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Damaging Consequences From a Lack of Leadership

December 2, 2011, 12:00 AM
Steve_jobs_edited

There have been two big stories hugging the headlines in recent weeks – the sad and untimely death of Steve Jobs, Apple’s soulful CEO; and the persistent occupation of Wall Street and other locales by armies of protesters.

On the surface, neither story appears to have much in common with each other.

But, from my perspective, they definitely intersect and overlap.

Indeed, they’re both about much-needed inspirational and navigational leadership – or the lack of it.

Those sitting in on Wall Street seem to be demanding greater economic justice from the public and private sectors. Yet, in my opinion, the real reason these legions are camped out 24 x 7 is because our leaders in business, banking and government have failed to grapple with large, complicated and seemingly intractable problems that have a bearing on each and every one of us.

Confronting the Challenge of Change

It’s this abdication of responsibility – this inability or unwillingness to confront the challenge of change – that makes the occupation of Wall Street such an authentic protest, one that rings true for nearly 50 percent of all Americans, according to the latest polls.

Steve Jobs, on the other hand, never shrank back from problems that were thought to be insurmountable, nor did he choke on change. In fact, he reveled in big, sweeping technological transformation, and that’s why his leadership brand keeps growing in stature and reputation – especially in the weeks following his death.

In my view, Jobs’ posthumous stature and respect is instructive for leaders of organizations and institutions that are trying to find a positive and constructive growth map in today’s unremittingly uncertain economy.

First, Jobs was self-assured – and even brave – when he offered audacious solutions to long-festering technology problems. He put his digital vision out there and refused to back down. Too many leaders today seem hesitant to tell employees, shareholders, or voters how to genuinely fix what we all know is in disrepair. And this lack of leadership is one of the reasons why everything feels frozen right now; true leaders must have the confidence to present – and act upon – the truth.

Transformation Over Tweaks

Second, there were no half measures for Jobs. He knew what was necessary, and he never nibbled around the edges. He simply didn’t believe in tweaks. The iPod, iPhone and iPad – each of these recent innovations represented systemic breakthroughs, not incremental improvements. And this type of wholesale and uncompromising change seems to be exactly what people are looking for in other walks of life today, whether it’s radical reform of health care, or throwing out the current tax code and starting over from scratch.

Third, even though he had a reputation for being temperamental or difficult at times, Jobs was always able to keep his colleagues deeply connected and committed to Apple’s higher purpose. Inside his company, he galvanized through the use of collective leadership and power. Yes, it’s true he was obsessed with details and demanded perfection; but he also stirred tremendous passion in the hearts and minds of those who worked for him by sharing every step of the technological journey.

Broad Empowerment

Broad empowerment like this is so important in organizations now, because the generation that’s entering the workforce often feels a lack of purpose on the job. Broad empowerment is also what people are seeking in the political system, and that’s one of the reasons why the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street have claimed such widespread legitimacy and participation.

Despite the resounding calls and demonstrated demand for leadership in America today, some of our best and brightest leaders just aren’t leading.

Why?

The All-Important Convergence

Based on my experience in the private sector, I believe that too many c-level executives have achieved success by focusing intently on operational results, rather than the all-important convergence of leadership, culture and strategy.

I think that c-level executives can – and must – expand their portfolios by zeroing-in on both of these aspects of their job. And, if they don’t, they are short-changing their employees, shareholders – and a whole gamut of influential stakeholders who are looking for substantive and value-enhancing leadership today.

To be fair, many of the c-level executives I know and work with are just too humble. So humble, in fact, that they fail to realize and appreciate their own potential impact on an organization and its people. But the key is to remember that collective leadership and power is the absolute antithesis of self-aggrandizement. It channels everyone’s best thinking and best efforts into a constructive and collaborative whole.

An Implicit Responsibility to Lead

That said, leadership must radiate from the very top levels of an organization and permeate and penetrate every nook and cranny of the enterprise. This is meaningful collective leadership, and the decisions that are made – or not made – touch, affect and impact everyone, regardless of where they sit.

This is another area that Steve Jobs got right. And his collective leadership style, which involved, engaged and motivated so many Apple executives and employees, helped increase his company’s shareholder equity by nearly 600 percent between 2007 and 2011, a period punctuated by one of the greatest financial meltdowns we’ve ever seen in this country.

Leading collective transformations like this, collectively integrating culture and strategy, is the implicit responsibility of CEOs and their c-level teams. When you perch at the pinnacle, you have a unique vantage point, and you can see the entire company or community clearly – and that includes all the problems, solutions, challenges and opportunities, as well as the players who can make a difference.

Taking another page from the book of Jobs, if you followed Apple over the years, you saw a technology visionary at work, but you also saw a very hands-on manager who refused to keep an arm’s length distance from his people, his products, or those who craved and purchased his innovations. If you’re not that up close and personally entwined in your business, you simply can’t transform your company, your industry, or a handful of industries (technology, animation, music, and telecommunications) like Jobs.

Coping With Unprecedented Complexity

Is this collective melding of leadership, culture and strategy difficult? Yes, without question. And, I offer c-level executives my profound empathy as they try to confront – and master – one of the most complex business environments imaginable today.

But here’s the truth: very few senior leaders can deal easily with this degree of unprecedented commercial intricacy. It takes unparalleled courage and experience. Still, every executive must deal with it. There’s no choice, no excuse, and no outs or off-loading.

So, deep understanding and super-refined emotional capacity have to be channeled in order to successfully integrate and link leadership, culture and strategy. This is the only way to cope with mind-numbing complexity. And it’s the only way to make things work in what many would call our broken society – a society in which people (whether they’re employees or voters) desperately yearn for competence at the top.

The bottom line, then, is that we need to double down on collective leadership in both the public and private sectors. If we can’t get our leaders to step up, guide us, and collaborate with us, we’re going to continue to bump along a rutted road. Personally, I’d like to travel down a smoother path to prosperity. And I don’t think I’m alone in that preference.

John Boyle is the Founder of Convergency Partners and an expert in the areas of C-level performance, business strategy, management structure, talent planning, strategic alignment and culture.

 

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