What is your Leadership PATH to Greater Success?

By John Ledwith

Do you find that your organization needs to change in order to get to the next level? Or perhaps it needs to change just to keep up with a rapidly changing marketplace and business climate? Perhaps the organization was very successful in the past, but what worked before may not be working so well today! You may even know what your organization needs to do differently, but getting everyone moving in that direction is another story.

The most successful organizations are able to navigate rapidly changing business conditions, as well as to successfully create game changing opportunities. These organizations are not only able to flawlessly execute their operation and deliver, but transform themselves at the same time. It is like being in the Indy 500 and changing the tires, transmission, and motor at the same time you are racing.

What is the difference between good leaders in stable environments and the most successful leaders who are able to effectively lead organizations through difficult and uncertain times? Warren Bennis, one of the most influential thought leaders in the leadership field researched this very question. He interviewed over 250 of the most successful CEOs, Presidents, Kings, NFL Coaches, etc. and asked them what was the difference between good leaders and the most successful leaders[i].

The most successful leaders are able to not only lead highly successful organizations, they are able to lead them through difficult and uncertain times that require everyone to adapt and change, if the organization is to survive and thrive. They are able to:

  • keep everyone focused on the shared purpose, especially when times are very uncertain and confusing (Purpose)
  • take necessary actions, when fear might paralyze most people (Action)
  • rebuild trust when customers, partners and/or employees have felt let down (Trust)
  • inspire hope during the most difficult of times (Hope)

I call this the Leadership PATH of Purpose, Action, Trust and Hope.

PURPOSE – Develop a strong sense of shared purpose that moves everyone towards a common goal.

Perhaps the most often repeated story about Leadership and Shared Purpose, is the story of NASA’s Mission to put a man on the moon. Everyone in that organization understood the larger mission and their role in accomplishing it, including the janitor. There was a compelling reason in that the United States was fearful that the Soviet Union would achieve military superiority through its dominance in space during the height of the Cold War. It launched the very first satellite into space in 1957 and the first human in space in 1961. President John F. Kennedy set a very dramatic and ambitious goal to catch up and surpass the Soviets by putting a man on the moon before the end of the decade. This enormous effort and incredible technological challenge required mobilizing not only everyone at NASA, but also its suppliers, congress and the American public. The goal became a reality in 1969 with Apollo 11 Commander Neil Armstrong stepping onto the moon. It demonstrated the power and effectiveness of getting EVERYONE behind a common goal.

Mission is more than words on a piece of paper, a poster on the wall or a web page. People need to truly believe in the shared purpose and understand how they can best contribute to it. An example that demonstrates the importance of these attributes was at time when I was preparing to work with a client and his organization on strategic planning. They had recently undergone a merger. My client told me up front that he wanted to work on strategy and goals but there was no need to work on mission because everyone knew the mission. Interestingly, what I found in my assessment interviews was that everyone did know the mission by heart. In fact, I found it interesting that everyone was able to recite it verbatim. However, they told me that the mission statement was not inspiring, not something they believed in and certainly not something that motivated them to come to work. When I reported this to my client, his response was that “Evidently, we need to focus on developing a mission that people can get behind.” We spent some serious time debating the true purpose of this merged organization. It became the beginning of the organization functioning as one, rather than two separate entities.

What is the purpose of your organization or the purpose of a major change you need to initiate? Is it something everyone can relate to and get behind? Do people see how the importance of their role in contributing to it? Or is it just a poster on the wall or a page on your web site?

ACTION – take necessary actions and get people behind them, even if difficult or unpopular

A mentor of mine once said, “You can always get people to do what you want. All you have to do is walk in to a room, fire the first person you see and then say ‘this is what we are going to do – any questions?[ii]” However, he also said that will produce compliance, never real support and maybe even malicious compliance.

I worked with a CEO who needed to make some serious changes to his organization’s pension plan due to changes in regulatory funding requirements and impact from a depressed stock market. There were several options on the table that his Financial and HR Executives had developed. And each involved very complex analysis. And every option would have some adverse effect on employees. He told the executives he would make a timely decision, because delay would only make the situation worse. But first he would need to understand each option enough that he could personally explain: what the changes would be; their impact on people; why it was necessary to make the change; and why this was the best of several bad choices. I was there for the first of several meetings he held with nearly 1,000 people. It is the only time I have ever seen a leader deliver bad news and get a standing ovation. Employees were not happy, but could get behind the decision because he had taken the time to paint a very true and compelling story.

When faced with the need for a decision or action: Do you act quickly? Or do you put off making a decision – asking for more data – but really just putting off the inevitable? Do you want support or merely compliance in executing the decision? Or do you make it a priority to do both: act in a timely manner AND build support to ensure the decision or action is successful and sustainable in achieving the desired end?

TRUST – build trust with and among the organization’s employees, customers, partners and stakeholders

I was working with 2 organizations that sequentially supported the same supply chain AND had serious conflicts with each other for over a decade. I was blown away by one of the managers comments during my needs assessment when he told me that “I would trust them as people, in fact I would trust them with my life. And I know what that means because I am a former navy seal. However, I would not trust their research.” Working with the leader and her 2 management teams, we helped them see BOTH the upside and downside of each of their historic views. These views and a lack of understanding each other’s motives had kept them in conflict and fueled distrust. We created an analysis showing this dynamic on a Polarity Map[iii], which they then kept in the conference room used for joint meetings. They also took on a goal to “listen to each other with a willingness to be influenced,” rather than their former stance of “listening with an intent to debate and dispute what they had heard.” It took a while, but trust was developed and the 2 organizations were able to help the supply chain significantly reduce time to market and product cost.

Distrust is typically the result of unfulfilled expectations.  Even if expectations have never been articulated, they exist and are even less likely to be met. If situations change, expectations will also change, even if they are never renegotiated.

How strong is the trust that exists among the players in your organization? Are expectations clear? Do expectations get reworked when situations change? Do people trust that others will live up to their commitments? Do people live up to their commitments to each other? Are there frequent and open communications about important things that impact others’ effectiveness? Do people trust what they have been told? Do they trust each other’s competence to deliver on commitments? How do you see your role as the leader in ensuring that these conditions of trust exist? Even if there is adequate trust today, what can you do as the leader to ensure it continues to be nurtured?

HOPE – inspire hope – especially during the most difficult of times.

I was working with a newly formed organization, that needed to create an organization, build a factory, establish product lines and develop manufacturing processes. They also needed to build, qualify and ship the first production unit by a defined date. Failure to meet the date would have grave consequences to the larger enterprise. While it seemed like ample time when the goal was set, unforeseen challenges kept putting them further behind their critical path. Morale was plummeting and conflicts were becoming more common place. Working with the leader, we realized that their goal and critical path had been established without contingencies for unforeseen events. As a result, they had no hope of ever achieving the goal, unless something changed. We put together a goal and strategy to create “slack time.” We asked every manager and employee in the organization to identify areas for improvement that would “save time.” Every effort that resulted in saved time was to be recognized and rewarded. Even little improvements, that did not impact the critical path were to be recognized. This was important, because we were trying to create a cultural change from expecting perfection and looking down at “slack” to creating contingency slack to address unforeseen challenges. In essence they were creating their own HOPE! We kept track and communicated the cumulative totals on slack and their positive impact on the critical path. It became infectious – the more people saw slack (and hope) being created, the more they looked to create more. Hope bread hope! “Optimism and hope are choices in spite of evidence to the contrary.[iv]” This organization chose to be optimistic and create its own hope, even when everyone expected them to fail. They did catch up and meet the deadline that had seemed so far out of reach several months before.

Have you and your organization ever been faced with a seemingly insurmountable challenge? How do you react to these types of challenges? What can you do as the leader to keep people motivated and working towards what seems like dire consequences? Where is there light at the end of a very dark tunnel? Is it in finding what is missing as we did with slack? Is it acceptance and looking beyond the inevitable for hope in a new future and helping people prepare for it, e.g. being better prepared for a closure or layoff?   How can you help them see a flicker of light at the end of a very dark tunnel? Remember “Optimism is a choice in spite of evidence to the contrary’ and that Hope can breed solutions and even more Hope?

Reflection on PATH: Purpose, Action, Trust & Hope

So I am wondering what new thoughts this Leadership PATH to Greater Success triggers in your mind? What new insights do you have about your own organization and what it may need from you as its leader? What new thoughts do you have about your own leadership? What you are already doing well? And what areas might you want to focus on refining or developing further?

If you would like to explore this further look at developing your own Leadership PATH please contact John Ledwith.

[i] From a speech that Warren Bennis gave to an international conference of the Organization Development Network in 1991.

[ii] Peter Block during his role as faculty in the Pepperdine MSOD Program 1989-1991

[iii] Polarity Management: Identifying and Managing Unsolvable Problems by Barry Johnson. HRD Press, Jun 12, 2014

[iv] Thank you Joel Henning for this wisdom that has supported me through the most difficult of times.