Leadership’s finest hallmark

There is a profound yearning in both people and organizations to matter, to make a difference, to find greatness. When we decide to build leadership capability throughout our organizations, we are asking our people to access this innate aspect of our being.

The call to greatness goes out to all of us all the time.  The potential for greatness resides within all of us all the time. Yet, the majority of us spend most of our lives working very hard at being ‘regular’ people and trying to ‘fit in’. This behaviour is strange given man’s tendency to greatly admire those who take a stand and make their mark in life.  Both the print and electronic media are devoted to tracking and recounting the lives of the rich and famous, the noble and exceptional, the peacemakers and the warmongers.  Some of us set them up as role models or see them as some or other guru at whose feet we wish to sit.  Others are happy to either follow these exceptional people directly or from a distance. But, generally we accept: “I am regular and they are special”, and we continue to work on being ‘regular’.

This very stand produces a dichotomy deep within us: we know that we too are special, unique human beings with the capacity for true greatness.  This deep awareness resides not only within individuals but also in collectives with a strong common identity such as companies and nations.  

It is interesting to note that three authors address this topic in the business arena and they use the word ‘greatness’ in the title of their books.  They are: Jim Collins whose book Good to Great (2001) has become a corporate benchmark, Peter Koestenbaum in Leadership:  The Inner Side of Greatness (2002) and Stephen R Covey in his latest book, The 8th Habit: From Effectiveness to Greatness (2004).

Why Greatness?

In the last 5 years the world has witnessed an unprecedented number of major disasters – the 9/11 tragedy in the USA, public transport bombings in Spain and London, the Tsunami tidal waves in South East Asia reaching all the way to the horn of Africa, earthquakes in the Middle East, and more recently, hurricanes were very destructive in areas bordering the Gulf of Mexico.  Each of these events represents a significant loss of life and huge destruction of the environment ‘all in one go’.  Tragedies such as these remind us that life is precious.  This truth is nothing knew.  We know and have always known it, yet, we mostly live our lives on autopilot and it often takes a crisis of considerable proportions to shake us out of our slumber.

“That”, says Peter Koestenbaum “is precisely where the problem lies. Extreme situations excite greatness because they remind us that we have neglected greatness and it is time we’re reminded of it.  Crises awaken us, but what we respond to is not the crises but life itself.  Can we understand that?  The crisis is the wake-up call.  What we then see is everyday life; it’s been there all the time.  We return to where we have been, but now our eyes are open.”

He goes on to say that a life without greatness is shabby and degrading, that it leads to existential guilt – guilt because we are responsible for our unfulfilled potential.  It is this profound truth that we recapture when tragedy strikes.  Those who respond authentically do so with depth and with truth, resolutely and with courage, determined to make themselves worthy of the enormous sacrifice they had just witnessed.  “Business carried out authentically is life with greatness… This is the dignity of work – all kinds of work.  It’s always there, even while we forget it”.  He quotes Kahlil Gibran who says that work is love made visible.

Different and yet with the same underlying message, is the latest work of Stephen Covey:  In answering the question, ‘Why the need for a new habit?’ he writes:  “Because we have entered a new era in human history.  The world is a profoundly different place from when The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People was published in 1989.  The challenges and complexities we face in our personal and professional lives and in our organizations are of a different order of magnitude.  We enjoy greater autonomy in all areas of our lives and along with this freedom comes the expectation that we will manage ourselves instead of being managed by others.  At the same time we struggle to feel engaged, fulfilled and passionate. People feel a void in their lives and this emptiness is felt in organizations across the world.” Covey says that to overcome this requires a new mind-set, a new skill-set and a new tool-set. In fact, a new habit, the habit of moving from effectiveness to greatness.

Creativity begets Greatness

What is it within us that is great?  
It is our ability to create as if out of nothing – to think, to contemplate and then to come up with ideas that make a difference and add value. Some ideas may be very profound and have huge impact whereas other may be small and seem insignificant at first glance but they become significant stepping stones and, collectively become impetus for the overall evolution of our species, hopefully moving us to higher expression for the greater good of all.  Whether big or small, when we access our inherent creativity, we are tapping into our greatness.  We are expressing our kinship with the Supreme Creator.

“I learned that the real creator was my inner Self, the Shakti… That desire to do something is God inside talking through us.”  Michele Shea

This creative process starts in the invisible realm of mind expressing itself as thoughts and ideas.  Sherman and Schultz state that our businesses are only as successful as our ideas.  This is echoed by James Champy of Re-engineering the Corporation fame who writes:

“People like to think that businesses are made up of numbers (the bottom line), of things (the product), of forces (as in market forces) or even flesh and blood (our people).  But this is wrong – businesses are made up of ideas; ideas expressed as words”.

Recently I have been doing work for a company that, over the last few years, went from being a relatively small family owned business to being an active player in the global arena. How did they do this?  First there was the idea to re-structure the organization after it acquired several businesses in East Africa and then ran into difficulties in Mozambique.  This led to a great deal of company introspection and the idea of a “burning platform” was used as a change agent for re-thinking just about everything including their vision and values.  Then there was the idea of not only going into Africa but also into South-east Asia. Again creative thinking led to defining emerging markets as the company focus (Collins’ Hedgehog concept).  These actions were not just random but demanded careful consideration and planning by a team that communicates well and where people willingly share their creative ideas.  As the company began to expand and grow, so its complexity increased and the need arose to re-think its business model and, after much exploration and consultation, came up with a business model uniquely suited to the company’s needs.

If we examine this process carefully we see that, again and again, it is the creative ability of the senior management team that allows the company to perform in terms of numbers, forces, things and flesh and blood. And it will be the degree to which both the head office and regional management teams are willing to engage in the process of introspection, contemplation and generating new thought that will take the company to even greater heights.

When we talk about creativity there is always an element of newness.  Yes, I know there is nothing really new under the sun and yet individually and collectively we are always birthing something new.  The ‘newness’ may be in terms of configuration, context, application, aesthetics – whatever format it takes - the tendency to continually refine it until it bears the hallmark of excellence will result in greatness!

Without Courage there can be no Greatness

But, how do we access this potential?  How do we move ideas from the invisible realm of our being to the visible or, as Deepak Chopra puts it, from the field of infinite potentiality to manifestation in the world around us? How do we make personal and organizational greatness available for mankind’s greater good? The answer:  by courageous action!

Whenever there is newness, there is risk.  Risk engenders fear.  We ask ourselves, “Will it work, what will be the impact, the repercussions, the gains and the trade offs?” If we are honest with ourselves we end up admitting to fear.  Fear and courage are flipsides of the same coin.  We need to acknowledge the fear and then consciously move through to courageous action.  As times this may even happen spontaneously. Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote:

"Courage charms us, because it indicates that a man loves an idea better than all things in the world, that he is thinking neither of his bed, nor his dinner, nor his money, but will venture all to put in action the invisible thoughts of his mind."

As we busy ourselves with creative thoughts, a field of intention is set in motion readying itself to manifest what we ardently desire.  Fear converts into courage and with courage comes action. Consciously converting ideas into action is an expression of one’s free will and of choice.  It is about who you are.  Keshavan Nair put it this way:

“With courage you will dare to take risks, have the strength to be compassionate and the wisdom to be humble.  Courage is the foundation of integrity.”     

Man’s capacity for choice and creativity is what sets us apart from our closest relatives, the primates.  These are our birth-gifts, our divine inheritance. It is though exercising creativity and choice that we are able to express greatness.

Organizational Greatness

In his book, Good to Great, Jim Collins and his team of researchers went on a quest to discover how organizational greatness is achieved. They focussed on business organizations as these offered the most measurable criteria for qualitative and quantitative analysis and they could more easily track their performance over a period of fifteen years. Not only were these companies able to produce outstanding financial results, but they also did so consistently. However, profitability was never the key driver of these companies in their quest for greatness.  What then enabled these companies to achieve such outstanding results?

If we look at the six practices the researchers identified as essential for propelling companies to greatness, we see a snug fit with what we have discussed hitherto.  Each of these practices is founded on a culture of DISCIPLINE i.e. the ability to do things consistently to a particular standard.  And so, Level 5 leaders are “disciplined people” whose personal humility (linked to service – see below) and professional will (courage) ensure that the right people are on the bus and in the right seats.  Disciplined thought (i.e. creative thought) allows them to confront the brutal facts and unfold their vision (related to the hedgehog concept).  Disciplined action (courage, will power) allows them to focus on their true purpose and not be distracted by the myriad of technological innovations but to implement those most suited to their purpose.  We can conclude that the manifestation of greatness is directly linked to the culture of discipline.  Collins writes:

“When you have disciplined people, you don’t need hierarchy.  When you have disciplined thought, you don’t need bureaucracy.  When you have disciplined action, you don’t need excessive controls.  When you combine a culture of discipline with an ethic of entrepreneurship, you get the magical alchemy of great performance.”
Greatness and Balance

And now for the real cruncher:  If we could focus our energy on one particular goal or purpose or project, greatness should be within everyone’s reach.  If we could do this for two projects, maybe even three, greatness would still be a manageable outcome.  Many people do just this and indeed achieve greatness in a particular field but often it is at the expense of others. We can all cite numerous examples of great statesmen, sportsmen, businesspeople and those in the fields of education, arts and culture who have achieved the pinnacle of success in their fields, but who have failed on the home front: in the eyes of their children, spouse, countrymen or colleagues.  Many write these losses off to ‘the price of success” but I would argue that the mark of true greatness is exactly what happens when we have a clear overall life purpose and that purpose values the art of living a balanced, sustained and joyful life.  By this I do not mean that we will escape periods of turmoil and times when we are thrown off balance, but that even in these times there is a knowingness of the big picture and a commitment to all of life’s facets.   

The greatest challenge facing anyone who consciously chooses to go for gold is to do so in all the arenas of one’s life.  Truly great people, and there are not so many, manage to express greatness in all areas of their lives.
Put another way, their entire life speaks of greatness.  This is because they are in touch with the infinite potential that resides at the very core of their being and they live forth from this space.

When we do this we harmonize personal greatness, leadership greatness and organizational greatness.  Covey says that where these three overlap, lies the 8th habit i.e. the ability to speak up for what you believe in and to ensure effective execution.

Leadership Greatness means to be of service

When we examine the lives of truly great people they all exhibit a consistent trait:  their willingness to be of service to a greater good, a higher ideal, a supreme purpose.  Robert Greenleaf called this servant leadership.  Here the focus is not on the technical and practical aspects of leadership but rather on that domain of leadership that is grounded in a state of being, not doing.  He says that the first and most important choice a leader makes, is to serve.  That choice is not about an action in the normal sense, but an expression of your being.

Greenleaf goes on to examine the relationship between the leader and his/her followers and says that it is only when the choice to serve under grids the moral formation of leaders, that the hierarchical power invested in the leader and which separates him from his followers, does not corrupt.  Senge, in the introduction to Jaworski’s book, writes about this as follows:

“Hierarchies are not inherently bad, despite all the bad press they receive today.  The potential of hierarchy to corrupt would be dissolved, according to Greenleaf, if leaders choose to serve those they lead – if they saw their job, their fundamental reason for being of true service.”  

Jaworski takes Greenleaf’s understanding further.  He suggests that the fundamental choice that enables true leadership in all situations is the choice to serve life.  “In a deep sense, my capacity as a leader comes from my choice to allow life to unfold through me” and then to ask  “What are we, collectively, able to create?”

This takes us back to where we started: valuing our ability to think creatively and refine our thoughts, finding the courage to convert them action and take the lead is to express leadership’s finest hallmark: the courage to greatness. Ultimately leadership greatness is about creating new realities in the interest and service of all mankind and to thereby shape our future.

This article first appeared on the Coca-Cola Sabco Intranet Leadership Academy and subsequently in Management Today, Vol 22 No 10, Yearbook 2006.