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Robert S. Kaplan is president and chief executive of the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas. Previously, he was the Senior Associate Dean for External Relations and Martin Marshall Professor of[…]
Over a 22-year career at Goldman Sachs, Robert S. Kaplan had the opportunity to run various businesses and to work with or coach numerous business leaders. He says that successful leadership is less often about having all the answers—and more often about asking the right questions. In Part 1 of The Leadership Challenge, Kaplan explores three strategic key questions that leaders need to ask themselves.
13 min

In this lesson from Big Think+, Harvard professor and former Goldman Sachs executive Robert S. Kaplan explores three strategic key questions that leaders need to ask themselves.

People think, oh gee, leadership is about charisma and it’s about natural personality and it’s about charm. And actually, that isn’t what leadership is about. I think those qualities help. Leadership is about what you do as a leader. And a lot of the things that leaders do are very difficult and they’re more difficult the more talented and naturally gifted you are. If you’re the most charming, the smartest, the most charismatic, you may not necessarily become the best leader because a lot of the things that I’m going to talk about you need to do you just can’t do.

The Challenges of Being Gifted

The most significant reason that I see that leaders fail is not because they’re not smart enough or they don’t have the skills, it’s that they are not open to learning and they are isolated. If you’re the most talented person, why would you ever delegate? Why would you ever delegate to someone else. They’re just going to do it worse than you would do it and all it’s going to do is annoy you and make you crazy, and you’re going to have to redo what they do.

They think they're supposed to act like they know everything, they’re used to being the smartest person so everybody expects them to know everything. And so they send off a vibe, they don’t want criticism, they don’t want disagreement, they’re not open to advice, they don’t ask for advice, and what happens over a period of months and years is they get very, very isolated. And that’s when leaders start to make really dumb decisions because they lose perspective and everybody’s afraid to tell them. And we’ve all seen it. On the national stage, corporate leaders, all of us have worked with leaders where you say, "that person is so smart, he or she is so smart, how could they have done something so stupid?" Well, it’s not that they got stupid all of a sudden; it is that they’re so talented that they never change their habits. They never learned how to become a leader.

So the reason I talk about leadership is to demystify what leaders do. The most significant thing a leader does is decide what he or she believes and then has the guts to act on it. That’s what leadership is. In order to figure out what you believe and have the guts to act on it you’ve got to be open to learning. You’ve got to seek advice. You’ve got to be intellectually curious. You have to admit when you’re wrong. And those are things that are very tough for certain people to do because they don’t think that’s what a leader does. They think that a leader says, “We’re going to go north and follow me.” That’s not what a leader does.

Skillful Leaders Ask Three Strategic Key Questions

Key Question 1: What is the vision?

I talk about a series of questions leaders should ask. The first question is what’s the vision for your enterprise? What’s the vision? And this is not well understood. And most people, including me, will go for years and don’t know what vision is. Here’s what vision is. Vision is how do you add value to others based on what clear distinctive competence. How do you add value to others based on what distinctive competence? If you want to be a leader, you need to be asking that question constantly about your business. How do I add value to customers or clients and, in order to do that based on what clear distinctive competence? What do I need to be great at?

Most leaders I talk to struggle with is they might have asked five years ago or maybe an entrepreneur asked when they started the business, “what’s our vision?” But a lot of people get so wrapped up in the day-to-day, they stop asking. Or, they had a clear vision but the world changed, the business changed and they stopped asking a question, they became isolated, they weren’t open to learning. And what happens is the business no longer adds value the way they did to that customer, because the customer is different or the industry is different or there’s been a product innovation so that what used to add value is now a commodity; doesn’t add any value.

And then the second is they don’t bore in on the key distinctive competences they need to build to add that value. And this is, again, the danger as I talked about. If you’re the most talented person in the room, you’re the smartest person in your class and you’re the most charming, are you willing to step back and ask this question and engage your people, engage your customers in trying to answer it.

But the reason I emphasize vision first is it’s the prism through which you judge everything you do. If I’m going to be a successful professor at Harvard, I must have a vision for how I add value as a professor based on what distinctive competencies in everything I do every day is trying to figure out what should spend my time on so that I add that value and build those competencies. But in order to do that I have to be willing to be a little paranoid and realize I could be wrong, the world has changed, maybe I’m not doing as good a job as I thought. I have to be humble enough to be open to keep asking that question.

First step is can you write it down? Second step is, do you over communicate it? You have to over communicate it to your people so that they know what it is that you want. They know what they’re supposed to be doing. And a powerful vision or a clearly articulated vision is a very powerful thing because it informs your customers, your people, what they should be doing. And also people are thinking about whether or not to join forces with you, they know whether or not to join, they know whether or not to sign up. Do they share the same aspiration as you?

And the best example I can think of, not to pick on him, ‘cause I happen to like him is the President of the United States. Who, our current President, Barrack Obama, was a visionary candidate; “There’s no black America, there’s no white America, there’s no rich America, there’s no poor America, there’s the United States of America.” What a vivid aspiration for what kind of country we want to be. And when he said, "you make me President, I will add value by unifying all these groups and we’re going to solve these problems." Inherent in that was, "I have a distinctive competence in bringing people together. I’m good at that. And I’m good at giving a clear direction, bringing people together; I’m a new kind of politician. Change is coming to Washington. We’re going to do things differently." And if I polled people in the country, I would argue, he was elected – first he beat Hillary Clinton and then he beat John McCain because people were clear, in my opinion, they may not have liked it, but they were clear on what his vision was.

If I asked people three years into the presidency, what’s the vision of the President of the United States after having done healthcare reform, appointed a Presidential Commission on the Deficit, but not acted on their recommendations, and other things that have happened. What’s his vision? And I must admit, I’ll answer, I don’t know. But it’s a great example of what I mean. It applies to every business leader, business unit leader, department head, non-profit leader, is you got to have a clear aspiration of how you add value based on what distinctive competence and over communicate it and amend it, if you need to. But that’s what a leader does. And no amount of charm or smarts, in my opinion, is going to overcome your failure to do that.

Key Question 2: What are my priorities?

Now vision alone isn’t enough, there are two other things you have to do. Second is, set priorities. You have to pick three to five key tasks that you must do extremely well if you’re going to achieve that vision, if you’re going to add value and build that distinctive competence. So what’s an example of a priority? In the business I was in for over 20 years, it was attracting, retaining, and developing outstanding people. So I spent a quarter of my time recruiting, training people, coaching people constantly, reviewing people. Why not? Because I loved it, it’s a pain. But I did it because I believed it was one of the top priorities that we had to be great at if we were going to add value to clients and build a distinctive competence of being a great advisor to clients. But that’s an example of a priority.

A lot of people say, “I have priorities, I have eight or nine.” And my answer is, “Eight or nine priorities is the same as zero.” Human beings normally can’t focus on more than three or four or five. And maybe they can’t even focus on that many, by the way. And the reason priorities are so critical is, again, back to your people and you, can you write down your vision, can you write down your three to five priorities, and do you over communicate it to your people so they can repeat them back to you. Why? Because you got to know what’s the aspiration and how – and what are the most important things I need to spend my time on? And that’s got to come from a leader. And the leader needs to keep engaging people to make sure they’re on the same page. Again, when see a business or a non-profit or a government leader that’s in trouble, normally they cannot clearly articulate a vision and/or they cannot boil it down to three to five top priorities.

Key Question 3: How do I allocate my time?

And then there’s the third part, which is, people always say to me, “Well, gee. How am I supposed to spend my time as a leader?” Once you do the vision and the priorities the answer falls out. You should be spending, in my opinion, 70 percent of your time, if you can, on your top priorities in order to achieve that vision. And what normally happens when I see a business that’s in trouble or a non-profit or some other organization, normally leaders are spending their time on things that have nothing to do with the top priorities. They don’t do it maliciously or deliberately. And why do they do that? Either it’s lack of discipline or they’ve never articulated a clear vision and never written down three to five priorities, so they don’t know how to spend their time and normally what I see below them is a big organization that’s thrashing around and people spending their time on all sorts of scattered stuff.

So when you say, “Boy, that organization is chaotic,” or “Boy, it’s mismanaged,” or you see even in a presidential campaign people say, “God, what a mess.” He's, you know, it’s all over the map or that company’s all over the map, that’s another way of saying people are not clear on the vision, the priorities and they’re not focused on matching their time to the priorities. When you see a well-managed company, if I translate, that’s what you’re saying you see.

Back to where we started. Leadership, and what I just went through, in my opinion, must be learned. I have not met too many people, if any in my life, that just roll out of bed or were born understanding how to articulate a clear vision, how to ask a question, how to set priorities, how to match their time to priorities, how to be open to learning, how to say, “I don’t know,” how to seek advice in figuring these things out. No. Talent helps you do these things, in my opinion, but only if you’re open to learning and avoid being isolated.