Fluid Power Journal

Exceptional Leaders SORT Their Thoughts

By Jill J. Johnson

Most leaders believe they make good decisions. They believe they already have clarity about their situation. Protecting the status quo is the norm. Then something significant happens: their financials show losses, revenues stall, clients leave, good employees take better jobs elsewhere. All executives and boards of directors share a desire for resolution when they are in the middle of a complicated or difficult situation.

But exceptional leaders are unique. They demonstrate a willingness to gain real clarity about what is going on inside and outside their organization. They want a depth of information to understand the truth about what is right and wrong with the strategies they are implementing. They want to identify the factors impacting their ability to be successful. They take control by looking for ways to innovate to solve their problems, meet the evolving needs of their customers, and improve their market position. They take the time to SORT their thoughts to gain the clarity they need for success.

Skewed viewpoint

Most leaders believe they are already doing the right things. They believe their products and services already meet valuable needs for their customers. What they don’t realize is that their view has been skewed by changes that have gone on around them. New competitors to the market may have significantly altered their historical market position. But because they are so certain they’re doing a good job, they may not realize how much their market has changed.

Exceptional leaders understand that staying close to your market is crucial to long-term success. Markets change over time. Leaders want to understand how their market is changing and why. They determine what they need to do to meet evolving market needs. They want to understand what they need to do to compete effectively with new competitors to retain or enhance their market position. They are constantly assessing customer expectations and whether their needs may be shifting beyond what they now offer. Their focus is on the future and moving forward with true success. They move on.

Overcoming obstacles

Sometimes leaders freeze when confronted with the need to take real action. They are so paralyzed by the fear of making a mistake that they make no decision at all. They wait until the situation is dire and then react by putting out the inconsequential fires. By focusing on the wrong things, they ignore the main fire that rages all around them. Their inability to address the real issues before there is a complete crisis results in chaos. They blame others. Their people don’t trust them. Their board loses confidence. Leaders without clarity can do great harm to their organizations.

Exceptional leaders expect their situations to change, and they have the discipline to continually look forward and assess what changes may affect them. They are always on the lookout for ways to innovate and revitalize their products, services, and organizations. They look for new ways to grow, evolve, and succeed. They understand that periodic strategic corrections are necessary to overall long-term success.

Right information

Most leaders believe they already have enough information. They apply the same set of assumptions to their decision-making that have historically worked for them. They use the same data sources they have always used. They rely on the opinions of underperforming staff to explain the challenges they face rather than engage in the proper due diligence to find out the underlying causes for their organizational difficulties. They fail to understand the significance of how changes in external market forces can impact consumer expectations or their long-term survival.

Exceptional leaders look for more than a superficial answer. They don’t stop looking at the first 10 answers they pull up in a Google search. They look for the pearls of wisdom buried deep in the data, and they are not afraid to find advisors who will help them find the truth and interpret it. Getting the right information for real decision-making is hard work. They know that it requires a significant effort to reconsider every current assumption and look for changes in the trends and patterns of the data. Doing that without a biased view is even harder. They are willing to invest the time and money to bring in a fresh and different point of view to discover the truth.


Most leaders believe they already have a complete understanding of what is going on. Yet the fundamental reason for a lack of clarity at the top is usually because no one tells them the whole truth. Employees tell their leaders what they think they “want” to hear. People are penalized for telling the truth. Cultural paradigms cause employees to withhold candid feedback because they don’t want to displease anyone with bad news. Worse, some leaders are not able to listen to a divergent perspective. As a result, these leaders lose control of the situation and their ability to implement corrective actions before things go completely haywire.

Exceptional leaders understand clarity begins with a real desire to see the truth of the situation. Truth gives you information. Information gives you insight. Insight gives you clarity to set the right priorities and focus your people on critical activities that create success. These leaders find it refreshing to have someone around who will tell them what they don’t necessarily want to hear but that they already suspect is true. They use objective advisors to get to the truth and to help them work through the issues to create real and lasting improvements that move their organization forward.

Getting clarity can be frightening. Clarity about your problems and challenges can scare your board and staff. It can be humbling to realize that critical strategies you previously implemented are now the cause of the problems facing your organization. Yet when you have clarity, it becomes much easier to prioritize what needs to be done to resolve the issue or improve it.

Jill J. Johnson, president and founder of Johnson Consulting Services, is a management consultant, speaker, author, and Business Hall of Fame inductee. She helps clients make critical business decisions and develop plans for turnarounds or growth. Her consulting work has impacted over $4 billion worth of decisions. For more information, visit www.jcs-usa.com.


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