A leader must take action—action leads to impact. But actions also possess a separate, equally powerful quality. Actions are unambiguous. If you, the leader, can highlight a few carefully selected actions, then your followers will no longer have to infer the future from theoretical pronouncements about “core values” or your “mission statement.” They will simply look to see what actions you take and put their confidence in these. But be aware that people respond best to two types of action: symbolic action and systemic action.
Symbolic action is just that—a representation of what the future can look like. Symbolic action grabs their attention; it gives people something new and vivid on which to focus. When Rudy Giuliani was elected mayor of New York, he decided to get rid of squeegee men—street people who demanded payment for cleaning windshields. His action was heavily symbolic: It didn’t change New Yorkers’ day-to-day lives all that much, but it was a powerful demonstration of what Giuliani meant when he talked about a better quality of life.
Giuliani also instituted a twice-weekly meeting in which more than 100 senior police officers would gather to explain the city’s daily crime data and defend their response to it. Giuliani declared that these meetings encouraged accountability and transparency. But the meetings’ real power was that they disrupted routines. For a leader, it’s important to disrupt routines. Systemic action changes behavior. It makes people realize that the world is going to be different because they’re doing different things. The future becomes clearer, and out of that clarity comes confidence.
These things I have learned, and when going back through re-reading about Giuliani time in office, they have been confirmed again. So the bottom line is this:
Effective leaders don’t have to be passionate or charming or brilliant (although having any of these attributes will certainly help). What they must be is clear—clarity is the essence of great leadership. Show people clearly how they should seek to serve, show people where their core strength lies, show them which score they should focus on and which actions they must take, and they will reward you the leader by working their hearts out to make a better future come true.