Early-20th-century philosopher and poet, George Santayana, said, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” With that in mind, here’s a quick look back at seven world-changing events from 2016 and leadership lessons we can learn from them.
Lesson #1: Don’t Lose Touch with the Needs of Those You’re Leading (Brexit)
On June 23, 2016, surprising the pundits and ruling class, British citizens voted on a referendum to pull the United Kingdom out of the European Union. Lessons:
- Leaders can lose the pulse of the people. A commitment to truly serve those we lead presses us to stay close in touch with them, but it’s important to be intentional about this.
- The squeaky wheel gets the oil. There’s always a group that yells the loudest, but we must not believe that volume equals majority. We must look past the noise to hear what people are really saying, experiencing, and feeling.
Without mistake, the Advent and Christmas season holds profound lessons on humility and leadership. Writers and painters and composers have highlighted these themes of humility for two thousand years—the lowly manger, the poor and dispossessed young couple who were unable to find a decent place for their child to be born, the shepherds and sheep and donkeys and stable. But there are tricky paradoxes in these humility lessons—booby traps, even—and the pathway to learning these lessons is far from straight.
Leaders who are humble are amazing to watch and wonderful to follow. Harvard Business Review goes so far as to claim “the best leaders are humble leaders” citing a recent study to back it up. So, when I say that there are paradoxes and even booby traps in the pursuit of humility, I am not questioning the rightness of this pursuit. Researcher Jim Collins inadvertently stumbled upon this subject some years ago, discovering (in Good to Great) that the highest-impact leaders on earth possessed a most startling quality—these incredible over-achievers were genuinely humble human beings. Paradoxically, however, Collins soon began to lament that he didn’t know how to help leaders actually become more humble, or even to become more humble himself.
This month’s entry is a guest post written by Rick Newton. He co-founded the Center for Serving Leadership with John Stahl-Wert in 2015 because of their shared vision and passion of equipping leaders to awaken, align, and achieve Great Purpose.
Here in the United States, we have just come through a historic election – unlike one that anyone has ever seen. Don’t worry – I am not going to get into political opinion, but I do want to get into politics – and talk about how Serving Leaders are needed in every facet of society, especially Government.
There are many problems with our society, and I trace all of them back to leadership – or to be more precise, a lack of serving leadership. Too often, leaders in government are self-centered, egotistic, and more concerned about staying in power than serving the people they represent.
When self-centered leadership is in place, we see the results: name-calling, blame-shifting, miscommunication, no communication, undermining, dysfunction, and an inability and unwillingness to rise above differences to serve the common good.
In my last post, I wrote on the leadership challenge of turning vision into reality, or as some would say, bridging the strategy-execution gap. In this entry, I want to share briefly on how leaders can get what they say to line up with what they do. In other words, as leaders, how can we fix our misalignments so that everything we’re saying and doing is moving in the same direction?
True story: Mr. T.S. Wong, founder of one of the largest toy manufacturers in the world, Jetta, made a decision 38 years ago that he would focus his leadership efforts on aligning what his company said with what they did. None of his contemporaries in the People’s Republic of China in 1977 were thinking this way. “If they promised it,” Mr. Wong said, “They would do it.” He was determined that his company would not represent what they weren’t. If they said it, they would be it.
As leaders, we each bring value to the world in our own distinct way. The uniqueness of the start of our leadership journey is extraordinary as we are born into the world and then move out to engage it, seeking to have impact, hoping to make friends, longing to achieve results, and aspiring to make a difference.
However, we can find profound similarities among us all in our calling to serve. Several fundamental challenges are consistent across our individual leadership journeys. One of these common leadership challenges is learning how to translate vision into reality. Or, as we more usually say it: How can we bridge our strategy-execution gap?
Values are the foundation of an organization’s culture. Where Great Purpose addresses why we work, values guide how we work. This guidance will be intentional, or it will be unintentional, because every organization has values. The question is: “Will we choose the values that will guide us, or will we allow ourselves to be pushed around by the riptides of opportunity and crisis?”
Identify and Define Your Values
The enterprise that says – “We don’t waste our time on things like values. We’ve got a business to run!” – is, in reality, showing their underlying values. Examine the pattern of decisions and you’ll know what their “values statement” would say.
The business that says it values integrity, but rewards the salesperson bringing in the most business while cutting ethical corners, is displaying its true values. The stated values are not real, of course, but the company still has values. By their fruit, you will know!
At the heart of serving leadership is a point of view about the human person, namely, that people are your organization’s greatest treasure. This point of view requires a change in the minds and hearts of leaders who are accustomed to thinking of their people as tools; even our accounting system labels people a “liability” on the balance sheet! The people who work for us are an asset, not a liability, and that is to say the very least.
Explore Each Person’s Strengths
In an earlier post, we emphasized the importance of getting to know each of your team members so that you can better serve them. One of the most important areas of knowledge about a person is knowledge about that person’s strengths. Strengths are those tasks that the person performs well and, importantly, loves doing. Both criteria—capability and passion—must be present to call something a strength.
“We lead men into harm’s way. We lead, they follow, and where we’re taking them is potentially to their death.”
I’ll never forget those straightforward, weighty words spoken to me many years ago by my late friend and mentor, Brigadier General John Hirt.
John and I were lying on our backs in sleeping bags in the Masai Mara region of Kenya. The Milky Way was more luminous above our heads than I had ever seen it. We were talking about his years of military service and what leadership looks like in times of war. The gravity of that conversation opened a hollow place in my chest, and some questions have lived there ever since.
“What kind of a leader will people follow toward harm? What leadership qualities will cause men and women to run into the teeth of danger, rather than shoot the leader in the back and flee (which, we all know happens)?
Throughout the course of the year, I have the privilege of working with extraordinary men and women who are committed to serve others and to serve a calling greater than themselves. Such men and women – leaders who chose to serve, or “serving leaders” – fashion organizations that produce extraordinary good in the world. They do so because the decision to place themselves into service frees them to put people first, principles first, excellence first, customers first.
When we place self at the service of others, we are freed of a thousand daily distractions created by ego, fear, greed, and insecurity.
When we place self at the service of a great calling, we are empowered to focus time and energy toward things that make a true difference for the world.
A common myth about leadership is that a leader is responsible to “establish a compelling vision.” This is just not true. Many leaders step into an organization that already has a great vision, and they should not try to prove that they are a leader by cooking up some new vision.
Raise High the Vision
It is the leader’s job to make sure everyone understands why the business exists. Leaders aren’t required to come up with a great vision, but they are required to serve a great vision. Leaders who do not raise high a great purpose are throttling the contributions of the people who work for them. Human beings desire purpose. An organization’s vision must provide a compelling and noble reason for employees to care.
Leaders must raise vision high enough for everyone to have a direct sight line to it. Obviously, this demands that leaders communicate what the vision is—which we call Great Purpose. However, people respond to leaders’ actions more than to their words. Leaders must demonstrate the Great Purpose. This work not only includes communicating the vision to new employees, but also daily actions needed to reinforce the importance of the vision.
Great organizations are successful at getting their people to own the vision. As this happens, employees become more engaged and committed to doing their part to serve the Great Purpose.