How Great Leaders Break Things Down


Recently my son has been learning how to swim.

It’s not something that has come naturally to him. So far in his development, he’s not really become the sporty type and much prefers painting, music and digging for stones rather than playing sports.

In swimming lessons at school he often became anxious. So I though I’d try and take him to the local pool myself – which he found even more frustrating. Next, we thought it might be useful taking private swimming lessons. Just as unproductive. Even going with his best friend was no better.

Try what may, he just couldn’t put everything together.

The unexpected breakthrough came a few weeks back on summer holiday.

One of the pool staff at the resort we were staying at noticed our little boy’s stuggles. Rather than pointing out what he was doing wrong or trying to demonstrate all the diiferent components of what makes up a complete swimming stroke, all he did was mention one thing.

How to breathe.

That’s it. As far as our poolside friend was concerned there was no point trying to teach the rest unless he could breathe properly. So for a full 3 days, all we saw was a young little boy frantically srambling around the pool but slowly trying to master just one thing: his breathing.

Without me even realising, slowly he perfected it. It gave him confidence. He next moved onto hands. Then arms. Then shoulders. Finally legs. And before we knew it, within 2 weeks he was swimming around the pool totally unassisted.

By breaking things down, bit-by-bit he’d got there.

Breaking things down is a special talent.

In fact, in ten years as a recruiter working with some highly successful leaders in business I can say with confidence that being able to break down tasks into simple teachable chunks can often be a more powerful tool in leadership than being the best at that particular task itself.

That’s why often outstanding individual achievers can make weak leaders. Part of them being “outstanding” is their ability to learn quickly  – often so quickly that things appear to come “naturally”. Commonly they don’t even know conciously what they are doing – they simply are just able to do it when it counts.

But most people are not like that. Most of us need time to learn new skills. That’s why being able to break things down and empowering others is so important. It’s the only way for a leader to replicate themselves and scale.

So how do they do it?

Here are some ways how great leaders break things down.

They measure

We don’t do difficult things for fun.

Most of the time, it’s because we want results. Whether it’s being proficient in a particular skill, getting to a specific point in our careers or achieving an ideal body weight we achieve pleasure by getting specific results and goals.

So when we’re spending endless hours just focussing on one small area, it’s easy to get frustrated or disheartened when the end still seems so far away.

Spending weeks practicing keep-uppys doesn’t feel like it’s getting us closer to playing for Manchester Utd. Practicing our sales presentations doesn’t really seem like getting us closer to being the company’s next CEO. Handling all those sales objections almost feels like we’re no closer to being the great salesperson we dream about.

Yet all these big achievements start with mastery of these smallest components.

Great leaders understand that achievement drives further motivation. Rather than simply relying on praise and initiative, they make sure they measure progress. By doing this, improvement becomes noticeable. Belief increases. And discipline becomes meaningful.

Great leaders – however small the difference – make sure they measure progress.

They explain

It’s often said that sales is a numbers game.

One of my first summer job’s whilst at University happened to be in sales. Telesales to be precise, selling advertising space to small businesses. And like many telesales businesses back in the 90’s, it was all about hitting numbers and targets. Often targets that made no sense and felt more like being just another cog in the sales engine than being an independent and consultative sales professional.

Management was obsessed with it. And most of the time I either ignored them or reluctantly agreed to prevent being fired. Until one particular new manager joined. Rather than simply insist on hitting numbers for the sake of it, he took the time to explain things. To demonstrate why each component was critical to closing the eventual sale. He even used to warn us ahead of time when he could see that a particular activity was starting to drop.

As highly cognitive creatures, we love purpose. Great leaders understand that breaking things down into fundamentals only works if each member of the team knows whythese fundamentals are so important. What they mean.

Only then will they get the dedication and enthusiasm to keep going.

Great leaders explain the fundamentals.

They build trust

Mastery of any discipline requires attention to detail.

Sometimes, requiring perfecting each single component that individually seems almost insignificant, but that when combined overall can give a crucial advantage.

In order to succeed and reach the highest levels of achievement, to achieve this mastery nearly everyone needs to use a specialised coach. Someone who has either been there before or has special experience and knowledge on a particular discipline. Whether it’s an Olympic athlete or a seasoned CEO, they almost always have someone they rely on for sound advice, strategy and preparation.

From what they eat, to how they train, to even the people they choose to socialise with, everything is broken down and the right path is chosen.

Such faith in someone else can only achieved with total trust and commitment. Great leaders understand that before they even start to break things down and coach others, its essential to start with a platform of total trust.

Only once this total belief in each other is established can the hard work start to begin.

Great leaders get total comittment.


We all want to excel at something.

But with the hard work, knowledge and emotional investment that’s required to get there, things can easily become overwhelming.

Great leaders understand that although it’s important to have a clear vision of goals, the ability to break things down into easy to understand bits is the basis of getting things actually done.

It’s a skill that can create a powerfully performing team very quickly.

Does your leader break things down?

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