Real Leaders

Six Reasons Why You Need a Purpose to Lead

I think we should face the fact that most of our efforts at leadership development have failed. Although billions of dollars have been invested over the last 50 years and tens of thousands of books written to promote better leadership, there is virtually no evidence that leaders are any better today than they were five decades ago.

When I ask business audiences today how many great leaders they have enjoyed working for over their career the highest number I get is two. That’s exactly the same number audiences were giving me 35 years ago when I started working with Stephen Covey.

Perhaps that is not because developing great leaders is futile, but because the challenges of leadership are expanding faster than our ability to help leaders improve. Also, maybe we’ve been investing in the wrong people to develop as high potential leaders.

I believe this because I am convinced the gap between what’s needed and what’s happening is getting worse.

It is because the technology and social revolution has changed the way value is created, the way work gets done, and the very nature of the workforce.

Here are the main points:

1. Organizational hierarchies are relics of the industrial age.  They are in the way of success. They are designed to maximize the productivity of routine work and minimize risk.  These authoritarian cultures reward overly aggressive, hard power personalities whose drive for status and power are seen as admirable ambition.

But consider this. When General Stanley McChrystal took over the Special Forces command over a decade ago it took 96 hours to plan a Special Forces operation. Within two years he was able to reduce that time to 2 hours. He transcended his ‘tell-everyone-what-to-do’ past and created a scalable way to collaborate.He did this daily with thousands of intelligence experts, soldiers and support staff. I said daily! He did it by converting the Special Forces command from a hierarchy to a network.Leading networks is a very different skill set than leading a chain of command. And most current business leaders are very, very bad at leading networks.

2. Competence is measured by strategic velocity. That is the speed at which strategy is decided upon and executed. Most leaders today are still relying on old tools of PowerPoints and annual budget cycles. That is leadership malpractice–a vestige of bad business school training. Today there is a huge gulf between what must be done and what gets done.

3. To be competent, leaders must be open-minded enough to constantly evolve strategy, and agile enough to stay engaged in the details of execution. This requires the expertise to create strategy that is responsive to constantly changing trends, opportunities and threats, and the social intelligence to work with teams of people as a peer to execute it.  The great leaders I have worked with were emperors in terms of strategy, but teammates in product development and execution. In my experience most leaders don’t have a clue on how to do this. This is why I am so insistent that more women be elevated into senior leadership. Their gender-based brain and social strengths are far more likely to develop customer-centered innovations, and their operational intelligence makes them more able to execute cross functionally. (Yes, General McChrystal made the change, in fact so did Steve Jobs, but most hard power men need intense coaching to see how they can use collaborative skills in a disciplined and inclusive way.)

4. The workforce has changed. Not just women and millennial’s . . . everyone. Employees used to give their best efforts because they had the security of long-term employment. They also felt they had a stake in the organization’s long-term success. No more. Research reveals that 80% of employed people constantly search the Internet for a better job. Global surveys that determine the level of commitment employees have to their employer’s success reveal that 70% are not very committed. This is unsustainable. For a network to thrive people must be focused, creative, collaborative and absolutely committed to results. Creating that requires #5.

5. Human purpose is not optional. Since virtually all employees feel like they are simply hired guns it is impossible to create high-performing teams without genuine shared purpose. Survival and success on their own are not shared purpose. Shared purpose is working together to improve the quality of life of customers’ in a distinct way. This is not just corporate social responsibility. It is not simply sustainability. It must be your reason for being in business. Real value-driving-purpose has to be at the core of an organization’s money-making business model.  Research from the Purpose Institute makes the evidence-based case that clear purpose drives all the success drivers. It’s simple. Clear purpose drives:

Innovation, product development, pricing, brand, culture, advertising, hiring, technology investment, market segmentation, supply chain management . . . everything.

Purpose makes hard decisions easier and faster.Most important, human purpose connects people directly with their job and the enterprise. It increases commitment and reduces friction. Purpose is the inspirational glue that keeps networks working at very high rates of innovation execution. Shared purpose was the essential reason General McChrystal was able to create and lead a giant global network. Everyone knew that people’s lives depended on how well they did their job.

6. One more thing. Purpose is necessary but not enough. You also have to know what the hell you’re doing. Leaders must have extremely high levels of business acumen and competence. Purpose is no substitute for competence. Passion alone can put you out of business faster because you mistake your good intentions for good outcomes.

That’s my brief explanation of one reason why old models don’t work, employees are disengaged and once great enterprises will fail if they are not led in radically new ways.

My experience, which is now confirmed by research from Women In Technology International is that women are much more likely to be engaged and motivated by purpose.  Their neuro networks are lit up by solving non trivial human problems.

Bottom line:

Common purpose drives disciplined collaboration, which is the essential quality of an effective 21st century leader.

The good news is that there are lots of women and a few good men who are interested in this new way of leading and working.  If you are, lead with purpose. If your organization isn’t interested . . . find or start a new one.

Life is short. Invest your talent and energy in ways that inspire you!


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