Real Leaders Know When to Stop Talking


Leaders are people of consequence. They set goals, make decisions, take action and get results. Goals-decisions-actions-results. That’s what leaders do. That’s the chain of events that drive people, grow companies and advance civilization.

Understanding what it takes to be an effective leader doesn’t get any simpler or more logical than that. It isn’t rocket science. And yet, the topic is endlessly debated in business schools, books and blogs. What’s the result of all that rhetoric? More of the same.

One of the most common idioms of the day is “Let’s have a conversation.” OK, let’s talk about that.

We’re having conversations about everything under the sun, from income and gender inequality to income tax and immigration reform. From health care and entitlements to infrastructure and education. From racial tensions and terrorism to entrepreneurship and economic recovery.

The thing is, those conversations never end. They don’t influence the chain of events that actually moves us forward. They’re self-serving and self-perpetuating. They’re not even constructive debate. If anything, they’re just driving us further and further apart. The truth is, we couldn’t be more divided.

Want to know what all the conversations signal about our culture? It means we’re leaderless, or our leaders are simply not capable of making things happen. The chain of goals-decisions-actions-results is broken. I know that because I’ve seen lots of companies behave the same way. And their stories always end the same way.

I once consulted for a midsized public company whose executive team endlessly debated everything. They would spend hours, days and weeks in one meeting after another. It was pure analysis paralysis. Even when they came to a rare and miraculous decision, it wouldn’t be long before they’d start debating it all over again.

The funny thing was, you could give them advice but then they’d just debate that too. The company had simply grown to a size where its relatively inexperienced leadership team was no longer competent to take it further. Today, that company no longer exists. Its products are long forgotten, its thousands of employees laid-off and scattered to the winds.

Don’t get me wrong. There is a role for debating issues – in the context of formulating goals and making decisions in the chain. Once those decisions are made, it’s time for action. And if you do it right, you get results that achieve your goals. If not, you try again or get new leaders. It’s not that complicated.

But when leaders are dysfunctional, when they lack competence, that process becomes corrupted. It takes on a life of its own. The constant conversation and divisive debate continues ad infinitum. The inevitable result is stagnation and demise. I’ve seen it happen time and again in companies big and small. And I’ve never seen it end any other way.

There’s so much rhetoric about leadership these days. The new big thing is for leaders to be great storytellers. Communication skills are the new must-have traits. I think all that talk is overblown hype. In my experience, none of that is in any way indicative of strong leadership or predictive of success. It’s all about the chain.

Whether they’re running small businesses, big corporations, or entire nations, the one thing leaders need to do effectively is make that single chain of events happen. Set goals, make decisions, take action and get results. That’s what makes things happen. That’s what moves us forward.

Speaking of stories, here’s one I know you’ll appreciate. It’s about a nation that has all sorts of issues and endless conversations about them. Who’s having all these conversations? All the career politicians, czars, administrators and bureaucrats. All the lobbyists, special interest groups and activists that seek to influence them.

All the nation’s people are also having lots of conversations about the issues: millions of conversations 24x7 on the news, in the blogosphere, on Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn.

What’s the result of all those conversations? Lots of self-serving and self-perpetuating legislation, regulation and taxation. And no real results that meet long-term goals. Nothing that moves the nation forward.

That’s a sign. It’s a sign of incompetent leadership, corrupt processes and a dysfunctional government that long ago ceased to function as it should. And perhaps the most glaring sign is all the conversations so many of us are having about that.

Real leaders don’t have conversations. Real leaders set goals, make decisions, take action and get results. End of story.