THE BLOG
03/22/2011 04:32 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

How To Be a Significantly Better Business Leader in Just One Day

In a lifetime spent coaching business leaders, I've learned a simple truth: leaders develop differently over the short-, medium- and long-term.

Specifically, I've discovered that while there are obvious leadership skills and behaviors that require months -- even years -- to develop, there are also simple, short-term actions which any leader can take immediately, and which will dramatically improve their performance.

Here are the seven most impactful of those short-term actions which, taken together, will significantly improve your leadership in just one day:

1. Cancel a meeting | If you're a leader in business, you're almost certainly over-scheduled. If you work in a large organization, probably chronically so. Truth is, you can't be leader if there's no room in the day for you to be a leader. So make room -- cancel a meeting, and give your day some air and space for you to act in.

If you lead in a small organization this will be culturally easy (it's a small organization, so you get to set the norms), but mechanically difficult (it's a small organization, so you're probably needed in most meetings). If you work in a large organization, this will be mechanically easy (plenty of meetings that can be canceled or rescheduled without the world ending, or which you simply don't need to attend) but culturally difficult (you risk being seen as 'out of the loop', or a maverick, or just weird).

Either way, it's crucial that you take this step first, otherwise your day won't be able to accommodate what follows.

2. Drop a level | Leaders in business suffer from altitude sickness. Too much of their information comes from peer levels, or is severely filtered (through reports, presentations, memos, meetings). As a result, the informational air they breathe has a low oxygen content -- it contains very little pure, unfiltered information.

Today, take one trip outside your usual circle -- go one level beyond where you usually reach to for information. Maybe that means visiting the warehouse (and actually looking at your inventory problem), dropping by one of your stores (and personally experiencing the customer service you're trying to improve) or visiting a supplier (and eyeballing that quality control issue you're in discussions about).

3. Listen for 15 minutes | You need fresh, relevant data. Always. Yet when people meet you, they give you not-quite-fresh, not quite-relevant data (for lots of reasons: because it's easier, because every report or presentation is always to some extent out-of-date, over-preparation, fear, cultural norms, risk aversion).

Today, start one meeting -- formal or informal -- by kicking away the agenda. Instead, ask questions that will yield you fresh, relevant data -- then listen. If you can't think of questions that would yield such information, ask "What questions should I be asking you?"

4. Think for 15 minutes | You, a blank sheet of paper and nothing else. No email -- no screens at all, in fact. No interruptions, no work avoidance. Just 15 minutes of sheer, blank-minded thinking. You can do it.

In fact, it's what you're paid to do.

5. Drop the war and sports stuff | This won't apply to everyone, but many, many leaders -- especially men -- consistently frame leadership issues in the context of war or sports. It's understandable (culturally at least), but it's wrong. Business is not war -- war is war. And business is not sports -- sports is sports.

That's not to say that there aren't some useful analogies and metaphors to be found in war or sports -- there are, but if you are consistently and frequently reaching for them, then you're a 2-dimensional leader at best.

Here's the test: Can you drop the war or sports analogies for a day, and force yourself to think issues through from first principles? If so, fine. If not, it's an indicator that you're overdependent on a flawed leadership construct.

6. Lose one thing | I've yet to work with a leader who hasn't held on to something they really shouldn't be doing. Whether it's a mundane administrative task that for whatever reason you can't let go of, or a sprawling pet project that really needs to be euthanized, I guarantee there's something draining your resources that simply shouldn't be on your plate.

So, find one thing today, and let it go...

7. Get outside for 10 minutes | Just today -- not every day -- get outside for 10 minutes. Walk around, stand and stare, jog -- do whatever you want.

Next week, try it for two days (say, Tuesday and Thursday). At the end of the week, reflect back -- was there any marked difference in your perspective on key issues on those days you took a brief break, and those you didn't?

If not, fine, drop the habit -- but my experience is that on those days you take that enforced break, your perspective on key issues (and your resultant productivity) will be significantly enhanced.

If you want to know more about how Les McKeown helps develop better business leaders, you can read more here.