Four Obsessions of an Extraordinary Executive

Four Obsessions of an Extraordinary Executive: A Leadership Fable
by Patrick Lencioni

We often talk about needing to keep one’s “eye on the ball,” to “thin-slice,” “don’t sweat the small stuff.” Well, what is the important stuff?

Patrick Lencioni’s leadership fable tracks a CEO who lost, and then found, the keys to business and personal success. Interestingly, he does this through a story about how it almost all came unraveled through the actions of a single person in the CEO’s own management team.

There is a trap for successful executives, in that the limits of time and energy force people to change the way they work as they grow in success. Those who are unable to shift focus fail to grow their business or, in extreme cases, build and then lose businesses without understanding why.

Lencioni’s executive has this problem. Success has bred too many things to keep track of, too many people to monitor, too many clients to meet with, etc. His asking “What is the one thing I do that really matters to the firm?” helps him identify the four obsessions that allowed him to free himself from everything else.

The obsessions can be summarized as people, clarity, communication, and culture. These are all “soft skills,” rather than specific professional or technical competencies and talents. The CEO’s doing this — personally — removes all doubt about whether the effort is a fad or the true measure of organizational success. Using relentless communication and systems to instill and reinforce a shared vision and mission with people able and willing to embrace it helps build trust, fostering true communication and teamwork.

Management guru Tom Peters tells a 1980s story about FedEx, the “absolutely, positively” overnight delivery company we all know. A telephone tower located atop a snow-covered mountain serves the main FedEx call center. The tower goes out of commission and the phone company can’t get to the top of the mountain to repair it. A FedEx technician, on his own initiative, charters a helicopter(!) to fly him to the mountaintop to fix the phone company’s tower, assuring FedEx’s call center’s ability to resume operations as soon as possible.

Some people see in this story a lesson in employee empowerment and decentralized decision-making. But it’s more than that. Lencioni’s model acknowledges that “empowerment” examples like this one don’t work without the employee knowing, almost instinctively, what the company values and the passion with which it is pursued at all levels of the organization. In FedEx’s case, the organization’s style was expressed by its founder and CEO, who once went so far, in FedEx’s early days, as to fly to Las Vegas to win enough money to meet the company payroll when a bank refused financing.

Lencioni’s fable shows how important it is to know what you’re doing and why, be able to communicate it effectively, and to live it through relentless example.

The last chapters of the book take a more didactic approach to the fable’s concepts. This treatment is more complex and more technical than that in Lencioni’s other books, making the fable all the more necessary as a groundbreaker.