Soak, Wash, Rinse, Spin – Leading in the 21st Century

That’s the title of Tolleson Design’s book on their work. But it’s just as appropriate for leadership:

  • Soak: listen, observe and internalize what’s going around you. Collect information. Unearth problems and discover solutions.
  • Wash: Sift through the data, determine what’s important and what can be discarded. Connect the dots
  • Rinse: Clarify your key points. Your vision. Connect the dots. Get rid of anything that adds clutter to your vision and mission.
  • Spin: Refine and simplify. Add supporting detail and color that makes your case matter. Inspire people into acting on your vision. Show them what could be. Spin is not about twisting the facts.
  • Repeat: It’s not a one-shot deal.  It takes a lot of repetition and practice for things to stick. To make change happen.

Leadership has many facets and styles and there’s not one right way to lead. But once you grasp the basics, you get there by doing. Again and again.

But has leadership really changed since centuries before? Are we more enlightened now or is leadership the latest cool thing? After all, 15 years ago or so you could hardly find a book on leadership and now there are whole sectioned dedicated to the art. And I do believe it is in art. Not everyone is good at it. Not everyone has the aptitude. And while you can read a bevy of books on leadership, it’s not something you can truly master without practicing and screwing a few things up in the process. And when you do, that’s when you practice the art of saying you’re sorry. Yes, humility is a key component of the 21st century leader. In years – wait – centuries past – it was more command and control. There wasn’t all this squishy soft stuff leaders today have to attend to. No, you could theoretically beat your subjects into submission. Lead by fear. Isn’t that how the Romans did it? How about Cortes? We hardly hear of the gentle, authentic leadership styles much discussed today.

I think it’s safe to say that leader as dictator is less successful today than in the past. Success as a leader comes from open collaboration, authenticity and inclusiveness. In fact, you can’t be a leader without followers. If people are not willing to follow you, what exactly are you leading? The events in Egypt the past few weeks are testament to that. Though the Egyptian government tried to squelch the flow of information, people found a way to connect. Even North Korea can’t completely prevent outside information from reaching its citizens.

Some still say fear is a motivator – and for those worried about their jobs, they’ll fall in line. To a point. Leaders that adopt this style may get some compliance but they’re not inspiring people to do their best. Rather, they’ll get the least amount of performance necessary. Not radical innovation. Mediocrity is not going to win for long.

And that’s what’s needed to solve the world’s problems today: Radical innovation. And radical sharing of information. The more information shared, the faster ideas and solutions build upon each other – and the benefits received by the collective whole. That’s why the businesses Lisa Gansky writes about in The Mesh are thriving. Think Netflix over Blockbuster. Think Zipcar. It’s all about information and translating that into innovation. Quickly.

Leaders also don’t have to be at the top. They can be at any level. In fact some of the best leaders push up from the bottom. Read Linchpin by Seth Godin for more on this. It’s about not being the cog: you have to be the one that holds it all together: be remarkable or be replaced.

On the surface, leadership is pretty simple: Be open, authentic, inclusive, communicate, collaborate, facilitate and have a vision. Build the map on how you’re going to achieve your audacious goals. But that’s why it’s hard. Enter fear. Enter obstacles. Most often leadership is not your average Hollywood movie where you solve the world’s problems in 118 minutes. It’s what happens at 119 minutes and beyond.

No, the toughest part of leadership today, is navigating change, knowing when to stay the course when everyone’s telling you you’re crazy and when to bail when people keep telling you to hang in there.

It’s an art. And it takes 10,000 hours to master. Leaders are tested daily. While you can establish core values, a mission and a vision, walking your talk and maintaining absolute ethics isn’t easy. It’s a slippery slope when you bend a rule here and there in the name of shareholder value. In the name of hitting those quarterly numbers.

In the 21st Century, I’d say trust is a defining quality that separates the best leaders from the average. It’s tough to earn and must be protected fiercely for you can lose it in a second. Or your next email. Build and cherish your relationships. Know what real respect is. How to earn it and how to show it. Most of all, master the art of humility and coming clean when things go wrong. As painful as mistakes and transgressions can be, and coming clean can be pretty scary, few people will kick you when you’re down. But they’ll go to great lengths to shred you if you cover it up. And the cover up will usually be uncovered. Just ask Elliott Spitzer or Jeffrey Skilling, Andrew Fastow or ?

I won’t leave you with a long list of qualities leaders must have – there are plenty of great ones already. But I thought I’d share a few of the books I’ve read that made a difference in how I approach leadership:

Authentic Leadership by Bill George – in which he talks about his challenges of overcoming his self-centeredness and began focusing on others. It’s also a great guide for how to be a CEO in the wake of so many scandals at the top. Written in 2003, the principles are just as relevant today.

Changing Minds by Howard Gardner – as a leader, you’re going to have to help others face change. You have to help people overcome resistance to it no matter how much they know change might be in their interest. He takes you through various theories and shows how they can be applied to different groups – uniform and diverse. He even shows you how to change your own mind. Fascinating stuff. I also recommend How we Decide by Jonah Lehrer and The Paradox of Choice by Barry Schwartz: really helpful for those faced with increasing sales and wondering if you really need that extra line extension. Or maybe something radically different.

Resonate by Nancy Duarte – if you’re going to effect change, you’re going to need a convincing presentation. The 21st Century Leader says no to bad PowerPoint and yes to telling compelling stories simply and passionately. You want to leave your audiences motivated to act. Not rolling their eyes or reaching for another cup of Joe.

Know-How by Ram Charan. He takes you through 8 basic but important skills: positioning and repositioning, identifying external change, herding cats, judging and calibrating people, molding teams, setting goals, setting laser-sharp priorities and navigating external forces. Completely practical, actionable.

Minding the Store by Stanley Marcus. Whether you like Nieman Marcus or not, this is a great story about their history offering sound lessons in customer service, overcoming obstacles – the Great Depression and Wars – and building a sustainable business. He also discusses the quirky dynamics and struggles of running a family business. I’ve not yet read it, but Delivering Happiness by Tony Hsieh sounds like a nice follow up read to this.

There are obviously many other great books useful for leaders and I have a solid list in the que. But what’s more important is to start leading. Don’t wait for the opportunity. Once you internalize what leadership really means, go find your voice. Your vision. Start inspiring. Rinse and repeat.

Note – this is part of the weekend #UsBlogs, #UsGuys focus on the 21st Century Leader. See the others at the #UsBlogs hashtag on Twitter or a recap by Tom Moradpour.


  1. What a great metaphor! And a super list of books for me to check out as well. A really valuable post in several ways.

    I agree wholeheartedly about needing vision in these times of ours. With the problems facing us all now—in our country, in the world, everywhere, it seems that may be the only thing that will save us. I hope many take note of the wise things you’ve written here. I’ll be back! Thanks for the post. 🙂

  2. Patrick says:

    Thanks Paula – I really appreciate you taking the time to respond. Please report back on your thoughts on your experience with some of these books!

  3. Todd Jordan says:

    Pop! Made my brain pop open a bit here.
    You both incorporated newer ideas and older ones but you lead us down a path of understanding it. Giving context rocks.

    Of course, you’re preaching to the choir here about leadership. I find myself drawn to lead even when it’s not always immediately rewarding. No more thumping folks into submission, as we did in the Navy, but drawing them together as a team running a marathon.

    Cheers to another great #usblogs read.

  4. Robert Ortiz says:

    Such a rich post—Excellent!
    I’d like to respond to one point in particular: “Leaders also don’t have to be at the top. They can be at any level. ”

    I managed an office for a broker once. In own of our conversations he said to me, “We’re really just the chief broom sweepers.” His business card may have said “Principal” and mine may have said “Division Manager” but his summation was appropriate, I loved it. Broom sweepers. Someone before that conversation had asked me what I do. I told them I was a house cleaner. They said, “house cleaner?” and I said, “yeah, I clean house.”

    I like that you refer to centuries old leadership. I have my favorites, both in history and historical fiction. One is King Henry V, as seen in Shakespeare’s play. That walked among his men disguised as one of them on nights before battles. And before he was king, when he was just Prince Hal, that he hung out in the woods all day all night. He had genuine love for his fellow man. That love he gave to them so freely always returned itself when he needed—his men could fight outnumbered 10 to 1 and win.

    The world would probably be fundamentally different if Henry the Fifth had never ascended to the throne.

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