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We crave "one thing" – one reason, explanation, solution and even one leader. If only life was so simple.

But I succumb as well. A headline that promises a "one-thing" solution to a problem – for example, Marcus Buckingham's 2005 book, The One Thing You Need to Know – draws me in. And usually I share it with readers.

But it's foolish. There's rarely one thing, even if the lure is powerful.

This instinct comes up with meetings and associated decision-making. People tackle a problem and raise a myriad of reasons for following the selected course of action. At the end, even if several factors were at play in the final decision, they usually cite just one in explaining the decision to others, perhaps the most powerful reason, perhaps the most mentioned or perhaps their own rationale, even if they were the only person subscribing to it. And whatever explanation is given by our bosses, we tend to substitute our own, always one reason.

I remember when my long-time boss Neil Reynolds resigned as editor of The Kingston Whig-Standard, he gave everyone he talked to one reason. It was personal, almost confidential, his voice soft and sincere. But it was often a different reason for different people. All true. But it fit the bond with that person or what came to mind, because there wasn't a single reason (although his newspaper, like other newspapers, always sought one reason for resignations of other prominent people). And so afterward we all had a different rationale, helped by our ability to suggest reasons that he had not mentioned but that our own cynicism suggested.

In dealing with the media, leaders are told to stick to one unwavering message. It's supposed to be smart but they actually look dumb answering every question with the same message, at times totally out of sync with the question asked. And, of course, they are forsaking the chance to influence people with more than one rationale, which in argument we normally do.

Co-leadership is scorned. When companies have experimented with having two equal CEOs to share the load, it has been widely dismissed. The Green Party in both Britain and Germany have had more than one leader or spokesperson, also raising eyebrows. Consultant Connie Siu, interestingly, warns of the dangers of one source of information on an issue in your company, should that person leave. So why one big cheese?

We desire simplicity, in a world of complication. It started before the internet and smartphones – we can't blame them for this. Indeed, arguably, Facebook is an antidote, a positive one, with a stream of unrelated items, albeit each usually focused on one thing.

In a new book, The Unstoppable Organization, entrepreneur Shawn Casemore's opening chapter is titled Success or Failure in Business Relies on One Thing. Are you eager to know? I was too. It's that people are ultimately the deciding factor between the success or failure of your business.

The one key thing millennials want at work, according to audience engagement consultant Alexandra Hayes, is to make a contribution to the world.

The one question you need to ask yourself every morning to have a happier, more successful day, advises entrepreneur Elle Kaplan: "Is the world inherently good or bad." (Hint: Be positive.)

The one white-hot résumé tip that will instantly increase its readability, J.T. O'Donnell, founder of, tells us is to use white space effectively.

Mr. Buckingham quickly shifted in his book, advising he really was actually going to focus on three things: One item each for great managing, great leading and sustained individual success.

To excel as a manager, you must never forget that each of your direct reports is unique and that your chief responsibility is not to eradicate this uniqueness but rather to arrange roles, responsibilities and expectations so that you can capitalize on those strengths.

However, to excel as a leader requires the opposite skill. You must rally people toward a better future, which means tapping into the things that followers share. So discover what is universal and capitalize on it.

Finally, for sustained individual success, discover what you don't like and stop doing it.

That's good advice, actually. But perhaps leadership, managing and success is even more complicated than that. For that reason, be attuned to the desire within you and your colleagues for "one thing."


  • Dumb idea of the week: United Airlines’ decision to replace quarterly employee bonuses with a $100,000 lottery prize for one lucky soul and some smaller bonuses of $2,000 to $5,000 to about 1,500 other employees, with most of their 90,000 staff winding up with nothing (or, to their minds, paying for it). The idea lasted only marginally longer than the wait to board the airlines’ flights. Critics call capitalism these days a casino economy; United’s head honchos seem to agree.
  • The opposite of one thing can be too many things guiding decisions and actions. Microsoft used to have eight competencies leaders needed to succeed and as many as 100 skills people needed to train on, depending on their work. Now it’s down to three big ideas: Create clarity, generate energy and deliver success.
  • If you’re hiring people who will work remotely, make at least part of your interview by phone or webcam, recommends consultant Kevin Eikenberry.

‘He read books of history about England and he learned about how some kings failed and some kings succeeded’

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