Simplicity is not something you find or something you do, simplicity is a way of thinking and it takes discipline. Leadership is the ability to influence people; to get them to act together and on time; to provide direction and instill confidence. Great leaders understand that leadership involves taking the collective, their people and team on the same journey as themselves and making it as easy as possible for people to follow. Often, great leaders espouse the principle that they don’t expect anyone to do anything they would not do themselves.

These men and women consult widely, listen carefully, define clearly and act decisively. They know clear thinking and solutions, that can be understood, are contagious amongst their people, and they also know that the opposite is true.

Leaders throughout history generally fallen into one of two categories: those whose goal is to see their people achieve the very best outcomes possible by delivering absolute clarity, transparency and simplicity in what they say and do; and those who seek to obfuscate, confuse and generally keep their people in the dark are those who are often either insecure in their leadership, or who have hidden and perhaps ulterior agendas.

“Great leaders are almost always great simplifiers, who can cut through argument, debate and doubt, to offer a solution everybody can understand.” — Colin Powell

Great leaders

For a successful solution to a problem, there must be clarity and confidence it will work. Great leaders have the ability to articulate solutions; doing so in a way that clearly explains how it will work, and providing assurance that the proposed solution will be successful.

This is the opposite to those who obfuscate and avoid clear answers, resulting in doubt and a lack of confidence. Productive leaders confront the noise and endless analysis that pervades modern times, cutting through minutia, conflict and vested interests to deliver clarity; clarity from carefully sifting the issues, complexities, and spurious views; then highlight the real issues and the right solutions or choices.

Effective leaders wisely and intuitively separate relevant from the irrelevant, and then clearly articulate the facts with such simplicity and dexterity that all who hear the message can understand and have the confidence to proceed.

In such times, there generally are those whose method is to introduce irrelevant and confusing issues to cover up their real objectives and to further their cause. Sometimes the tactic is simply to stall for time or to raise issues that are red herrings that distract the debate from the important subjects of the day.

Typical tactics these leaders use is to advocate multiple issues that are known to be controversial, knowing that their real agenda will fly under the radar. Complexity, accidental hiding of facts and blaming other people are their tools of the trade.

Often this entails launching into endless detail, designed in part to confuse their listeners and convey an impression the said leader is invaluable, who is the only one who understands the issues and can effectively lead the team. A favorite claim used by these leaders is the evil is in detail.

The role of clear thinking and clear speaking by leaders in these times is critical, as those with less than ideal motives seek to have their sway, often for their gain; and the risk of those with ulterior motives holding sway over the debate is enhanced. Many corporate collapses have occurred due to leaders deliberately hiding critical information amongst mountains of detail, carefully designed to hide essential truths. There is a fine line between these practices and pure nondisclosure. Those who invoke great complexity in their activities and communications are frequently those who use such complexity to mask their agendas and goals.

Great leaders understand the wisdom of truthfulness and clarity; of keeping their message simple and easy to understand. The footprints of great leaders, who saw into the future and spanned generations, who have previously traveled our paths will often reveal simply, yet profoundly, the benefits of speaking and acting clearly.

Leadership and Simplicity

Unfortunately, if you are a leader, and life is too complicated, you have a doubly complicated problem. You have not only made your life more complicated by some fear but you have also affected the lives of those who follow you with your fears.

If you are afraid to be out of control, your controlling behavior will complicate the lives of others. Aou are afraid of failing, you will intensify your demands on others to avoid failing. If you are afraid of looking bad, you will make your subordinates work twice as hard so you can look better. Identify your fear and look around for the ways it is being manifested in the behaviors of those who work for you.

If you want to affect an entire culture, try to figure out how to help those you work with, identify and manage their fears.

When your subordinates make presentations for you, ask them how many practice rounds they did to prepare. Ask them why? When did they learn there would be no tolerance for mistakes? How many meetings did they attend to prepare not to make a mistake in front of you? If your calendar is full, look at how many meetings could be affected in other ways. Why did you say “yes?” In what ways are you expecting others to accommodate you and your calendar? How is their fear of disappointing you complicating their calendars? Are you conscious of the ripple effect of your behaviors?

If you really want to end up with simpler processes, find out what others fear and try to eliminate it. Start small. It becomes a way of thinking. After you start seeing the differences in what they create, find the next layer. Eventually what you will notice is that as people let go of their fears, they find simpler ways to achieve things.

The first step is to understand the elements of thought necessary to create more simplicity. The second is to identify the elements of discipline to create simpler, more efficient ways of doing things, individually or collectively.

Pay Attention to Your Thoughts

If you want to understand how you complicate your life and your work, consider how you think about things. Every individual has his or her way of complicating things, and each way is unique. The key to understanding how you complicate things is to understand what you fear. You might add extra steps, you might avoid risks you should take, and you might be incapable of making decisions you need to make.

If you are afraid others won’t follow you as a leader and don’t like you, you will do things that are unnecessary to avoid their disappointment. You will respond in a way that is not authentic in order to construct an impression of you that you think others will approve of.

In any given moment, on any specific project, ask yourself what you are most afraid of and then look at how you are processing that fear into a more complicated moment or a more complicated project.

The Discipline

The World becomes more complex, more complicated and if you are trying to simplify your life and your work, you should become highly conscious of your fears and simply act against them. For example, if you allow your schedule to be overwhelmed, ask what you are afraid of. Are you afraid of disappointing people? Are you afraid to say “no” to people? Why? Practice saying “No.” And just say “No.” The world will not stop, and you will not die.

Keeping things simple is not always easy. Practice trusting yourself more.