Right now I’m working with a remarkable woman leader. She is the head of Human Resources of North America for a major global company. To sum it up, she is smart, fearless and savvy. But it’s not just what she is but what she does that makes her powerful. If I were to identify the single leadership problem that is an epidemic today it is confusion. People don’t perform well when they’re confused and most employees in most organizations are very confused. It’s not surprising.

We live in a time of great complexity. Competition is ferocious. Companies used to have competitive advantages that would last years. Now that’s been reduced to months. External factors in the economy, technology and social trends all work to create employee whiplash caused by constant changes and escalating demands.

I’m not exaggerating this problem of confusion. Recently, Franklin-Covey published some research that asked employees to rank their leaders against 77 management behaviors. Although people ranked “being a hard worker” the number one trait of their boss, the worst traits were ones that are at the root of basic leadership. They said their bosses were lousy even terrible at:

  • Prioritizing work so that time is spent on what’s most important
  • Setting up your expectations when assigning tasks
  • Planning ahead to reduce working in a crisis mode
  • Providing timely feedback on performance

These behaviors were the lowest scored. They were dead last among managers of some of the world’s most prominent enterprises. This is a big problem. Lousy leadership creates lousy performance which fills organizations with dysfunctional anxieties. When people are worried and confused they hunker down into all the toxic forms of self-protection which makes working in large organizations seem like you are trapped in a Dilbert cartoon. Whenever I’m able to work with exceptional leaders it’s like breathing pure oxygen.

I really hunker down and take notes on their behavior. I try to be a leadership anthropologist watching for what causes success in challenging cultures. At the core of leadership is the wise development and use of power. By power I mean the leadership ability to focus peoples’ attention, motivate their abilities, and prioritize their work to achieve meaningful goals. In many ways leadership is very simple. People want to succeed and leaders who make success easy are given a lot of power. As I have written before most male leaders rely on hard power strategies to push people to get things done.

But when people are confused pushing people to work harder always makes things worse. Product failures, angry customers, plunging sales and passive aggressive cultures are all signs of employee confusion. Many female leaders mistakenly try to balance the shortcomings of hard power by over-relying on the tools of soft power such as empathy and collaboration. But getting people together to try to figure out what their boss really means only leads to more confusion.

It also weakens the power of women who may be misusing their emotional intelligence when it’s their practical intelligence that will make a difference. That’s exactly what my client does that is so refreshing… and so powerful. She wields SMART Power like a samurai, cutting through confusion by constantly simplifying complexity. She is able to articulate the big picture and the vital business priorities using an array of simple declarative sentences.

She always ties her HR agenda to the urgent needs of the business. She can articulate the strategic imperatives of the enterprise as clearly as the CEO. Then she states what must be done immediately and has a question such as, “Does it make sense to you that we replace our annual performance reviews with short, biweekly feedback sessions since people need a constant flow of coaching to stay focused on emerging priorities?”

This technique of making recommendations in the form of a question consistently raises her power wattage. Her questions frame the discussion and contain compelling ‘if-then’ logic. It also helps her not fall into the trap of either whining about or insisting on a change she wants to make. This technique is not trivial. There is plenty of research that confirms when women try to exert power using the same techniques as hard power males they actually reduce their power and influence and become labeled as “overly aggressive, or worse…”

To sum it up, if you want to increase your SMART power then simplify confusion, clarify priorities, and lead people to follow you by asking them smart questions. Above all have a leadership agenda. Don’t wait for orders and don’t spend your life trying to achieve other people’s goals. Your goals are probably smarter!