Marketing and Leadership

“When you are made a leader, you aren’t given a crown; you are given the responsibility to bring out the best in others.”
— Jack Welch, Former CEO of General Electric

There is an old adage that leaders are born not made. That myth became popular as people observed that most leaders had personality traits such as intelligence, charisma, attractive appearance, and confidence.

I believe the truth is that effective leaders are typically born AND made,

i.e. some folks start out with a high degree of innate leadership capability and then actually become great leaders through courageous commitment and continuous development.

As I was growing up and navigating my way through elementary school, high school, and college, I always assumed leadership roles in almost every group in which I participated.

I was captain of my sports teams, an officer in student government, president of my fraternity, President of the Honor Society etc. My teachers and mentors would describe me a person who took on challenges, made bold commitments, and engaged others to mobilize behind my vision of what was possible. While most people would see me as a born leader, there was a good chance that, given enough power, I might not lead people in the best direction. There was no question, however, that I was heading toward larger leadership roles.

My trajectory was derailed by the Vietnam War.

Title: Refugees in Saigon during the fighting in May 1968. | Author: Phillip Jones Griffiths | Source: manhhai | License: CC BY 2.0
Title: Refugees in Saigon during the fighting in May 1968. | Author: Philip Jones Griffiths | Source: manhhai | License: CC BY 2.0

I enlisted in the Army as a grunt because I didn’t want to be an officer in state-sponsored killing. I also didn’t want to get drafted into the Infantry where I would be ducking bullets and crawling through snake-infested jungles. After my experience in Vietnam, I no longer wanted to be a leader in the military-industrial complex.

Title: Villagers displaced by a US Army operation, March 1966 | Credit: AP Photo/Huynh Thanh My | Source: manhhai| License: CC BY
Title: Villagers displaced by a US Army operation, March 1966 | Credit: AP Photo/Huynh Thanh My | Source: manhhai | License: CC BY

The Vietnam War, or more accurately the American War, was a marketing-driven, military initiative that wasted millions of lives and billions of dollars in an attempt to persuade the American public that intervening in Southeast Asia was necessary to stop the spread of communism.

Untitled photo of Vietnam (License: CC0)

If left to their own devices, however, Vietnamese leadership from the North and South could have worked out a diplomatic solution.

Vietnam was a classic case of what happens when marketing values drive decision making instead of leadership vision driving decision making. After Vietnam, I stepped back to re-assess my path.

Over the past 40 years, I have worked hard to develop my chops as a leader. I not only read voraciously and wrote several books on leadership (Leadership Myths and Realities, Ethical Leadership, Spiritual Leadership, Leadership Lexicon), but I also served in senior executive roles in not-for-profit as well as for profit organizations. Whatever skills I was born with, I was able to refine and enhance those capabilities through diligent effort and diverse experience. All I’m saying here is that I have some well-earned perspectives on leadership for making the points I’m going to make in this post. So let me get to it.

In a nutshell, the problems we are facing today are largely the result of leadership being in service of marketing instead of marketing being in service of leadership.

As the most blatant example, we have a marketing “genius” in the White House with no leadership skills. Yes, I used the word “genius” because he is the most ill-prepared, morally depraved, and mentally deficient, predator-president in history, and yet he was able to convince 28% of eligible voters to elect him President. The overarching objective of his administration is to mobilize resources, technology, and cabinet/congressional leaders behind his marketing message and branding goals. There is no bold vision of what’s possible, no permission to step forward and do what’s right, and no strategy for improving foreign relations or domestic needs. And, if you think Vietnam was bad, this President has the power and potential to do far more damage than any other President before him. But let’s not lose track of the generic principle: leadership needs to drive marketing — not the other way around.

Title: Still from Motto // Branding & Design 2014 | Author: Motto | Source: Vimeo | License: CC BY-NC-ND
Title: Still from Motto // Branding & Design 2014 | Author: Motto | Source: Vimeo | License: CC BY-NC-ND

By definition, marketing is a set of processes for creating, communicating, and delivering offerings and messages that have value for stakeholders and society at large.

Leadership is about vision and strategy; marketing is about messaging and branding.

When marketing trumps leadership, the end result is messaging that has no regard for the truth or the collective good.

It is simply manipulation of the masses for purposes of power and control.

Effective leaders create inspiring visions, make bold commitments, and engage all stakeholders to strive for what’s possible. Effective leaders free exemplars, encourage free speech, seek the truth, and listen to feedback.

Effective leaders align their marketing efforts, their human and financial resources, and their technical capabilities behind the vision and strategy. This administration meets none of the criteria of effective leadership; it is only committed to keeping the voters, who bought its lies, riled up enough to stay in power.

Hand carrying a piece of paper of the world

In effective organizations, leaders develop sound policies and strategies and hand them off to marketing to research viability and to create demand. Marketing then collaborates with Human Resources and finance to ensure the organization has sufficient capabilities to execute the strategy and reinforce the messaging and branding. A wide range of Technologies are then used to enable efficient and effective delivery and implementation. The whole organization works interdependently to transform the leadership vision into stakeholder reality.

The optimal “firing order” is Leadership — Marketing — Resources — Technology.

Title: Pop Quiz: what’s Trump’s Cabinet? | Credit: Wayan Vota | Source: dcmetroblogger | License: CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
Title: Pop Quiz: what’s Trump’s Cabinet? | Author: Wayan Vota | Source: dcmetroblogger | License: CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

When the “firing order” gets out of whack, like it has in this administration, the result is chaos, cacophony, and compromised principles. In this case, Marketing (Trump) has demoralized its Human Resources (over 20 million government employees) while wasting its financial Resources (e.g. building walls and golfing in Mar-a-Lago) to distract the public from what’s really important. These Resources are then ordered to employ Technology in destructive ways (e.g. voter suppression, nuclear proliferation, etc.). Finally, Cabinet and Congressional Leaders (Bannon, Miller, Kushner, Price, Perry, DeVos, Sessions, Ryan, McConnell etc) are bullied into supporting the marketing message. The sub-optimal and destructive “firing order” is Marketing — Resources — Technology — Leadership.

In short, above all else, a leader must have vision if the right firing order has any chance of producing a constructive outcome.

Also, great leaders must have the courage, confidence, conviction and character to go against the grain and make unpopular, and sometimes revolutionary but just, decisions. I can think of many such leaders in America’s past: Adams, Jefferson, Lincoln, Roosevelt, Johnson. And, more recently, we have seen real leadership from Lisa Murkowski, Susan Collins, and John McCain.

Title: U.S. Senators Lisa Murkowski and Roger F. Wicker speak with an Afghan Nation Police Officer at the Central Training Facility | Author: F. Julian Carroll | Source: NATO Training Mission-Afghanistan | License: CC BY-SA
Title: U.S. Senators Lisa Murkowski and Roger F. Wicker speak with an Afghan Nation Police Officer at the Central Training Facility | Author: MCC(SCW) F. Julian Carroll | Source: NATO Training Mission-Afghanistan | License: CC BY-SA 2.0

The questions are:

  1. When will the American public realize it has a Marketer in charge, not a leader?
  2. When will Cabinet and Congressional “leaders” finally find the courage to resist or deny destructive marketing strategies.
  3. Where will we find the real leaders we need to turn this ship around?
  4. When will we create a vision and embody the values that will mobilize the upcoming generations to want to get involved in public service and community organizing?
  5. How are we going to survive the next 3 years and 6 months of this administration?
Title: Connected | Author: Piyushgiri Revagar | Source: p_revagar | License: CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
Title: Connected | Author: Piyushgiri Revagar | Source: p_revagar | License: CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

I wish I had easy answers. I don’t. I do know that we need a new generation of leaders who can get the “firing order” right. Jack Welch was spot on. We don’t want or need a king with a crown in spite of the current President’s desires and delusions to the contrary.

We need humble servant-leaders who bring the best out in people instead of the worst.

In closing, let me return to the beginning issue of whether leaders are born or made.

To me, we are seeing how the vision of leadership has also been marketed.

People like Trump market themselves under the guise of being strong leaders because they indulge the idea of leadership as charisma, confidence, and height, i.e. the old, masculine image of a 6 foot, 2 inch white, male with a degree from Harvard or Wharton and enough braggadocio to convince others he’s the real deal.

These stereotypical leader-types may look the part; but they don’t necessarily say, do, or know anything of significance.

The question is whether or not these people can lead outside of the context in which they were born and groomed. Few can. They simply cultivate the myth of being a leader because they were born with certain attributes and can pose for the “right image” of “leadership.”

Let’s start looking for leaders who yield weight in their words and actions instead of their appearance. Perhaps we should be looking for women who can fire right and shoot straight instead of men who start fires and fire lies.

Originally published at Perspectives & Possibilities.