I recently heard the story of Riccardo. Riccardo was a world champion in his weight division for Karate. Competing against the best fighters from around the world, he kicked and punched his way to the top. He was one of the best. Soon after winning the championship, Riccardo did something interesting.

He and his sensei went on a one month retreat where every day they focused only on the fundamental movements of his discipline. There was no advanced moves, nothing that required grading for a black belt. It was the same movements taught to a six year old in their first months of training. Why would the best in the world spend an entire month focusing on that which novices practice?

As I thought about Ricardo’s commitment to the fundamentals of his discipline, I was reminded of a familiar mantra that echoed throughout the early years in the military. “Be brilliant at the basics.” I can still hear my first Commanding Officer outside of training encouraging us with this mantra. He told the story having trained with the Special Air Service Regiment (SAS), the Australian Army’s elite special forces, and learning from them that what made the SAS such great soldiers. It was not that they could perform special and complex advanced drills during combat, but they were able to flawlessly execute basic ones. Whether it be patrolling through the bush, conducting an ambush or attack, or simply applying the marksmanship principles when shooting, they used the same basic drills and principles as a standard rifleman but executed them at such a high level they were able to do what so many others could not. They were the best, not because of their advanced weaponry and tactics. They were the best because they were brilliant at the basics.

The benefits of focusing on fundamentals is not limited to the realms of sport or warfare. They apply just as much in business too. A mentor of mine recently shared his experience of attending a business conference with some very high profile speakers. When it came time for the electives, one of them who headed up a billion dollar marketing company, headed into a session called, “Fundamentals of Online Marketing”. When questioned on why he was there, he replied, ‘I can employ all the advanced marketing techniques in the world, but if there is one aspect of the fundamentals that I miss, I limit my potential.” This is true in any industry.

I know for me as a psychologist, research tells me the greatest contributing factor to successful outcomes with clients is the working relationship I build with them. I can employ the most up-to-date and complex theories of cognition during sessions, but if I fail to establish rapport, there will be limited results for my client.

The same is true of leadership. Many organisational leaders and executives invest large amounts of money into development initiatives that promote the latest advanced leadership techniques and theories. While such development may be helpful, their investment is wasted if the leaders involved do not understand and maintain the fundamentals of leadership. The greatest return on investment for leadership development is often to focus on things that don’t cost money. Basics such as:

  • Self-awareness – Being able to reflect on our own actions and lead ourselves.
  • Integrity and character – Ensuring our words and actions align.
  • Trust – Developing strong relationships within our team.
  • Communication – Clearly articulating our expectations and desired results.

Great leaders are not great because of the different initiatives that gain them an extra one or two percent of influence. What makes them great is being intentional about excelling at the fundamentals that gain them the ninety-five percent of their leadership influence.

Quite simply, they are brilliant at the basics.

What basics are you intentional about pursuing in your leadership role? I would love hear which leadership fundamentals are most important to you. Please share them in the comments below.