Any way you slice it, leadership is a tricky business. Everyone has an opinion on leadership, and in particular on specific leaders. With virtually every enterprise on the planet in such zealous pursuit of leaders and leadership, why is it so many fail in their quest for improved leadership performance?

Few will dispute the value of sound leadership, and likewise, few will debate the devastating impact of poor leadership. We’ve all observed businesses that have been over-managed, but I’ve yet to find an organization that needs less leadership. We innovate so many things on so many fronts – why not leadership?

It is simply impossible to innovate leadership by challenging the status quo and disrupting mediocrity. The essence of leadership is little more than knowing where to apply your focus and what to challenge. In my recent book Hacking Leadership(Wiley) I discuss several key things for leaders to examine. While the following list is clearly not exhaustive, it identifies 10 things all leaders should challenge:

1. Challenge The Foundation – Bad things happen when your foundation is shaky. If the core values, vision, and strategy aren’t sound and aligned, everything else will suffer. If you don’t have a clearly articulated direction and purpose, how can you expect to achieve the right outcomes? The best leaders stand for something bigger than themselves, and they’re driven by more than just profit motive. They understand the value of a purpose-driven business. If what I’ve just said doesn’t make any sense, it’s time to start the reimagination process.

2. Challenge The Destination – Leadership isn’t destination based – it’s a continuum. Great leaders think beyond the outcome. They think about what if and what’s next. They don’t get trapped in the journey to a specific destination, but remain in constant search of discovery in order to seek new and better opportunities.

3. Challenge The Promise – Is your brand promise on target? Is it deliverable? Is it sustainable? If you cannot keep your promise to customers, you won’t have much of a business to worry about. Few things hinder the advance of a business like a brand in need of a refresh.

4. Challenge the Model – Not all business models are created equal. Furthermore, just because you have a business model doesn’t mean it’s the right one, or that it’s sustainable. Break the business model down from the revenue engine all the way down to the distribution model and delivery strategy. Does it afford you a competitive advantage moving forward, or does it need to be reimagined?

5. Challenge The Information – Not all inputs are created equal. Don’t think big data – think good data. Smart leaders understand there’s a difference between gut instincts, data, information, and knowledge. Furthermore, as much as some don’t want to hear this, opinion and theory aren’t always synonymous with fact and reality. Agendas and bias often pervade the information flow, so trust and credibility must factor in when assessing information quality. Always challenge the information, but recognize there’s a difference between being a skeptic and being discerning. Lastly, it’s always worth reimagining how you process information to yield better decisions.

6. Challenge The Organization – I’ve been around long enough to see almost every type of organizational design come and go, only to come again. A great example of this would be Matrix organizations, or what I call the corporate version of the Matrix Trilogy. The Matrix model has been around for nearly 30 years. While many organizations have killed the Matrix, some have readopted it, others have remained trapped in the Matrix for decades, but virtually every large enterprise using it is over-matrixed. I can think of no better target for reimagination than the Matrix. Where’s Neo when you need him? For those of you not trapped in the Matrix, you’re not off the hook. Any organizational structure can be reimagined and improved.

7. Challenge The Culture – Every organization has a culture. Some are carefully created and curated by design, and others evolve by default. Some are toxic; some are barely surviving on life support, while others are healthy and vibrant. The bottom line is culture can be a significant asset or a tremendous liability. The thing about cultural dynamics is they can change very rapidly – either in your favor or against it. Leaders who fail to constantly challenge cultural norms and constructs are failing themselves and those they lead.

8. Challenge The Talent – Many things benefit from compromise, but the talent is not one of them. If you settle for anything less than acquiring, deploying, developing, and retaining the best talent possible, shame on you. I’ve often said, leaders deserve the teams they build. If you cannot seamlessly mobilize and deploy the best talent to your greatest opportunities or your biggest risks you have a problem. If succession isn’t an enterprise-wide concern there is trouble on the horizon. If leadership development is just a buzzword and not a point of emphasis you won’t remain competitive. The areas of leadership development, organizational development, and talent acquisition should constantly be challenged and reimagined.

9. Challenge The Complex – Don’t fall into the trap of believing sophistication is synonymous with complexity – it’s not. Great leaders challenge all things complex, and if they’re smart, they look to simplify everything. Whether it’s strategy, organization, process, or execution, if it’s complex it needs to be reimagined.

10. Challenge Yourself – The truth is most leaders are skilled at challenging others, but are woefully inadequate when it comes to challenging themselves or allowing others to challenge them. When leaders hold themselves to a higher standard of rigor, discipline, accountability, and transparency everyone wins.


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