The famous business book In Search of Excellence by Thomas Peters and Robert H. Waterman Jr. looked at the common characteristics of the most successful businesses at that time (it was first published in 1982).

The book has eight tenets the study claims were the most common characteristics of excellent businesses, and the first tenet listed is to have a "bias for action"--or in other words, the behavior of getting on with things. 

Basically, many organizations, business people, entrepreneurs, and leaders "talk the talk, but they don't walk the walk."

Failure to act

Many great plans are developed, and as I always lecture to my students, this planning part is often fun. We all love to talk the talk; develop interesting, intricate, and innovative ideas and plans; using all the right jargon and discussing it all.

But then, we don't act on those plans-- we get bogged down by bureaucracy, fear of making mistakes, and corporate politics. Next thing you know, oops, there goes the window of opportunity.

Do we act fast enough on our ideas and plans or do we delay, pretend to hone the ideas, and procrastinate?  

We have meetings, we call them strategic. Then we have more meetings.  We even have meetings about having meetings. We give presentations and handout fancy, colorful charts and graphs of stuff that seems impressive.

We put off until tomorrow because sometimes it's easier or more convenient--this has nothing to do with being strategic or prudent, it's about not getting on with things. If a leader does not act, implement, execute, or walk the walk; then they are just leading planning sessions and meetings.

Bias for action

In a 2014 essay, Peters argues that having a Bias for Action is just as relevant and crucial as ever.  With leadership development at a premium, and the crucial need to be fluid and agile in the competitive landscape, the behavior of taking action and execution of plans is of paramount importance.

Leaders cannot be slow-of-foot; leaders cannot be lackadaisical; leaders have to jump and implement at the drop of a dime.  The turbulent environment of business calls out for this behavior, now more than ever.

And if it fails, learn from it. Covet failure. Celebrate failure. At least you are trying.

If it succeeds, then it's on to the next plan of action.

Peters cites a number of famous quotes in the 2014 essay, including:

  • "Execution is the job of the business leader."--Larry Bossidy, former CEO AlliedSignal (Honeywell); former vice chairman and COO of General Electric
  • "You miss 100 percent of the shots you never take."-- Wayne Gretzky
  • "We have a 'strategic plan.' It's called 'doing things.'"-- Herb Kelleher, co-founder, chairman emeritus, and CEO of Southwest Airlines

I truly believe that simple things are often the best and that the propensity to act is a simple behavior, but often leaders forget the simplest things, like getting on with things.

Leaders strive to have followers willingly follow them.  Leaders pursue transformation, where the people and businesses they lead are transformed, performing strong and being productive because of the transformation and vision, not just by transactions alone. Remember actions speak louder than words, and leader actions bring transformation.

Given all this, leaders cannot be still. Leaders should always remember to act--get on with things, and have a bias for action. That's excellence in leadership.