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The “One Thing” Approach to Leadership Development

The “One Thing” Approach to Leadership Development

Dan McCarthy | Great Leadership

January 20, 2010

There’s a scene in the Movie “City Slickers” where the lead character, Mitch, played by Billy Crystal, is debating with his ornery trail boss Curly, about the meaning of life. It goes like this:

Curly: Do you know what the secret of life is?
[holds up one finger]
Curly: This.
Mitch: Your finger?
Curly: One thing. Just one thing. You stick to that and the rest don’t mean s—t.
Mitch: But, what is the “one thing?”
Curly: [smiles] That’s what you have to find out.

I think Curly may have been on to something in regards to how we approach our development as leaders.

For years now, I’ve been working with leaders helping them with their individual development plans. The general rule of thumb I’ve always used is to help the leader pick 3-4 things that they want and need to get better at. These can be strengths to leverage or weaknesses that are getting in the way of their success.

It’s usually never a problem coming up with a few things. The leader may have a keen sense of self-awareness, has recently taken a 360 degree assessment, or received feedback from their manager. Once we identify those 3-4 things, we then build a plan to develop in those areas.

Unfortunately, when I follow-up with the same leaders 6 months to a year later and ask about progress, all too often nothing or very little actually got done. These are not slackers I’m working with either – these are very successful, ambitious individuals.

There are a lot of excuses, errr, reasons, for this. A lack of interest from their managers, a lack of inspection, overly ambitious plans, too busy, and all kinds of other reasons that make it so hard for us to lose weight or stick to our New Year’s resolutions.

However, lately I’ve been following the advice of coaching guru Marshall Goldsmith. When he works with leaders, he’ll ask them “what’s the one thing that if you could show improvement would make the biggest difference in your success as a leader?”

Maybe it’s the ability to listen; or to think more strategically; or to lead change. Then, for the next 6 months, focus exclusively on improving in that one area. Hit that development need with every proven method available: a challenging assignment, a coach, mentor, or other subject matter experts, a good book or course, and continuous feedback.

Keep Reading: The Approach


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