There has never been a better time to ask the question of how to succeed as a leader, as the internet is awash in prescriptive answers. Google the simple query “how to be a successful leader,” and you will receive over 280 billion results, chock full of easily digestible lists:
ad infinitum …
However, there is more to succeeding as a leader than knowing how. As Bruce Pandolfini writes in his book, Every Move Must Have a Purpose: “If a sailor doesn’t know which harbor he’s making for, no wind is the right one.” Identifying that harbor requires asking a harder, more fundamental first-principle question: Why lead?
In 2009, Simon Sinek stood on a modest stage in front of dozens of attendees at TEDxPugetSound. Armed with paper flip chart and a handheld microphone that had to replaced five minutes into his talk, Sinek introduced the world to his theory of “How great leaders inspire action.” Later that year, Sinek’s 18-minute talk became his book, Start With Why. When his TED talk went viral and his book became a bestseller, business leaders and marketers everywhere began trying to operationalize Sinek’s fundamental idea: “People don’t buy what you do; they buy why you do it.”
It’s a powerful idea, and the benefit of its focusing effect is clear whenever you look at an organization that gets it. Google and Spacex are two companies — one public and one private — that know their “why.”
• Google: “to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful”
• Spacex: “Making Life Multiplanetary”
It doesn’t take much looking to see that everything these companies do flows from these centers of organizational gravity.
But what about leaders? Why do they choose to lead in the first place? Why pursue the added responsibility, complexity, and stress that comes with leadership? Is material benefit alone the reason to carry the burden of leadership? Because, make no mistake: leadership brings with it a heavy burden. As Shakespeare’s king laments in Henry IV, Part II:
How many thousands of my poorest subjects
Are at this hour asleep! O sleep, O gentle sleep,
Nature’s soft nurse, how have I frightened thee,
That thou no more will weigh my eyelids down,
And steep my senses in forgetfulness?
Canst thou, O partial sleep, give thy repose
To the wet sea-boy in an hour so rude;
And in the calmest and most stillest night,
With all appliances and means to boot,
Deny it to a king? Then, happy low, lie down!
Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown.
Asking yourself “why lead?” is no small question, and how one answers it has been shown to have a dramatic effect on how successfully one actually leads. A friend and colleague of mine, Ryan Hawk, posed that very question to Sinek when he appeared as a guest on Ryan’s podcast, The Learning Leader Show. Sinek’s answer was simple and immediate: “If you have a desire to see others succeed, that is why you lead.”
Who Do You Lead For?
However, such an answer begs the question: who are the “others” you wish to see succeed? There are various and often conflicting interests that have a stake in the decisions a leader makes. In politics, it is a question of voters or donors: whose success really matters in driving decisions? In the boardrooms of public companies, a similar tension exists between the people who make the organization work and the stockholders who have a financial stake in the organization’s work. If you read enough corporate values statements, the answer appears nearly unanimous: business leaders want their people to succeed, for they are a company’s “most valuable asset” and its “competitive advantage.” For example, Wells Fargo’s paean to its people in its value statement goes on for 640 words, with such sentimental gems such as —
• “In hiring, we really don’t care how much people know until we know how much they care.”
• “We say “team members,” not “employees,” because our people are resources to be invested in, not expenses to be managed…”
• “We’re a relationship company, but our relationships with our customers are only as strong as our relationships with each other.”
And yet … these glowing expressions proved insufficient to prevent the leaders of Wells Fargo from initiating hundreds of layoffs nationwide to start 2016 after reporting earnings at the end of 2015 that exceeded expectations. This problem is not unique to Wells Fargo. It has become a theme in 2016 for companies to take a hatchet to their employee roster as if dire straits demanded it even as they report good financial and product performance that exceeds projections. Just within the last two weeks, both Twitter and Thomson Reuters joined the chorus, trimming 350 jobs (9% of total) and 2,000 jobs (4% of total) respectively after both reported positive Q3 performance. (Full disclosure: Thomson Reuters is a competitor of my current employer, LexisNexis, a division of RELX Group.) If these companies’ people really are their “competitive advantage” as they so often claim, why get rid of that valuable asset when times are good, with rising revenue and stable profit? If the leaders are leading because they desire to see their people succeed, why does the organizational success not benefit them?
When there is a lack of self-awareness in a leader as to why she is leading, a lack of effectiveness is the result. That doesn’t mean failure, necessarily, but it does mean that the leader’s full potential for excellence and success will be beyond her reach. As Yogi Berra is quoted as saying, “If you don’t know where you’re going, you might end up someplace else.”
When there is a lack of clarity and honesty as to who the leader is leading for, worse things happen. A disconnect between who the leader says he is leading for and whose success actually shapes his most important decisions will show itself in a number of ways:
• a degradation of trust between the leader and the team he leads;
• a drain on the leader’s time and attention, as both must be devoted to managing the flow of internal information and employee perception instead of more productive pursuits; and
• a derailing of the team’s mission, as the first two combine to handicap creativity, insight, and performance.
All around us, people are sensing the wide disconnect with the words leaders use to say why they are leading and the different answer their actions imply, and they are responding. Survey after survey shows: in companies across America, a majority of workers are either not engaged or actively disengaged. In the political sphere, this same dynamic led to the historic, terrain-changing votes for Brexit earlier this year, and a new U.S. president earlier this week. To effectively lead disengaged employees and disenchanted voters, leaders have to honestly answer why they lead and whose success they are leading for. In a conflicting hierarchy of interests, whose takes precedence?
Regardless of whether you are a current leader or aspire to be one, take some time to start with your why, figure out your who, and then clearly and honestly communicate those answers to the people you lead and whose trust you need. In doing so, those answers will guide you as you navigate the lists of “how to” tactics to arrive at the harbor of Success.