Leadership — Your Purpose is the Pearl; but the Context is your Oyster
(Originally published in Feb 2017)
I was at a conference recently where easily half of all the speakers who spoke about leadership paid homage to purpose, authentic leadership and self-awareness; myself included. There was also some focus on context but mostly the interest seems to be on “how to bring out the magic in everyone”.
The question of what makes a good leader is complicated. In business, the question of what sorts of leaders will guide the business to success is just as complicated. We can all think of great leaders — Mahatma Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Winston Churchill, Angela Merkel, Justin Trudeau (I’m biased, I’m Canadian) and their achievements. But we would be hard pressed to come up with silver bullet leadership lessons from one leader that is applicable universally regardless of the situation.
I believe that the effectiveness of a leader depends on three things. The (business) context, the person, and the culture that either encourages or inhibits great leadership to have effect.
Context — It’s not only who you are, but when and where you are.
First and foremost is the context in which the business operates. This sets the stage for the type of leadership it needs. Often, when an organization looks at developing leaders, there is sufficient focus on the individual characteristics of a leader and not enough emphasis on the situation in which he/she must lead. Your industry, the competition, your legacies, the challenges, the vision and the aspiration define the playing field, which determines your purpose, your strategy, what’s your game, where you play, and why it matters. Achieving clarity and alignment on all these factors will allow you to pick the leadership style that will most likely succeed in getting your business to live its purpose and realize its goals.
The other important step in clarifying the context in which leaders need to operate is prioritization. This creates focus. It is tempting to be ambitious and try to design a leadership development approach to solve all the business’ needs at once. However, this will dilute the effort. Choosing the few places where you must excel, and deciding to play to your strengths are key to ensuring you harness your energy and focus the development. It is a fallacy that one can optimize everything and hope to eliminate all weaknesses. In a people analogy, this is like betting on someone with an absence of flaws to outperform a world-class specialist (who most likely has many great flaws, just not where it counts!). It doesn’t matter what the game is, the generalist will not change the world. In sports, an athlete who plans to compete in the Olympics must first choose the event. While many of the training fundamentals are common across sporting events, there is no substitute for honing the vital few skills to perfection in order to win at your chosen sport.
Like people, organizations must also choose their sport. There are various diagnostic and benchmarking tools out there that can help an organization “choose their sport” by doing deep dives into their practices, business outcomes and overall health. The data prove very useful as guides to identify the leadership practices that will make the most difference.
Looking back on my experiences of building leadership capability in many companies and industries I firmly believe that recognizing and responding to what the business needs is more important than trying to implement any great leadership lessons.
Which is NOT to say the person is unimportant. The business context comes alive only through the interpretations and actions of the people who live it. The person is super-important in this equation. The human beings on whom we place our bets to lead the organization, are essentially the secret ingredient; the wild card that will make or break us. Each one will bring their gifts and fallibilities to our critical projects and major initiatives.