What leaders can learn from 8th grade science.

Remember when you first learned about the concept of magnetism? If your experience was like mine, you ran an experiment using iron filings dumped onto a flat surface. They lay there in a random, haphazard fashion – until you wielded a magnet! All of a sudden the invisible force of magnetism took control of those iron filings, arranging them into patterns dictated by the movement of your hand. Circles, whorls, straight lines: the magnet was capable of aligning those individual filings, and out of chaos, order was created. When the magnet was removed, chaos could quickly ensue if the iron filings were disturbed.

The effect of a magnet on iron filings is an apt allegory for the effect of strong leadership on the people in organizations. In business, the purpose of leadership is to define a compelling vision and then communicate it effectively in order to create alignment among employees – much like a magnet is the source of a powerful, unseen force organizing matter. Alignment (being committed to a common purpose) among employees is a critical factor in achieving success: healthy profits, committed employees, and enthusiastic customers.

But what does it take to create strong alignment within a business? It’s clear to me that it starts with the quality of the leader’s thinking. Yes, good old-fashioned introspection, enhanced by deliberate efforts to leverage the thinking of others – whether through books, blogs, podcasts, training, workshops, master mind groups, or a mentor. Leaders have an obligation to out-think those around them: out-think them in terms of the sheer amount of time they spend thinking; out-think them in terms of the willingness to embrace different points of view that challenge assumptions and habits. Focused thinking will spawn clear objectives and strategies for the business. Focused thinking will enable the leader to communicate vision, strategies, tactics and expected outcomes authentically and clearly, engaging the hearts and minds of employees. Focused thinking leads to high quality results because it creates a shared vision that can be easily understood and embraced by employees.

Here’s an alignment exercise that is very telling. In a neutral, private setting, ask your employees to take out a piece of paper and answer the following question: “What is the most important goal our company has for 2016?” If the majority of employees cannot identify the single most important goal, there’s an alignment problem. Then, as the leader, you have to determine whether the problem arises from a lack of clarity in your own thinking about business objectives, or it’s a product of ineffective communications. In either case, take time out to rethink, refresh, reinforce and recommunicate why the business exists, how it benefits your customers, and how the members of your team contribute to success. You’ll be astounded by the results.

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