The one thing that transforms a good leader into a GREAT one

Jun 8, 2013

 A version of this article first appeared at Inc.com.

I’ve noticed one thing that consistently sets great leaders apart from the merely ‘good’: They have a pervasive sense of groundedness.

Discussions with truly great leaders are rarely unhinged forays into the unknown, and their day-to-day activities are seldom isolated events, unmoored from everything else. Quite the contrary – with great leaders, there is a palpable underlying sense of linkage, a connectedness in their thoughts, words and actions that taken together, weaves whole cloth.

Listen to and watch a great leader over time, and you’ll see that each individual move they make builds on the others, like a well-played chess game, ultimately delivering a focussed, planned outcome.

At the heart of this sense of groundedness – this ability to ‘connect the dots’ in each discussion and in every action, moving seamlessly toward an envisioned conclusion – is something I’ve come to recognize over and over again in great leaders. I call it the Single Pre-eminent Goal (SPG).

Great leaders know what their SPG is, and it sits front and foremost in their minds. They focus on it when they start their day, it provides the glue that links together everything they do and say during the day, and at the end of the day they reflect on how closer they are to achieving it.

Of course, for some great leaders this all happens at a subliminal level – they may not use this (or any) vocabulary to describe the process, they may not even be overtly conscious of its workings, but for them, it happens in any case.

For the rest of us, it helps to make the process conscious and planned. Here’s how to set your very own Single Pre-eminent Goal:

1. You can only have one at a time. By the nature of a Single Pre-eminent Goal, you can only have one at a time. While it will certainly change over time (usually over months or perhaps years, but not weeks), two SPG’s cannot co-exist, for reasons we’ll see in a moment.

2. It sits below your overall mission, vision and values, but above individual strategies. Your SPG should be the single largest transformational challenge you currently face in achieving your overall mission.

My current Single Pre-eminent Goal, for example, is to switch my business model away from the one-man-band I’ve operated as for the last 15 years, to develop a company that someone else can eventually own and manage. That SPG sits below my overall mission (to generate lifestyle-supporting income while maintaining a high degree of freedom and autonomy), but above the individual strategies and tactics I’m implementing (speaking, coaching, even writing this article).

Leaders I’ve worked with recently have had SPG’s as varied as changing their entire product line from wood to aluminum; finding a business partner or competitor to merge with, switching funding sources from grant support to supporter donations, and designing and launching an e-commerce arm to their bricks and mortar retail business. All these SPG’s are subservient to their respective leader’s overall mission, and all dictate major strategy and tactical shifts.

3. Your daily activities flow from it. Unlike an overall mission, your Single Pre-eminent Goal should be specific, concrete and medium-term enough to enable the prioritization of your specific daily activities.

In what way is this meeting helping you get closer to your SPG? If it isn’t, then should you really be here? How does your SPG color the data you read, the people you speak with, the conversations you’re having, the decisions you’re making?

That’s not to say there won’t be other, non-SPG related activities you’ll have to engage in each day – leadership involves a fair amount of maintenance as well as forward motion – but with a Single Pre-eminent Goal now clearly defined, you’ll be more acutely aware of the opportunity cost of those activities, and you may well begin to find creative ways to reduce their impact on your limited resources.

4. By default, it should be shared. Unless there are acute diplomatic reasons not to do so (if your SPG is to move your entire production overseas, for example), it’s best to share your Single Pre-eminent Goal with others, for two reasons: (1) Transparency is always good, and builds your character and reputation as a leader; and (2) SPG’s are (usually) motivational in nature, so why lose that juice with your team?

Take a little time to reflect on what your Single Pre-eminent Goal is right now – it shouldn’t take more than five minutes to do – then take it out for a spin tomorrow. You may be surprised at the impact it has.