The True North of Leadership

posted by Darren Mitchell February 12, 2015 0 comments


Over the years, I have had the privilege to work with and for some extraordinary leaders. Leaders who inspire greatness in their people, who have the ability to uplift others, who are prepared to step into the trenches, roll up their sleeves and do some heavy lifting. Leaders who have the incredible gift of being capable of influencing others and creating environments where the focus is on win-win and not win-lose. Leaders who, from the outside at least, appear to have the gift of ‘everything they touch turning to gold’. These leaders set an exceptional standard and benchmark for excellence, a benchmark which I have sought to model my own leadership on.

This was highlighted to me like a massive spotlight just last week – I was working with a leader in a large organisation who was growing more and more frustrated. It appeared that no matter what he did, he just could not achieve the traction and generate the momentum he was looking for. As a result, the morale of the team was dropping, people appeared to be less engaged, their energy was low, not to mention the level of performance of the team. As an exercise I spent some time with one of his direct reports to understand their perspective, and attempt to identify what may have been missing. It was a very interesting discussion. Despite the leaders best intentions, his direct report was confused and really unsure of why he was there and what he was there to achieve. He said ‘sometimes I feel as though I am walking through quicksand in the dead of night, with my hands tied behind my back, a massive load on my shoulders, and not knowing where I am going’. Apart from being impressed with the creative metaphor he used, I reflected on his comments and how he was feeling and realised where the challenge potentially was – his leader had not executed on what I term the True North of Leadership – Clarity.

In re-engaging with the leader, I shared with him the thoughts and feedback from his team (with their permission of course!), and quite literally, I could have knocked him over with a feather – he was astonished. He was of the opinion that he had been absolutely 100% crystal clear on the team’s purpose and the role each team member played. It was a massive wake up call for him, and to his credit, he took the feedback on board and committed to addressing it immediately. We then spent the next 2 hours working through what clarity meant for him, in the context of his leadership, and how it would have a positive and uplifting impact on his team. Here is what we discussed :

  • Clarity is about being crystal clear on your vision – before you can create and paint a vision for your team, it is critical that you create a vision for yourself. If you are unclear on why you are doing what you are doing, how can the team be clear on what they are doing, and why? So identify why you are in the leadership role, what do you stand for, what are your benchmarks of excellence, and what do you want to create?
  • Take responsibility – in today’s instant gratification world, it is easy to abdicate responsibility, particularly when we are inundated with messages through the media to apportion blame to others, and to look for reasonable reasons (I call them excuses) as to why the results are not flowing. However, to be a leader worthy of leading others, you must take responsibility – and responsibility for everything that happens to you and the team (regardless of whether it was your doing, or not). You see, when you take responsibility, you hold the power – you have the power to respond, to set the example, and in the process, you teach your people an invaluable lesson. So if your team is confused and not clear about why they are there and what their role is, this is your fault! Take responsibility.
  • Clarity is to be free of obstacles – having created your own vision and taken 100% responsibility, you are now in a position to create a crystal clear vision and purpose for the team. The most effective way to do this of course is to facilitate a creative brainstorming session with the team, to seek their contributions, their views, and their ideas on what a clearly defined purpose and vision would look like for them. Once this is completed, the next critical component is to identify exactly ‘how’ the team will be able to execute in order to achieve the purpose and vision, and when this is crystal clear, it will provide the team with ‘power’ to be able to breakthrough or avoid the inevitable obstacles that will be placed in your path.
  • Clarity can encourage exploration – with a very clear purpose and vision established, along with ‘how’ the team will achieve it, you are now in a position where the team is able to explore new ideas and approaches to drive towards the vision, within a set of parameters that have been established and agreed. You are able to encourage creativity and ‘out of the box’ thinking, tapping into the collective intelligence of the team, all the while ensuring that they remain clear on their purpose.
  • Clarity provides direction – with the team purpose and vision locked in, you can now provide the team with direction, to shine the ‘beacon of light’ along the path. It reminds me of a quote from Martin Luther King Jnr, who said “I have been to the mountaintop, and I’ve seen the promised land”. Clarity shines the light on the path to the ‘promised land’ and can provide the team with a level of certainty that they are on the right track.
  • People have meaning – as you are crystal clear on the purpose and vision of the team, when you are clear on the roles and responsibilities of each member of the team, this provides them with meaning, and quite often, with significance. In developing and articulating the roles and responsibilities, constantly check in with the team to ensure that there is no room for any confusion – always check, double check, and triple check if you have to, to ensure that everyone understands the role they play. This again comes back to responsibility – your responsibility.
  • Clarity can create a movement – when you are 100% clear on your vision and purpose, and when the team is 100% clear, it is often difficult to hold back the excitement and prospect of achieving the vision. When this happens, passion can take hold, and it can become unstoppable – before you know it, you have created a movement that can move mountains!
  • Becoming one – with clarity comes synergy; the team becomes a well oiled machine, almost appearing to run on autopilot, such is the tremendous focus that each member of the team brings to the table. From the outside, the team can appear to be ‘one’ – that is, there is such close synergy that actions are taken without any words being spoken; it is almost like the team are communicating telepathically. When the team becomes ‘one’, you know you have created something special.

Since our discussion, the leader has re discovered his Leadership True North, re-engaged his team and is progressively working through the points we discussed. He has a new level of enthusiasm and optimism about the future, and interestingly, he has noticed a marked difference in the energy levels within his team. His people appear to be more enthusiastic and upbeat – some are even smiling, which is a great sign!!

I would love to hear your thoughts and reflections on your experience around the importance of clarity and how it has impacted your leadership and your team.

To your leadership success.


Thank you for taking the time to read this post – I greatly appreciate it, and welcome comments and feedback. Please feel free to comment below, to follow me on LinkedIn, or to connect via Twitter or Facebook.

About : Darren is an Executive Coach, Leadership Consultant, Trainer, Facilitator, Speaker. A  passionate and driven individual specialising in personal development, strategic planning, coaching for advocacy & enhanced performance, situational and servant based leadership, executive coaching of people leaders, emerging leaders and ‘high potential’ individual contributors within the Enterprise & Government market, personal change management, and strategic workshop facilitation & training.

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