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One of the principles I sincerely hope you’ll take to heart from these pages is that real leadership success is best defined by the positive impact you make, and leave, on your organization.
That’s not the only goal, of course. I also hope you are among the many individuals who apply Change Leadership to boost your personal success, satisfaction, income, career goals, etc. The “Genius” is to achieve both objectives, to create a legacy that both you and the organization benefit from, with the greater good taking the lead in driving your individual success. Scanning the bookshelves, however, and seeing so many management books that focus primarily on personal success suggests that the higher ideal of “organization-first” is not as prevalent as it should be. There are other warning signs.
Executive pay has been a hot and controversial topic for the past few years. Unfortunately, it reinforces the view that many business leaders put their self-interest above the interest of their employees and other stakeholders. Among many similar news stories, I recall a recent example about two senior executives from different companies who have potential pension plan payouts of over $80 million each. Is $80 million too much? I don’t know. We can hope the directors of these companies are basing their compensation judgments on sound criteria. (It may be $80 million is less than what these leaders deserve.) Making a lot of money is one of the expected rewards of being a top executive; it’s not new and it’s by no means wrong. But it’s hard to avoid getting a sense that in general the personal gain too often takes priority in leaders’ minds over driving lasting business performance. Simply from the common sense perspective of fostering teamwork in an organization, a smart leader will know that balancing a significant income and a sense of proportion are essential. Here is what the great leader Atilla had to say on this subject: “Care more for the rewarding of your Huns than for rewarding yourself. Your own rewards will then far exceed even your greatest hopes and dreams.”
The personal versus organizational focus of many leaders is also evident in what I’ll call the “Make your Mark” syndrome. This is the almost compulsive behavior of many new leaders to initiate change as soon as they take over, regardless of the potential negative impacts. Of course, there may be valid reasons to shake things up: A new leader may be arriving to correct a bad situation or replace a leader who’s lost control or gotten into a rut. And eventually every leader needs to take action to establish his or her own credibility and to continue moving the organization forward.
But I’ve observed many, many cases where immediate changes have more to do with the new leader’s personal preferences or desire to just to do something than with real organizational needs. And in quite a few of those instances, the net effect of the change is negative: Worthwhile projects get squelched, culture change gets frustrated, talented people get discouraged. That’s where leader ego or ambition trumps the value to the business.
The common phenomenon of leaders protecting their own turf is another example of confusion between organizational and individual agendas. Barriers or silos—and the mistrust that goes with them—have plagued organizations since the first specialization of labor. (I can imagine the scene around the pyramids in ancient Egypt: workers moving huge stones complaining about the tomb designers, “These guys just don’t get it!”)
What’s wrong with a leader pushing for his or her group to get more resources, authority, or recognition? Nothing—so long as it’s balanced with the broader needs of the organization. But that advocacy often appears self-serving or ignorant of the entire business environment or the perspective of other groups. And so the organizational barriers get higher and thicker.
I got an early taste of this misplaced advocacy in my first job out of college at a radio station in Southern California. It came in a staff meeting when our Ad Sales Manager—an industry veteran—proclaimed to the entire station that “Nothing happens until there’s a sale, baby!” Most of us were young and fairly open minded, so we thought about that comment. We had to agree that without ad revenues, our paychecks would bounce, so he had a point. On the other hand, advertisers need an audience for their commercials, and listeners would only tune in if the on-air personalities were appealing. Once the spot was aired, we needed the accounting people to collect money from the advertisers and get it to the bank. And you had to have a studio, microphones, and a transmitter, all maintained by the engineering staff. In other words, no single department in the radio station, once you started to think about it, could claim to be the key. All were essential.
So the Sales Manager’s boasting—or organizational advocacy—turned out to seem narrow-minded and disrespectful of the other, non-sales folks in the room. Everyone needed to pull together to make the organization a success. It was a lesson I’ve always kept in mind.
When leadership success is measured by ego, head count, or budget it can lead to some very imbalanced choices. When leadership success is measured by the value of the contribution to the greater good, then the organization prospers. For a leader, it can be like good career karma—what goes around for the business as a whole comes around to the individual’s personal fulfillment and growth.
This may sound a little naïve. If you don’t “look out for number one,” you’ll never get ahead, right? Well, as always, our theme is balance: putting success of the larger organization first does not mean forgetting your own interests. Fighting for what you believe in, or seeking recognition for your achievements, is not incompatible with putting the organization’s success first. Applied properly, that emphasis should give you a stronger case for your value because of your commitment and because a leader who’s also a team player is much more likely to deliver value to the organization.
 Wess Roberts , Ph.D., Leadership Secrets of Attila the Hun, New York: Time Warner Books, 1990, p.79. This is actually a comment written by Roberts in a fictional but very worthwhile review of leadership principles that often echo ideas in this book.