Leadership - Lost and Found

President Obama has been chided – and even derided – for his lack of leadership over the past year. Indeed, the man who was elected on fervent hope and sweeping change in the midst of the worst financial collapse since the Great Depression, was being compared to hapless Jimmy Carter, rather than the soothing Franklin Roosevelt. And, at one point, things got so bad that the disrespected and discredited President couldn’t even get his calls returned by the Republican Speaker of the House.

Somehow, though, Obama seems to be reclaiming the powerful mantle of leadership that propelled him into the White House in 2008. Part of this resurgent leadership may have to do with the President’s newly combative – some would say partisan – rhetoric, designed to combat the Republicans in the run-up to the 2012 elections. But part of the comeback may also have to do with the fact that Obama – whether you support him or not – just seems more like a leader again.

The President’s lost-and-found leadership is extremely instructive for CEO’s in companies of all sizes, and in industries across the board. To be sure, if you run an organization, you know that, despite your very best efforts, your leadership somehow manages to ebb and flow as the quarters and fiscal years unfold. Sometimes, for example, you hear your inner leadership voice speaking loudly and clearly; and other times, for some inexplicable reason, it’s muted – or silent.

It’s unclear what causes this shifting dynamic; but it’s often subtle, and frequently takes place without a CEO’s full awareness. What’s clear, however, as the Obama case study shows, is that fading – or oscillating – leadership at the top has serious and concrete consequences for an organization and its people (as well as for a nation); and it’s usually only after the fall-off in leadership is felt in the organizational (or national) culture that the CEO – or President – snaps back and demonstrates conscious and concerted leader-like behavior in order to re-assert much-needed strategic direction and vision.

After working with hundreds of CEO’s (but never a President), I’ve come to empathize with the people at the top, whose role is beset with many huge pressures 24x7. It’s hard to lead – especially in unrelentingly complex, challenging and cacophonous times such as these. So, given the deafening din of the global world in which we live, it’s not surprising that CEO’s (or, once again, Presidents) sometimes have trouble hearing the inner call of leadership.

Still, missing crucial leadership moments – and failing to build communities of trust – because of noise and stress can be costly for companies (and countries).

But, from my perspective, it doesn’t have to play out this way. I believe that, with the proper amount of self-awareness in the mix, so much of leadership is actually within a leader’s control.

So, having said that, here are five negative behaviors that generally indicate a pull-back in CEO (or Presidential) leadership. Recognizing these negative patterns early can help prevent inconsistent and damaging lost-and-found leadership, and spare the organization (or nation) a lot of pain.

·      Sweating the Details – Execution is essential, particularly in an uncertain economy; but many CEO’s, feeling the strain of today’s complicated global marketplace, unknowingly shrink back from leadership, roll up their sleeves, and dive in to boost their companies’ fortunes. This default behavior is counter-productive, because it deprives the organization of senior vision and direction, and because it disenfranchises and displaces executives and managers. CEO’s must empower and enable excellence and engagement.

·      Projecting the Pressure – CEO’s must endure long periods of loneliness. That’s a fact, and it comes with the territory. But sometimes you can just see that a CEO isn’t enjoying his or her job. It’s written all over their faces. Whenever this happens, people in the organization lose strength and confidence, and their commitment fades. That’s why CEO’s must show (outwardly, at least) their enthusiasm for the job – and mission. Just as importantly, they must be constantly aware that lapsed leadership can harshly infect their workforce; passionate leadership, on the other hand, can be an infectious catalyst.

·      Losing Perspective – The key for CEO’s is to show their people the visible horizon, which is a metaphor that highlights the intersection between the journey a company has undertaken and what is possible for it to achieve. But it’s not enough to simply envision the visible horizon; CEO’s must tirelessly keep this vision – and reality – in front of their workforces. This helps people gauge where they are versus where they need to go. Unfortunately, a number of CEO’s get distracted by the business complexities in front of them, and fail to consistently communicate the imperative future.

·      Relying on Intelligence – Every CEO is smart. They have to be in order to make it to the top. Yet intelligence, IQ, and intellect are not enough, and they are over played when it comes to succeeding as an organizational leader. What’s also needed – and too often lacking in CEO’s – is emotional capacity. Understanding businesses, industries, markets, operations and organizational structures is basic table stakes. But when a CEO keeps substituting brains for heart, a company’s culture and alignment with its strategy suffers. There’s an old cliché I like: emote and motivate.

·      Ignoring the Gaps – CEO’s are, more often than not, well-rounded executives. But they still have gaps, and they fail as leaders when they refuse or fail to recognize their shortcomings and find talented people to counterbalance these soft or weak points. The leadership problem is compounded when the CEO is unable – or unwilling – to mold and meld the top team into a collaborative and collective unit that makes its positive presence felt up, down and far across an organization. The bottom line here is that if you don’t see lateral alignment at the top, you’re not seeing CEO leadership. And the result is almost always unfulfilled organizational potential.

Leadership is unbelievably valuable and unbelievably elusive today. But, in my view, it can be taught, acquired, managed – and controlled. And, with the right mindfulness and motivation, almost any CEO (or President) can become a steady leader who helps employees and citizens thrive – in spite of a tumultuous economic or business environment.


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

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Caplan & Horowitz/arXiv

Diagrams illustrating the different types of so-called nuclear pasta.

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