Leadership is leverage. No, not authority or power.

Leadership is making choices. To make good choices, we have to understand leverage points.

The concept is simple: certain small interactions produce cascading effects that determine outcomes over time.

There are many terms for these critical points in human behavior and their outsized effect on outcomes. On an individual level, Charles Duhigg calls these “keystone habits.” On an organizational level, they are often summarized as values or principles of the organization’s culture. Complexity theory describes them as feedback cycles. On a pop culture level, the idea shows up as the butterfly effect (no, not that movie!).

In leadership, we cannot act upon every relationship, nor can we share every aspect of the story of vision in every possible way. Instead, we must select, from nearly limitless options, the few approaches that we believe will be most effective. We select an intervention because we want to achieve an effect greater than our effort: we want to create more change than we put in.

Leverage points work because we break a negative cycle or create a positive one. If we act upon the cycle someplace other than the leverage point, we will have to keep intervening forever, because the change will not become self-sustaining. The most important leadership skill we develop is our ability to see and act at the right moment, in the right way. Every other leadership skill is the application of behavior to a specific situation.

This is why leadership is always situational: our personal style, team, output, and environment are unique to us. Nobody else can point out the leverage points for our specific situation. If we outsource this decision-making to others — by doing what is popular in leadership theory and may have worked in someone else’s situation — then we prevent ourselves from developing this singularly important capability.

Ready to start looking for leverage points? Ask yourself:

  • What is the challenge in your organization, the set of interactions that most limit the quality of the group’s output?

  • Where in this cycle of interactions is the weak point, the one interaction that is most likely to break the chain and create a new outcome?

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