The Four Obsessions of an Extraordinary Executive: Overview

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Looking for an overview of The Four Obsessions of an Extraordinary Executive? What is Patrick Lencioni’s advice for organizational health?

In The Four Obsessions of an Extraordinary Executive, entrepreneur, author, and speaker Patrick Lencioni demonstrates the importance of “organizational health.” Lencioni then describes how to increase organizational health to improve workplace motivation, lower turnover, and increase productivity.

Read on for a brief overview of Lencioni’s The Four Obsessions of an Extraordinary Executive.

The Four Obsessions of an Extraordinary Executive

The Four Obsessions of an Extraordinary Executive, by Patrick Lencioni, is a business parable that discusses the importance of organizational health. Organizational health refers to the strength and wellness of company culture. A healthy organization is free from office politics—it has high morale, low turnover, and unrivaled productivity.

Lencioni is the founder of a successful consulting firm, a motivational speaker, and the author of many books on leadership, including The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, The Ideal Team Player, and Death by Meeting. In this book, Lencioni offers four steps executives must follow in order to maintain organizational health. The four steps are: establishing a healthy leadership team, clearly defining organizational values, circulating values through repetition, and building those values into an organization’s systems. While none of the steps are especially complex, the challenge is to apply them consistently. Only when you commit to them can you gain access to their unique advantages.

Healthy Organizations Are Made of Healthy Employees

While Lencioni’s approach to organizational health focuses on shaping your organization’s culture from the top down, studies suggest that prioritizing employee well-being can be equally impactful. Improving the employee experience at your organization gives you a competitive advantage when it comes to keeping top talent and maximizing productivity. 

Specifically, companies that offer flexible roles, reasonable workloads, and job security experienced increased employee well-being and productivity. Additionally, successful organizations adopt a learning culture, where collaboration is encouraged and employees are permitted to take reasonable risks and learn from mistakes.

These findings indicate that in addition to focusing on how leadership shapes organizational health, it’s also worth considering other factors, such as the quality of the jobs your organization offers and the amount of freedom employees have within their roles.

Strategies for Assessing and Increasing Leadership Team Health

In The Four Obsessions of an Extraordinary Executive, Lencioni recommends establishing a healthy team because doing so cuts down on office politics, which can lead to burnout and drive away talented employees. As Lencioni argues, healthy leadership teams depend on a high level of trust between all team members.

Lencioni’s first strategy for assessing leadership team health is to take note of how your team behaves during meetings. Teams that trust each other are unafraid to disagree on important issues and don’t take disagreements personally. This dynamic creates productive meetings characterized by energetic debate. However, your team should still be able to recognize when they’ve stepped on each others’ toes and should go out of their way to apologize. 

If your team isn’t debating in a vigorous and respectful way, you can encourage participation by calling upon each member of the team to speak up individually and stepping in to make sure that apologies are given when necessary. Fostering honest debate will help build trust by giving your team the confidence that their peers won’t lie to spare their feelings. 

(Shortform note: Experts argue that in addition to calling on individuals to speak up, you should take a variety of approaches to encourage debate. One strategy is to assign one team member at each meeting to act as a devil’s advocate. This team member’s job for the rest of the meeting is to try to come up with reasonable objections to each major point brought up by a colleague. By assigning someone to provide dissenting opinions, you not only give that person permission to freely debate, you make it a job responsibility.)

Have the Right Arguments

In addition to stating the importance of debate in general, experts also stress the importance of debating the right subjects.

Arguments about strategy are often productive and rarely personal. Strategic argument demonstrates that your team is invested in the company’s future. Arguments about values are often similarly productive. It’s a good sign when employees maintain interest in shaping the company’s culture, even if they hold differing viewpoints.

However, arguments about specific individuals can be a sign that something is amiss. Gossip about individuals reflects the level of politics within the workplace. If workplace arguments often center around specific individuals in management, it could be a sign that a cult of personality has formed. At any rate, paying close attention to the subject of arguments at your organization can be an invaluable source of information.

Strategies for Identifying and Reinforcing Core Values

Moving forward, The Four Obsessions of an Extraordinary Executive claims that your next objective is to clearly define the core values of your organization. Lencioni argues that by defining these values, you create a powerful toolkit that can be used to make decisions across your organization.

Lencioni stresses that you should select values that already exist in your organization. Considering the benefits of well-defined core values, it can be tempting to simply dictate values to your staff. However, employees struggle to embrace assigned values—they tend to feel more like corporate buzzwords than real beliefs. Instead, your job is to identify the values that employees already strive for and turn those values into official policy.

To identify your team’s values, Lencioni suggests that you consider the best attributes of your team’s top performers. For example, imagine you notice that one of your employees maintains excellent relationships with clients—she follows up frequently, builds relationships with them, and even knows their birthdays and never forgets to send a card. In supervising this employee, you realize that both of you value warmth in client relations. 

Core Values vs. Aspirational Values

In a separate article, Lencioni clarifies that in his view there are a few different kinds of values, each with its own purposes. The two main types are core values and aspirational values. Core values reflect the best traits that a company already possesses. These are the values you should define in the second step, as they determine your company’s identity. When making important decisions, you should always consider these values as a top priority. Deviating from your core values can obscure your organization’s identity, which leads to confusion and demotivation.

Conversely, aspirational values are values that your company doesn’t yet possess, but that you’d like to strive toward in the future. While they’re also important, aspirational values should be subordinate to core values. Core values form the foundation on which aspirational values can be built, and prioritizing aspirational values can destabilize that foundation. To correctly prioritize your values, choose aspirational values that are realistic and measurable. Choosing the right aspirational values will help you avoid overextending by trying to change too much too fast.

According to The Four Obsessions of an Extraordinary Executive, when defining core values, your focus should be on concepts, not the specific language used to describe them. To continue the previous example, you could use several words to describe the quality customer service your company provides. “Personal”, “warm”, and “human” would all work equally well. It isn’t the word choice that matters, it’s your commitment to the customer that really counts.

(Shortform note: According to Lencioni, the language you use to describe your values probably won’t change what those values mean to you. However, your word choice might impact the way others view your values. Studies indicate that it’s possible to identify someone’s political ideology based just on their word choice. While your values may not include political stances, the language you choose for your company reflects back on the team that chose it. Because of this, it may be worth taking a bit more time to consider your language.)

By the same logic, The Four Obsessions of an Extraordinary Executive specifies that you should identify a small number of values that have the greatest impact on your organization. While it can be tempting to promote as many positive values as possible, the more values you adopt, the less potent each becomes. 

For example, based on your employee’s performance, you send an email to the entire department emphasizing warmth in customer relations. Compared to this simple advice, the previous guidance was a slew of buzzwords—“demonstrate interest, concern, kindness, professionalism, and always go the extra mile”—that confused the team. The new policy helps everyone understand what’s expected of them.

How Many Values Is Too Many?

Research supports Lencioni’s assertion that it’s best to choose a limited number of values. According to some psychologists, the human brain can hold at maximum about seven objects in short-term memory at once. The actual number here isn’t as important as the idea that the human brain can only hold so much information at one time. These findings suggest that if you choose too many values, it will be difficult for your team to keep them all in mind.

So, how many values should you have? Entrepreneur Marc Lore recommends choosing at most three values. Adopting a limited number of values forces you to choose what’s most important to you. Even if your company ultimately adopts one or two more values, attempting to choose just three can be a useful exercise to determine your priorities.
The Four Obsessions of an Extraordinary Executive: Overview

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Here's what you'll find in our full The Four Obsessions of an Extraordinary Executive summary:

  • Why it takes more than just financials to build a successful business
  • A fable demonstrating the importance of “organizational health”
  • The four disciplines required for you to increase organizational health

Emily Kitazawa

Emily found her love of reading and writing at a young age, learning to enjoy these activities thanks to being taught them by her mom—Goodnight Moon will forever be a favorite. As a young adult, Emily graduated with her English degree, specializing in Creative Writing and TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language), from the University of Central Florida. She later earned her master’s degree in Higher Education from Pennsylvania State University. Emily loves reading fiction, especially modern Japanese, historical, crime, and philosophical fiction. Her personal writing is inspired by observations of people and nature.

One thought on “The Four Obsessions of an Extraordinary Executive: Overview

  • February 15, 2023 at 7:30 pm

    Thank you. Very helpful!


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