Mark Miller’s Smart Leadership book is packed with ideas and practical tips to scale your impact as leader. The central tenet of the book is that to have a great impact, leaders have to make smart choices – Miller asserts: “choices give us agency and opportunity.”
The book opens with a reminder of a scene from Indiana Jones, where Indy is faced with a choice of cup which may be the Holy Grail. Choose wisely and he would have eternal life, choose badly and he would face a horrible death. Thankfully leaders don’t often face such life and death choices but they do have to make difficult and high stakes decisions on a daily basis.
The book is authored by Miller who successfully scaled the ranks of US fast food chain Chick- Fil-A to become Vice-President of High Performance leadership and who has spent many years researching leadership and speaking to leaders in a range of fields and organisations including Google, Apple, Starbucks, Fedex and Disney. Miller has also written a number of other books on the topic of leadership including the High Performance series and the Smart Leadership and Talent Magnet field guides (now on my reading wish list!)
His latest work is broken into four parts. Each section is focused on one of four smart choices leaders should pay attention to, to be successful and add value to their companies and communities. As Miller points out, not all choices are of equal value so it is important to focus on the ones which will have the greatest strategic impact and enable other choices. These four choices are:
- Confront Reality which is about understanding your starting position through taking a long hard look in the mirror, analysing the data, asking questions and seeking fresh input when you need to through seeking counsel from coaches, mentors or other advisers
- Create Capacity through getting clear on your responsibilities and stopping and thinking about how you spend your time. Make sure you step back and create thinking time away from the busyness and sea of emails to gain perspective as well as taking time to expand your own energy reserves
- Fuel Curiosity through asking better questions, speaking to a diverse range of people, reading widely (as many of the world’s most successful CEOs do) and testing and learning – as Miller extols: “curiosity is the birthplace of the future”
- Create Change through you’re your expertise, will to change and using your leadership tools you can create change and a better future for yourself and your organisation. Miller states that “progress is the promise of leadership”
Each section is broken into a choice and Miller explains why this is important along with practical ideas on how you can make these choices in your life. It’s also worth noting that that each choice interacts with the others. For example in creating capacity a leader gives themselves time and space to create change.
Miller references some of the seminal works in leadership thinking – Covey, Drucker and Blanchard (who Miller has co-authored “The Secret” with) plus examples of leaders who were pivotal in his own success. He retells a story of a leader who once stopped him in the corridor and asked him “what value do you add here?” Miller responded to say that he added value by asking great questions. This is a skill he brings to his book which is littered with great coaching questions which the reader can use to prompt their own thinking.
Key takeaways for me were:
- thinking about what’s stopping me from making smart choices. There are a number of reasons for why leaders fail to do this including being too successful, too arrogant, too busy or too exhausted. Miller talks about quicksand and the concept of trying to keep going in the face of endless emails, meetings and other demands on your time. As he points out, remaining in quicksand will either exhaust you or eventually drown you – it’s important to escape for the sake of your leadership and your life. At the time reading this book, this concept really resonated with me
- the concept of “margin” as time to reflect on the lessons of the past and imagine and create a compelling vision for the future. This can be done through focus days, a great morning ritual or daily review. Most interesting is the four step approach to creating what Miller calls “momentum in the moment.” This involves stopping, listening (what’s really going on, what are people not saying?) thinking ( what are my options, what insight am I missing, what clues are there) and deciding ( what is my best next step, what am I uniquely positioned to do, how can I add maximum value and my favourite question – what action has the highest probability of no regrets?)
- capturing ideas in a “commonplace book” – this is something practiced by great thinkers and leaders including Leonardo Di Vinci, Isaac Newton and John Locke and involves writing down ideas, observations, statistics, quotes and recommendations for future use, rather than trying to rely on your over stretched memory to store all of this information
- checking in to make sure I am maintaining a growth mindset through learning something new every day, sharing ideas, learning from the successes and failures of others and getting clear on my “why.”
As I stated at the beginning of the review, this book is dense with ideas, suggestions and questions to help leaders make smart choices and scale their impact and it is hard to do it justice in a short review. I read this book at one of the busiest periods I have experienced in my professional life and in the face of many competing demands (aka quicksand) and exhaustion I nearly gave up but I am very glad I didn’t. That would not have been a smart choice.
Find out more at Mark Miller Leadership
Adele Swan, Senior HR Manager, First Sentier Investors