Achieving and promoting clarity is an essential Leading for Results skill

Leaders’ clarity provides a bridge between current reality and the school community’s collective vision for the future it wants to create for its children. (Mackinac Bridge, Michigan/Photo: Dennis Sparks)

To strip an idea down to its core, we must be masters of exclusion. We must relentlessly prioritize. Saying something short is not the mission—sound bites are not the ideal. Proverbs are the ideal. We must create ideas that are both simple and profound.

—Chip Heath and Dan Heath

Stripping an idea to its core so that others can truly understand and remember it can be an incredibly demanding intellectual task. In fact, it is such a demanding task that some leaders actively avoid it because of the time and attention it requires. And when they avoid it, their lack of clarity more often than not dooms to failure the innovations they seek to implement.

There are two primary reasons leaders are not clear: they do not understand the subject at hand, or they understand it too well. The first is self-explanatory, and the solution is further exploration and study. The second reason is what Chip Heath and Dan Heath in Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die term the “curse of knowledge.” “Once we know something,” they write, “we find it hard to imagine what it was like not to know it. Our knowledge has ‘cursed’ us. And it becomes difficult for us to share our knowledge with others, because we can’t readily re-create our listeners’ state of mind.”

The mind that truly understands the complexity of an idea is often the one that is most challenged in finding its core. Sometimes the challenge in achieving proverb-like simplicity is separating what is important from what is marginal or peripheral. At other times the challenge is finding concrete language and images to describe abstract ideas

Writing is an important but underused tool in establishing clarity. Several drafts are often required to find the core idea hidden among its less essential elements. Sustained, dialogue-like conversation is another aid to clarity. Listening to ourselves speak or noting others’ reactions often reveals gaps in our understanding or logical inconsistencies.

Leading for Results “Six-Word Leadership Tool”:

Strive to communicate with proverb-like clarity.

Strengthen your leadership practice by . . .

• selecting an idea or practice that is central to your work (professional learning community, instructional leadership, teamwork, etc.). Hone that idea through writing or other means until you feel it is simple, clear, and compelling.

• testing your clarity by engaging in conversation with colleagues to see if they “get” the essence of your idea. If not, further refine its expression.

• developing a “six-word leadership tool” to summarize your learning or to express an action you will take as a result of this essay. Please add your tool to the comment section of this blog and share it with one or more colleagues “back home.”

5 Responses to “Achieving and promoting clarity is an essential Leading for Results skill”


  1. 1 Richard Pincombe February 22, 2010 at 7:20 pm

    I agree entirely with the idea of creating clarity through simple, effective use of proverbs. The problem is getting to simple. I believe that we start with simplistic thinking and through questions, answers, thought, conversation, argument, experience, etc, we come through a period of cloudy confusion to the sunshine of simple thinking. That is where the proverb reveals itself.


  1. 1 An example of leaders’ proverb-like clarity « Leading for Results—Dennis Sparks' Blog Trackback on February 24, 2010 at 4:36 am
  2. 2 What is good teaching? « Leading for Results—Dennis Sparks' Blog Trackback on March 12, 2010 at 10:09 am
  3. 3 Explain where you stand in a sentence « Leading for Results—Dennis Sparks' Blog Trackback on April 23, 2010 at 4:06 am
  4. 4 Accept responsibility for improving communication « Leading for Results—Dennis Sparks' Blog Trackback on July 6, 2010 at 9:54 am

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