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A Return to Simplicity

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“Take a simple idea and take it seriously.”

              – Charlie Munger, Vice-Chairman, Berkshire Hathaway

As leaders and as human beings, we are certainly being challenged to reflect on, reconsider, and reconnect with guiding principles that can help us find our way out of this 2020 mess we’re in. How did we get here? What are we missing? How can we start to heal and, even better, thrive in this 21st century? How did things get so bad so fast?

Well, first of all, it only feels like it happened fast. The truth is we have been creating the circumstances for our current dilemmas (overwhelm/fear, divisiveness, racial injustice, disengagement in our corporations, and loss of trust in our leaders, to name just a few) for decades. So it’s complicated, right?

Maybe that’s the problem. We have made everything too complex and stressful. What would it look like, then, if we decided to return to simplicity?

Before you dismiss this as an absurd idea for a leadership strategy given how many problems we are facing, let me explain. In the past 50 years, the pace of change has become exponential, radically altering every aspect of our lives as we knew them, and we have massively underestimated the cumulative effect and risks of this on us as humans. For example, social media has created tremendous opportunities, but it has also become a human virus for insecurity, comparison, and fear, leaving many people feeling more confused about what we can believe than feeling empowered.

To find some simple truths (principles and practices) that we can trust, we can start by looking for more wisdom in how we lead rather than for more knowledge. How do we know the difference? Wisdom is simple. Further, it is enduring. It doesn’t change. It feels safe.

Charlie Munger gives us an example of wisdom for managing your personal finances: “Save 10% of your after-tax income every chance you get.” There’s a simple idea that anyone can understand, and you don’t need a finance degree to know how to do it. If you take this simple idea seriously, it will change your life.

Simplicity is also powerful because behavior change loves simplicity. The more difficult we make something to understand and practice, the less likely people will do it. The human operating system runs on connection, emotion, and meaning.

Here are a few tips and practices to help you simplify your leadership and apply some wisdom:

Listen before you tellWe are so enamored with, and confident about, what we believe to be the “right” solution to a problem that we can’t wait to share our “perspective” or opinions. Here’s a news flash: No one cares about your opinion; they care about theirs. Haven’t you noticed that the only time your opinion works is when you are talking to someone who already sees it the same way you do? Yet we think if we just share more “facts,” more of our knowledge, people will come around. As leaders, we do this all time. “Let us tell all of you the ‘right’ answer and why you should believe us” (because we’re smarter, right?).  This strategy consistently fails to engage or motivate people. Take the time to really listen first to those you lead and keep an open mind. Simple right? Only if you remember to actually do it.

Don’t try to problem-solve when people are upset

When someone is emotional because they are negatively triggered by a situation, they are incapable of thinking clearly or hearing anything you say. Truth. Instead of trying to problem solve, offer support without advice. It can be as simple as offering a bottle of water or just allowing them to react without reacting back. Be kind. Create a moment in which the person can recover their brain function and regain the trust that you genuinely care about their pain. Once they recover their composure, you can open a dialog about how to move forward in the best way possible, even if the direction is difficult for this person.

Keep your promises

Be predictable. In a world of so much uncertainty, even normally strong people are feeling insecure in their jobs and lives. As a leader, create stability and safety by being as predictable as possible. Don’t overreact when things go wrong. If people are on vacation, don’t text, email, or call them; respect their downtime. Tell people the truth, don’t spin things. If you said that someone can take the lead on an initiative, trust them. Don’t step in at the first sign that they aren’t doing it your way.

Have more fun

Does this really require an explanation? Isn’t it crazy that somewhere along the way in our evolution as a human species, we bought into the idea that if it’s not hard—even grueling—you won’t succeed? “No pain, no gain” became the popular refrain. Really. . . why? If life is not fun, what, then, is the point? Isn’t everything we do in order to enjoy life more, be happier? Let’s lighten up and stop taking ourselves and everything else so seriously. Among our greatest strengths as humans are our abilities to adapt and innovate. Since we’re going to do that anyway, let’s have more fun while we’re doing it!

Set fewer priorities

Overwhelm is the dominant feeling in most of our organizations and in our world today. People feel overworked, underpaid, under-resourced, and underappreciated. This is a leadership problem. We need to have a clear and inspiring vision for how our organization contributes to a better world, and then we need to be able to help our people at every level understand and have the ability to keep adjusting to changing priorities as we go. By continuously maintaining focus on a few critical priorities, we can reduce overwhelm and use limited resources on the most impactful and achievable goals, without sacrificing the health and well-being of our people.

Tell more stories

The art of storytelling is the second most requested skillset being sought after by leading organizations today. Why? Because that’s how we humans get engaged, and how we learn and retain what we learned. Over the ages, wisdom has been passed down through generations by telling stories. Make storytelling a core competency in your organization. Everyone has a story, and we can all learn from each other.

Richard Branson said, “Anyone can make something complicated. Only the best leaders can make things simple.” Fall in love with wisdom and you will be on your way to leading with simplicity.

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