5 Leadership Barriers to Better Clarity

06 Jul

clear waterBy Lee Ellis

Have you ever had to fight for clarity in a meeting or conversation? Early on in my military training at Air University, our professors who taught speaking and writing courses told us repeatedly to “fight for clarity.” When lives are at stake while flying multi-million dollar pieces of equipment, clarity was crucial for us.

Clarity in the Crucible

Having spent several years in the crucible of the Hanoi POW camps, I grasped the concept of clarity in a literal way several years before I fully understood it in a classroom setting. With the guards patrolling the compound, it was a daily battle just to keep our limited covert communications flowing. And with so much on the line, clarity was essential for alignment on strategy and tactics as well as encouragement and support. In chapter 5 of my upcoming book, Engage with Honor, I share the vital role it played in the camps and the pain that came when it was missing.

Clarity in All Situations

Clarity is essential in all situations. It’s easy to see the problems when a sports team doesn’t have a clear message. For example, in baseball, what if the batter misses the sign and the runner at first gets thrown out on what should have been a sacrifice bunt? In football we often see the problems when a player or two miss the call, and the play blows up from the start. In a more typical workplace culture, it may be more subtle but can be even more disastrous. So, though clarity may be crucial, it’s almost never easy.

Why is Clarity So Hard?

“Clarity is difficult because we’re dealing with humans—not machines.” [Tweet This]

To understand the battle, here are some of the challenges we must overcome:

  • Low Priority. We’re too busy and don’t recognize how important clarity is and just neglect it.
  • Bad Assumptions. We assume that others see the world that we’re seeing and therefore don’t understand that they don’t have the right picture.
  • Unfocused. Some leaders don’t take the time to focus and decide what they want to happen—what success will look like.
  • Lazy. Sometimes leaders are too lax in their approach, figuring that somehow it will get done. They think that they can give a few instructions, withdraw from the process, and then one day it will all be completed.
  • Fear. Some leaders resist clarity because they fear the responsibility of holding others accountable—which, at times, means being firm and risking “negative emotions.”

Yes, it’s a battle, but gaining clarity is worth fighting for. It reduces the fog and ambiguity that undermine high performance. It brings understanding, alignment, and positive energy. It opens the door for synergy and teamwork. Clarity is really a 360 degree challenge, but for now let’s looks at it just from a top-down perspective.

How Can You Get Clarity?

  • 100,000-foot level. Clarity about mission, vision, and values is crucial to building a culture of synergy and accountability. Unless these are hammered out at the top and then pushed down to the lowest levels, the culture will never be strong. Consider the success of Southwest Airlines’ more than forty years of consecutive profitability. Their culture has remained consistent on mission, vision, and values and it permeates to the lowest levels. Compare the success of Delta’s merger with Northwest and the difficulties seen in United’s merger with Continental. It’s all about clarity and alignment at this highest level.
  • 50,000-foot level. For the sake of discussion, consider this level as standards and policies for the industry and organization. Enron and Arthur Anderson lost clarity and focus on these points, and they’re no longer in business. The NFL has struggled in recent years to gain clarity about player behavior on the field, in the locker room, and in domestic situations. Similar challenges can be seen in most every area of endeavor, probably due to a decline in clarity about standards and accountability in our culture.
  • 25,000 foot level. This level is about policies and processes for the leader and the team. How do we work together? What do we expect of each other?
  • 15, 10, and 5,000-foot levels. This level is about the specifics of the task or project. What will a successful outcome look like? What problems will be solved? What resources are available, and what ground rules or assumptions are in place that need to be considered?

When you look at clarity in these few levels, you can see that it’s not easy.

“It takes diligence and courage on the part of the leader to provide the clarity that people and teams need to successfully perform their assignments.” [Tweet This]

The Reward

The rewards for clarity are great—extending beyond celebrating success of the immediate task. In the process, everyone is growing in accountability and professional development. Envision current and next generation leaders growing together. Now that’s a goal really worth fighting for.


Watch the Trailer for Lee Ellis’ upcoming book, Engage with Honor – and sign up for e-updates.



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Posted by on July 6, 2016 in Uncategorized


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