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Leadership – A few thoughts

It is perhaps paradoxical that as I am writing this blog about leadership I am at the same time reading a book about execution. That is the nature of life and of organizations, however, and so I will proceed simply by pointing out that while leadership is essential, it does not stand alone.

In his preface to 2004 printing of “Built to Last” Jim Collins says “built to last is about building something worthy of lasting.” I remember Stephen Covey’s discussing the change in “success literature” around roughly the 1950s from a character ethic to a personality ethic, or from a more profound “inward out” change process to a more superficial “outward in”.  Marvin Bower in his wonderful challenge called “The Will to Lead” advocates that we “switch from managing with authority to leading people.”  He notes in his preface “my purpose is to change the way your company is run. That takes broad collective action, and requires will and determination of the chief executive to lead and the approval and support of the board.” In Steve Denning’s wonderful summary of the “Global Peter Drucker forum 2013” he notes that “in a world in which innovation is key it’s not just a personal tragedy that only 11% of workers are passionate about their work: it’s also a major performance problem for firms that depend on worker passion for creativity and innovation.” Steve goes on to note a preponderance of “zombie organizations” and a dramatic call for authentic leadership, transparency, continuous improvement and sustainability. 

Leadership it seems is full of paradoxes and “ands”.  Leadership at the highest levels is essential “and” must be combined with leadership at all levels. Leadership starts as an inward journey “and” must be complemented by changes in our outward activity. Leadership is built around timeless core character and principles “and” must be accompanied by relentless change, growth and development. It quickly becomes obvious that great leadership must be accompanied by excellent execution in order to be effective. Leadership must be found in the formal leadership positions “and” in informal leaders without any positional authority.

Peter Senge once described leadership as the capacity of an organization to successfully adapt to a changing world. Jim Collins describes level V leaders as people who combine humility with a driving passion for results. Peter Drucker defines a leader as someone who has followers. Robert Greenleaf suggests that leadership at its core is service.

I believe that leadership at its most fundamental level is personal.  A leader is someone who leads an examined life, who through their journey of personal character development and discipline has chosen a path and is pursuing that end with integrity and energy.  This person will naturally have people who will follow, and will likely be suggested for positions of formal leadership.  At the organizational level this organic leadership is required for the adaptive, creative, insightful, and disciplined organization required for enduring greatness and service to its customers and society.  The great organizations of the 21st century will align people around a common passion in such a way as to develop and support the individuals in it as leaders.  Their focus and collective action will make an enduring contribution to society, and bring success to the organization and its stakeholders. 

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