce believe
    that such a one as this ever in flesh
    and blood walked upon this Earth.”

    2) Last month India: The World’s Biggest Democracy elected Narendra Modi (‘NaMo’) their new Prime Minister. Serving as Chief Minister (‘Governor’) of Gurjarat, Gandhi’s home-state, for the previous 12 years, Modi often referenced his respect for Gandhi during his campaign and called for the need to uphold his ideals and teachings for the peace and progress of India.

    More relevant, as a great local leader (but respected worldwide), is Dr. King who is often referenced as Gandhi’s most globally-accomplished protégé. Dr. King’s simple and emphatic message on becoming great is open to all:

    “Everyone can be great
    because everyone can serve.”

    Most compelling are the ‘fair warning’ words about Gandhi spoken by Dr. King:

    “Gandhi was inevitable.
    If humanity is to progress,
    Gandhi is inescapable.
    He lived, thought and acted,
    inspired by the vision of humanity
    evolving toward a world of peace and harmony.
    We may ignore Gandhi at our own risk.”

    Of course, these old words by Lao Tzu (born 2,600+ years ago) are also relevant:
    “Embrace simplicity,
    reduce selfishness,
    have few desires.”

    It’s especially fascinating that Lao Tzu created a simple plan and synopsis (still widely known) for cultivating peace on Earth way back then:

    “If there is to be peace in the world…”

  3. This a very true statement. I think this is true for any leader at any level. Relate to the people you lead on some level or another and make the message simple. I have always been one to believe that the less you have to think about what needs to be done and the more you can just do it, the more successful you will be. Sports is a perfect example. It take knowledge of the game and film study, but the purpose of that is to make you actions second nature.

    Good post

  4. Spot on.

    As Al Einstein said: “If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.”

  5. ATL Tech Village Mentor Mike Gomez here. Did anyone notice the recurring use of the word STRATEGY? These leaders all first and foremost had a visionary, written, market-based strategy for where are they were taking their company. This is hard work and the cerebral part of being a good leader. Communicating that strategy in a manner where everyone in the company “get’s it” is part two of what it takes to be a great and effective leader. Don’t skip the first part!

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