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Simple leadership isn’t simple

In our quest to keep things short and simple, too many leadership principles, talent management tools and strategic principles mistake simplicity for understanding.

7 min read


Simple leadership isn't simple

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Most people in top management want to have everything that relates to people be as simple as possible so that everyone in the organization, significant stakeholders and customers can understand it.

Consider this listing of organizational elements made simple:

  • Vision: One page or, better yet, one phrase
  • Values: Five, maximum
  • Mission: One to three phrases
  • Strategy: Three initiatives
  • Culture: Seven to nine principles and goals (some argue for only three or four)
  • Policy manual: Five pages
  • Performance ratings: Three categories: at standard, below or above.

Why keep these simple? So that all can understand them. Each of these elements should be memorable so people remember it when they are solving problems and making decisions. Sticky, so they don’t have to find it and read it again. Compelling, so that it feels right and is motivating. Essential, so that it covers everything needed.

Why do things need to be simpler as you move more toward the top of the organization? Are top managers less smart? Are they underestimating the communication skills of the people below?

Aside from “simple” being taught in MBA programs as the right thing to do, a long career will lead to multiple experiences of accurate, timely and complete communications not getting through. We probably give preference to promoting people capable of complex analytics, problem-solving and decision-making. We promote the best and the smartest, who then turn around and demand and endorse “simple” for others.

All of the seven “simples” above probably work – “if.” If what?

Is each list complete? Does it cover enough to be helpful to most people most of the time? Is it clear what the words and phrases mean? What kind of, and how many, questions are there after “simple” is communicated?

Is life simple? Simply, no.

There are 157 diagnosable mental disorders in the DSM-5, by some counts, and hundreds of diagnosable diseases listed by the CDC. The average 10-K report got 12,000 words longer between 2000 and 2013. The federal tax code was over 10 million words and 2,652 pages as of the mid-2010s. Golf had 34 primary rules and hundreds of pages to interpret them until a recent reduction. There are roughly 250 existing car models to choose from. There are over 800 life insurance companies. Most driver manuals are over 100 pages.

Almost everything in life lives in the context of complexity.

There are a few considerations about how simple a complex thing can be and still work. First, there is a great difference between simple and simplistic. Both look and sound about the same. One works and the other doesn’t. The test comes when, in a specific situation, most everyone knows what “it” is and what “it” suggests they are supposed to do. Does it work most of the time? Does it offer sufficient directions to know what to do?

Reducing a complex domain to “simple” is a very difficult task.

Enhance your personal health? One suggestion might be to follow a five-point plan: 1. Quality sleep. 2, Exercise. 3. Eat a healthy diet. 4. Reduce stress. 5. Get an annual checkup.

Accurate? Yes. Do most now know what to do? No. Why? Too simplistic. Each descriptor would need at least five additional points to be useful. What kind of diet? Nutrition pyramid? What kind of exercise? What’s the best way to reduce stress?

Consider being parsimonious — meaning, to be as short and simple as needed to get the intention of the message across. So, for personal health, using five major points with about five subpoints under each is about as simple as you can get on this topic. That’s the parsimonious solution.

Simple is probably not possible because the underlying domain is very complex. Using only the five main points doesn’t pass the “does everyone now know what to do?” test.

Talent management today

The “simple” urge has come back into vogue in talent management. Top executives are asking their talent professionals to use a simple list of management and leadership characteristics, usually about five to seven.

Why? So everyone can understand the model and know what to work on to get better, and to be able to recite the whole list when needed.

There are a few problems with simple management and leadership models. Above all, human behavior is complex.

Libraries full of research have documented that the list of focal behaviors changes twice during one’s career. There is a common list for early-career individual contributors, one for supervisors, managers and team leads, and one for executive leadership.

So even if you wanted to go simple, there would have to be three lists of five to seven core competencies or characteristics. There could also be slight differences within functions and for international nuances.

Does having five to seven characteristics pass the test? Does the simple list lead to most of the people knowing what to do most of the time? Generally not.

A common characteristic on most simple lists is communications skills. Let’s say someone gets a low evaluation and is asked to work on their communication skills. Do they now know what to do? No.

Is the deficiency in writing, presentations, listening, negotiating, debating or leading meetings? In order to meet the test, each of the five- to seven-word skills would need five to seven subskills to be specific enough to help most of the people most of the time.

Our research over the past 40 years has generally concluded that any role or job beyond individual contributor requires somewhere between 13-17 distinguishable competencies or characteristics and cannot be communicated in five to seven words or phrases.

For example, helping the general counsel improve is likely to include a list of 13-17 focal behaviors or skills that need to be honed. The chief marketing officer may have the same number to work on, yet the list will be slightly different.

If there were a “simple” solution to management and leader effectiveness and success, we would all be using it. It doesn’t exist. Work gets complex because there are multiple combinations of backgrounds, skills and styles that can lead to success. There isn’t one path. There just isn’t a common list of five to seven things that work for everyone.

A solution

The parsimonious solution is made up of a behaviors, skills and competency library that’s complete and accurate (verified and validated). Any employee can go to the library and check out the three books they need to improve their performance and prepare for a promotion.

No one needs to know about everything in the library. They don’t have to be able to recite all of the lists. They just need to know the library exists and how to access and use it. For any given person, there is a list of five as a handy guide and a list of 13 to 17 distinguishable competencies or practices they need to concentrate on. And their list will be different than the list of the person sitting next to them.

Think of two people sitting in urgent care wondering which of 500 diseases they might have. All they need is to understand is the one malady for which they’ve received a diagnosis and what exactly they’re to do about it.

In leadership, as in any complexity, there is no simple.


Bob Eichinger, Ph.D. is a co-founder of TalentTelligent. He was the co-founder and CEO of Lominger International. He brings more than five decades of experience working, writing, developing talent management products, teaching, consulting, coaching and building communities of practice. Prior to Lominger, Eichinger led employment, affirmative action, training, and management and executive development at Pillsbury. At PepsiCo (N.Y.) he oversaw international executive development.

Eichinger has written over 50 books, articles, software products and other IP around the topic of talent management and succession planning. He is the co-creator of the concept of learning agility and the 9-Box. He co-created 70/20/10 development strategies and assignmentology and co-authored “FYI: For Your Improvement.”

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