Leadership is the means, not the end!
There is much cynicism about leadership within the world today. And yet there are more and more calls for leadership, and much commentary on the deficit of leadership in organisations and society. What’s missing? What is it that we are looking for and not finding? There are perhaps, many answers to this question, and I would like to address just one of them, but an important one from my perspective.
When I speak to executives and leaders in organisations, part of the problem they face is a problem of purpose. Why are they doing what they are doing? They do not know, and often in an attempt to resolve and answer these questions they will resort to the safe haven of family – mortgage, school (or university) fees and a quality of life.
This is a defacto admission that they have no real sense of purpose in their work. Often they have pursued senior positions in their organisations, because of the status, power and salaries which come along with them – the leadership positions themselves, have become the end, the goal or the purpose.
This is a messed up view of leadership. I maintain that someone is not a leader based on their position in the world, but rather, based upon what they do / build / create or change in the world. It is this desire to create a different future which is the starting point of leadership. Then the question we need to ask is: what position do I need to get into, to create this new future? Who do I need to lead to create this future; who are my followers?
Sometimes that will involve becoming CEO or equivalent in the organisation, sometimes it will involve community or political leadership, and sometimes it can be achieved from all sorts of other positions within organisations, or by campaigning for change on the outside.
For too many senior leaders (and one could also argue the same for politicians) leadership positions have become the end in themselves. The aim for them is to be director / partner / CEO / CFO etc. What is lacking is a sense of purpose for their tenure in that position. The great leaders I meet, in small or large firms, all have a clear sense of purpose; what they are in the job to do or achieve.
So some important questions for everyone who wants to be a leader:
- What will your leadership change or create in the world?
- From what position is it best achieved? (be honest with yourself)
- Whom do you need to lead to create this change?
- When will the change be complete?
These are not simple questions to answer. A true sense of purpose or calling is relatively rare amongst senior executives; indeed it is more often associated with medicine, teaching, charity work or more caring professions. Yet if such a sense of purpose is not there, why do we do what we do? There are a range of reasons from falling into careers, expectations of parents to ‘get a career’, wanting to be well off, and enjoying the sense of competition to get to the top.
There is a substantial challenge with this last one, which is common among men, and therefore most of the leaders in our society, which is that when you have gotten to the top your sense of purpose disappears. When getting to the top is the purpose, there is often an 18 month honeymoon / proving yourself period, after which the leaders can start to feel directionless. There can be a mild sense of depression or listlessness that comes with achieving the goal and not knowing what to do. Sometimes the answer is to find a new top to compete for – a bigger organisation, a Chairmanship rather than CEO, or bigger bonuses. This is just a game for our ego, which is never satisfied, of competing for who has the biggest job / status / or perhaps you should just fill in the blank!
The true answer however lies in developing a clear sense of purpose. Every senior leader in an organisation needs to be clear on what they stand for as a leader. They need to know what their leadership will bring to their organisation or the wider world.
When commentators look around and speak of a lack of leadership, or a need for more leadership in our organisations or society, they are also looking around at a lot of people in leadership positions and making a comment. The comment suggests that those who are in these positions aren’t fully stepping up to leadership. This is not to say that they don’t work hard, or that they don’t care about what happens to their organisation – having met some of them I know that they do care and they do work very, very hard to do the jobs they do. However it’s rare that they are living their leadership through a clear, compelling purpose. This is a big part of what is missing, from my perspective.