30 Highlights: The Leadership Skill Handbook by Jo Owen

1. This handbook is different. It starts with the question, ‘How can you learn to lead?’ In our research with over 1,000 leaders at all levels in public, private and voluntary sectors the answer was clear: leaders learn not from courses but from experience, bosses, peers and role models.

2. Finally, it is worth learning one lesson from the world’s top athletes. Each gold medallist is supreme in one discipline: they focus relentlessly on becoming the best at one thing. They do not focus on their weaknesses. No one asks weightlifters to improve their synchronized swimming skills. Leaders, like athletes, cannot succeed at everything. They have to focus on their strengths, practise relentlessly and find the context or discipline in which they can flourish.

3. Our research found no effective leaders who were cynical about their work, their organization, themselves or their lives. They were relentlessly positive about everything.

4. If you want a high-performing team, do not be afraid to set high expectations.

5. To build trust with your followers, you have to be honest with them. This is hard-form honesty: telling the whole truth promptly, even when it is painful.

6. Authority and popularity are weak currencies for leadership. Authority can be removed in a reorganization. Popularity leads to weakness: you avoid the difficult conversations; you avoid stretching the team too far; you accept excuses. Honesty and trust are the true currencies for leadership. No one can take them away from you. Honesty and trust build respect, which lasts longer than popularity.

7. An ineffective team will all be clones of the leader. An effective team will complement the leader’s technical strengths and personal style. Your job is not to be the best person on the team. As a leader, your job is to get all the best people onto the team.

8. Athletes, like leaders, do not win by playing to their weaknesses and imagining failure. They win by building on their strengths and rehearsing, visualizing success in their minds. From this comes four principles :

i. Play to your strengths

ii. Visualise Success

iii. Think like a winner

iv. Create a team that compensates for your weaknesses

9. Coach yourself by following the plan-do-review cycle on all your activities:

i. Plan - what you want to achieve and how. 

ii. Do it.

iii. Review it - Review stage is where you learn most and it is your chance to accelerate your career. It is your secret weapon.

10. After any key event, ask yourself two questions:

 i. WWW. What went well? Success is not the natural state of things. When things work well, step back and ask why? This is how you will build your personal success formula.

 ii. EBI: Even better if. Ask what you could have done differently, or tried to make things work better.

11. Warren Buffet remarked that ‘when a great manager joins a lousy company, it is normally the reputation of the company that remains intact’.

12. Strong teams are diverse. Diversity means more than diversity of race, gender, age and faith.  It means the subtler diversity of building a team with complementary styles, skills and perspectives. A football team of 11 great goalkeepers is unlikely to do well.

13. Failure to delegate traps you into doing low-level jobs. You cannot lead if you cannot delegate. Here is why you must delegate :

i. Delegation is the only way to create more than 24 hours in a day. If you don't delegate, you work yourself into an early grave.

ii.Delegation allows you to focus on the areas where you make the most difference.

iii. It shows you have trust in the team, and most teams will respond to your vote of confidence in them by working hard to show they are worthy of your trust.

iv. It builds and stretches your team: they have to learn new skills.

14. Principles of delegation : 

-Ensure clarity of the task and the eventual success criteria.

-Make the team summarise back to you what they think the task and outcomes are meant to be. Do not assume they have understood anything until they say it back to you.

-Ensure people have enough skills and resources to complete the job : do not delegate too much too soon.

-Be clear about how you want to work together (progress reports). Discuss concerns before you start.

-Be available to help, but do not interfere all the time. When they ask for help, require them to suggest solutions so that they always learn.

-Delegate meaningful projects, not just adminstriva. Stretch people and they will rise to the challenge. Giving away mundane jobs only demotivates people.

-Show faith and trust in the team : praise successes and do not undermine them

-Remember, you may have delegated authority, but you cannot delegate away responsibility. You are still accountable for the outcomes.

15. Always try to figure out how to appeal to fear, greed and idleness.

16. Five drivers of motivation in the workplace:

i. My boss shows an interest in my career.

ii. I trust my boss; he/she is honest with me.

iii. I know where we are going and how to get there.

iv. I am doing a worthwhile job.

v. I am recognized for my contribution

17. The best way to communicate is to shut up. If necessary, put duct tape over your mouth and force yourself to listen. The more you listen, the more you understand. When you really understand what the other person is thinking, then you can influence them positively.

18. Good leaders normally have a simple agenda, which boils down to three things: idea, people, money, or the IPM agenda:

i. Idea. You need to have a simple idea about what you will do that will be different from and better than the past. The best ideas are simplest: ‘We will increase customer satisfaction’, ‘We will increase reliability’, ‘We will reduce costs’.

ii. People. If you have the B team, you have a recipe for sleepless nights and stress. Do not assume that the team you inherited is the team you must live with.

iii. Money. Make sure you have the right budget to fulfil your goals.

19. SPIN – situation and specifics, personal impact, insight and inquiry, and next steps – is a classic and simple framework for giving negative feedback:

i. Situation and specifics. Give feedback in the right situation: when the person is calm and the event is still fresh in the mind.

ii. Personal impact. Do not judge the other person: that invites conflict. Say how his or her actions made you feel: feelings are irrefutable. For example, say: ‘You have turned up late to three client meetings; it makes me feel you think they are unimportant’, not: ‘You are a lazy idler’, ‘I was very embarrassed when the CFO saw the errors in the budget you prepared’, or ‘You are an innumerate scumbag.’

iii. Insight and inquiry. Ask questions to see if the person understands the problem, to help him or her explore and evaluate options and discover the way forward.

iv. Next steps. Mutually agree what happens next. There needs to be a positive way forward. You need to have thought through possible options and actions.

20. The Art of War advocated fighting under only three conditions, all of which must be present: 1) only fight when there is a prize worth fighting for; 2) only fight when you know you will win; and 3) only fight when there is no alternative.

21. The trust equation shows that trust (T) is a function of values alignment (V) and credibility (C) offset by risk (R): high risk means you need higher levels of trust to work together.

22. You have no permanent friends or allies; there are only permanent interests. At some point, your interests and their interests will go different ways simply because you are in different roles and have different priorities.

23. The more senior you become, the harder you have to push for the next step. Early in your career, if you work hard and do well you will be promoted because every firm wants to encourage the next generation of leadership talent. But as your career progresses, there are fewer opportunities and there is more competition. Leadership is not given to you; you have to take it.

24. Everyone is selling: ideas, proposals and social events. We normally sell at three levels: features (‘ My computer has 8GB RAM memory’); benefits (‘ It can handle video editing’); dreams (‘ It could turn me into a Hollywood mogul’).

25. Avoid selling features. At least work out the benefits, or ideally the dreams, that will appeal to the person you are selling to. Start with what the person wants, not with what you have.

26. We have already met fear, greed, idleness and risk in motivation skills. We meet them again in selling skills. They work together: 

-Fear: What problem am I solving for the other person?

-Greed: What hope or dream am I helping the other person achieve?

-Idleness and risk: Am I making it easy for the other person to agree? Have I removed the risks he or she perceives?

27. The selling proposition varies dramatically depending on who you are selling to. You succeed when you focus less on the product and more on the buyer’s needs.

28. It is not enough to know what to sell. You also need to know how to sell. Here is a classic seven-step sales cycle: 

-Agree the problem/ opportunity.

-Preview the benefits of addressing the problem/ opportunity.

-Suggest the idea.

-Explain how it works.

-Pre-empt objections.

-Reinforce the benefits.


29. Many leaders come to the realization that they hire for skills and fire for (the wrong) values. Do not make that mistake. Hire to values, not just to skills.

30. The new currency of leadership is respect. Respect is based on two vital ingredients: trust and positive challenge. Trust is dealt with extensively elsewhere in the book. As a reminder, you build trust through values alignment (you ‘talk the talk’ of the other person) and credibility (you always deliver on commitments, or you ‘walk the talk’). Trust is good, but not enough for respect. As a leader you will gain respect with positive challenge. Set ambitious goals. These goals will stretch and develop your team, and give them a sense that they are achieving something meaningful. Ambition creates a sense of purpose and fulfilment. If you stretch people but do not support them, you are simply unreasonable. You need to make the challenge a positive challenge.

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