Feature Article: Leadership On Purpose

Russ Volckmann

In the last issue I wrote about our need to transcend and include the limiting model of heroic leadership. It isn’t that we have no reason to value heroic acts of leadership. They continue to be important to us. We need to recognize both the heroic and the collective. In the remarks that follow, I am concerned with business leadership. However, they might apply equally to any context.

One analogy that may make this point clearer is to think of the heroic act of leadership as a snapshot. The collective act of leadership is more like a movie. Heroic leadership is episodic. Certainly, it may last more than an instant, but it is Act 1, Scene 2; it is not the whole play. Without Scene 1, Act 2 the play would fail. And without all of the other acts and scenes the play would virtually cease to exist.

The essence of heroic leadership is the individual and his/her relationship to the collective. These are often thought of as followers, but that term is too narrow, too limiting for a broader understanding of leadership. The heroic leader is a leader because of the realization of their intentions through action in relation to a broad set of stakeholders. For example, taking action to improve service immediately impacts employees, customers and others, like vendors or suppliers. Taking action to cut costs will impact this same set of roles almost immediately. Investors may have to wait a while.

The term, stakeholders, is useful because it includes a wide variety of roles in relation to business and business leadership. In addition to customers and investors there would be employees, contractors, vendors and suppliers, government regulators, even unpredictable innovators outside the company. (By the way, if you don’t think government regulators are important learn a bit more about what is happening to business in the current California energy crisis.)

OK. Heroic leaders take action in relation to stakeholders. When we look at a single event or episode that is very clear. But in business we can’t just focus on one event. What is true about strategy is also true about leadership. If it is important, as the Balanced Scorecard approach is demonstrating, that we need to consider the relationship between action and strategy in relation to internal, external, financial and innovation aspirations, then it is equally true that we need to recognize that leadership around this level of complexity is not one individual act by one individual heroic leader. It is a complex set of actions by many leaders. And these actions must be examined over time, like strategy formation and implementation, to be properly understood.

So what does this mean for leadership in business? It means that we need to appreciate the intentions and actions of individual heroic leaders. AND we need to appreciate the collective aspects of leadership equally.

What is a collective act of leadership? An example might be Steve Jobs at Apple. When he came back to that company he demonstrated heroic leadership by refocusing the company on innovating to generate recovery through reversal of their falling market share and value. How did that strategy come about? I don’t know the inside story, but I’ll bet there were many conversations with other leaders that created the strategy.

Furthermore, the success of that strategy depended on many leaders working with Jobs to generate the successes that Apple has had since Jobs’ return. Apple has once again become the computer of choice if you want speed, excellent media capability, interconnectivity, cross platform capacity and so on.

The parallel with the heroic leader who proceeds by translating intention into action is that collective leaders build a culture of leadership that generates individual and collective action in support of business objectives and strategies. This is so important because many aspiring leaders have floundered in cultures that would not respond.

In subsequent issues of Leadership Opportunity, we will explore these ideas further. In the meanwhile, I hope this is useful food for thought. Your ideas and contributions are always welcome.

> Russ Volckmann