What constitutes leadership and makes a good leader?
Let me start by saying that I am no expert in ‘Leadership’. Yes, I have read the theory – all kind of theory including ‘charisma’, ‘being decisive’, ‘situational leadership’, ‘leadership v management’, ‘servant leadership’ and so forth. In my world most of it occurs as theory or put differently it occurs as ‘philosophers philosophising’. I can think of ‘charismatic’ people who do not / did not make good leaders. On the other hand I can think of humble souls with an indomitable will making a huge impact on the world like Gandhi.
Gerstner and Who Says Elephants Can’t Dance?
Reading (several years ago) Gerstner book ‘Who Says Elephants Can’t Dance?’ I was struck by something which surfaced again for me this week. Gerstner did not have to take the helm at IBM: seemed to be poisoned chalice and many of the natural candidates (and favourites) declined. Everybody had written IBM off (a dinosaur) and so no person in his/her right mind wanted to take the risk. Yet Gerstner was different – he eventually took that hot seat even though he had grave doubts about his ability to save that dinosaur and give it wings – make it into a powerful flying dragon.
One other aspect got my attention when it came to leadership. There he was, Gerstner, doing his best to get to grips with the situation and he would ask the ‘leaders’, the VPs, the SVPs, the Country Managers to look into various aspects and get back to him. Many did not get back to him. When Gerstner met with them to ask for the answers to the questions he had set, many of them had no answer to the question. Their answer was that they had handed the task over to one of their subordinates. Gerstner got irritated because he expected these Tops to wrap their hands, minds, hearts around the ‘problem/task’ and get their ‘hands dirty’ doing the investigative work of searching / digging for the answers.
Perhaps the defining act of leadership is taking ownership
Which brings me to the question of this post. Is the essential existential act that constitutes ‘leadership’ that of taking ownership? Take ownership with your heart, your mind, your hands, your feet?
My experience is that ownership is necessary yet not sufficient pillar of being a leader. A leader (and thus leadership) stands for a Possibility (a vision of the future) that inspires him/her to take 100% ownership for being a stand for that Possibility, for that future. Yet it is more than that. By standing for that Possibility, the Possibility gives powerful being (courage, boldness, risk taking…) to the leader. Think of it as mutual relationship – like to sides of a coin. The leader invents a Possibility (an invented future, in Gerstner’s case an IBM that survives and is stronger than ever, in Jobs case an Apple that goes back to its heart – making great products) that moves, touches and inspires him/her to the level of soul and that Possibility shapes the leaders being and doing right here and now – again and again for years. Sometimes it takes many years to bring about that invented future. Think about Gandhi how long did it take for him to get the British to leave and for the Indians to be free to rule themselves? Think of Nelson Mandela, how many years did he spend in prison? Sometimes you can live from your Possibility and generate your desired future in 15 months like Jean-Dominique Bauby did as set out here.
When I look around I do not notice Tops (people who are thought of and called leaders) being ‘leaders’. In good times these Tops make sure that everyone knows that it is they who have come up with the vison, the strategy and shaped the organisation to deliver the great results. And they insist on being handsomely rewarded – tens even hundreds of millions in compensation. In ‘bad’ times what happens? Just take a look at the News International phone hacking scandal: none of the Tops takes ownership. Look at prisoner and torture abuse at Abu Ghraib: none of the Tops took ownership. Look at the MPs expenses scandal in the UK? None of the Tops took ownership. Look at the financial crisis, the recession and the impact on millions of lives: none of the Tops took ownership – not the politicians, not the regulators, not the Csuite at the banks and associated insurance companies.
Now you might be wondering what has this got to do with the Customer. Here is my question: which CEO has the level of commitment to customer-centricity, the customer experience, that Gerstner showed or Jobs showed or Mandela showed or Gandhi showed? And if the CEO does not have that level of ownership then why should anyone else in the organisation care – care deeply – about the customer, the customer experience, the customer-centric organisation.
Standing for a Possibility (a vision of the future) that is larger than yourself and your selfishness is a key pillar of leadership. It is necessary and yet it is not sufficient. I will tackle the other two pillars in another post – coming soon.
What is your lived experience of leadership? Please do not share the theory: you can take my word on it when I write that I have read it all! I am looking forward to you sharing your experience of leadership and learning from your sharing. So please do share.