Leadership means people watch you--not to what you want to say or do, or mean to, but what you actually say and do.

Attention to detail counts.

Not sometimes, but always. What Vince Lombardi said about winning applies to leadership:

Leading is not a sometime thing; it's an all the time thing. You don't lead once in a while; you don't do things right once in a while; you do them right all of the time. Leading is a habit. Unfortunately, so is failing to lead.

You can learn attention to detail. I would say you have to, to lead authentically.

Notice that attention to detail works the opposite of the 80/20 rule. It says to focus on the last few percent, so I call it the 20/80 rule, or the 10/90 rule.

I'm not saying to drop the 80/20 rule. I'm saying it applies in some situations. The 20/80 rule applies in others. Allow me to illustrate...

How to learn attention to detail

I assign the students in my leadership courses and most clients an exercise I learned from my mentor, Marshall Goldsmith, called "No, but, however."

It takes seconds to learn but is insidiously difficult for many to practice. You can do the same exercise that he assigns to his Fortune 10 clients. Here's the whole exercise:

For one week, avoid begin responses with the words "No," "But," or "However."

I'm focusing on only one aspect of it here. For more breadth and depth, I've written it up in my blog. Marshall has written about it too. In fact, I've elevated it to a chapter in my book, Leadership Step by Step. It's not the only way to learn attention to detail, but it works.

Actually, it works if you work at it. Most people don't really pay attention. Even in class, after the exercise starts, they begin responses with the words. They don't pay attention to themselves, their thoughts, their listening skills, and so on--missing that the people they would lead do notice.

Those who get it get it: the exercise is a tool to allow you to work on your attention to detail as much or as little as you want. It boosts your self-awareness.

If, instead, like many, you apply the 80/20 rule and figure that fixing the 20 percent of your most egregious cases will cover 80 percent of your problems, you've missed a big point of the exercise--both in how you communicate and your learning.

The 20/80 rule

Say you fix about half the times you begin responses with "no," "but," and "however." Few will notice and you'll barely improve your self-awareness.

The 20/80 rule says that working on the last 20 percent of your cases--even ones you think no one will notice--gives you 80 percent the value of the exercise.

The 10/90 rule

More powerful is the 10/90 rule, that says that focusing on the last 10 percent gives you yet more value.

The 1/99 rule

If you reach the point where you care about the last few percent, you'll be amazed at the power of the 1/99 rule. When you care about the 1 percent that others don't, people look to you to lead.

Think of choosing an architect or surgeon. Do you want one who gets it right most of the time? No, you want one who gets every detail right. That skill comes with experience.

Few places in life give you the chance to work on attention to detail. The "No, but, however" exercise does. And it costs you nothing in time or money.

It's hard but it works.