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Leading a Mission-Driven Organization

April 21, 2014

Last week, I delivered some remarks at the Boston University School of Management on the topic, Leading a Mission-driven Organization.

I began my remarks by referring to a quote from the book, Managing, by Harold Geneen, a former CEO of International Telephone and Telegraph. In this book, Mr. Geneen has wonderful pearls of wisdom. My favorite: "The only unforgiveable sin in business is to run out of cash." But, my next favorite is: "Leadership cannot be taught. It can only be learned."

Despite that warning, I still shared a few of my views on leadership with the business students, and in particular focused on the differences between being a manager and being a leader. Some of these thoughts were taken from Abraham Zaleznik who wrote extensively on the subject of leadership. He describes twelve distinctions between managers and leaders:

  • Managers administer, leaders innovate
  • Managers ask how and when, leaders ask what and why
  • Managers focus on systems, leaders focus on people
  • Managers do things right, leaders do the right things
  • Managers maintain, leaders develop
  • Managers rely on control, leaders inspire trust
  • Managers have a short-term perspective, leaders have a long-term one
  • Managers accept the status quo, leaders challenge the status quo
  • Managers have an eye on the bottom line, leaders have an eye on the horizon
  • Managers initiate, leaders originate
  • Managers emulate the classic good soldier, leaders are their own person
  • Managers copy, leaders show originality.

  • That's not to say that we don't need managers - they are critically important for organizations to operate effectively and efficiently. But, mission-driven organizations need more. They need leaders.

    Here are my top 10 learnings on leadership - in David Letterman style:

    1. Real leaders build strong relationships with their people. Aldo Papone, a senior advisor to American Express, writes in his book, The Power of the Obvious, that relationships actually matter most of all.

    2. Real leaders know that it's not just the facts, it's the meanings that count. As Zaleznik implies above, leaders focus on the forest rather than the trees, or as Papone says, not the "what" but the "so what."

    3. Real leaders give credit where it's due. If it's anything that will turn off a good employee, it's the boss taking credit for someone else's work. Leaders build teams by giving credit to others.

    4. Real leaders embrace diversity and are inclusive. I saw a billboard recently that said, "If everyone in the room is thinking the same way then someone isn't thinking." Leaders want discussion and debate, not everyone just "going along."

    5. Real leaders communicate well with their teams. Leaders share information with their team members and create dialogues with their colleagues. The era of creating power by keeping information private is gone forever.

    6. Real leaders lead by example. My mother used to say "practice what you preach," but it's astonishing how many leaders don't follow this advice. As a leader, you are a role model, and you need to act the part.

    7. Real leaders listen well. There's a big difference between merely hearing what is being said and understanding it. This requires being really present (not multi-tasking) during conversations with your people.

    8. Real leaders have a few clear priorities and align people around them. American Express CEO Ken Chenault has three business priorities a year that he calls his "mantra." They are easy for everyone in the company to understand and see where they fit in.

    9. Real leaders hold themselves and others to high standards of integrity. Ken Chenault considers integrity to be the most important value of great leaders. Real leaders are honest and straightforward with people.

    10. Real leaders get the job done. For mission-driven organizations, it's not enough to have a vision and be a good people leader. You also have to ensure that your team gets the job done. In the final analysis, you are responsible for providing the best quality services at the lowest cost and finding the resources to fulfill your mission.

    Of course, I had a bit more to say about the topic, but these points capture much of what I've learned about being a leader of a mission-driven organization.

    What do you think? Do you have any thoughts on leadership that you'd like to share? Please click here or follow me on Twitter at @timmcclimon and comment there. Thanks for reading and sharing this blog with friends and colleagues.

    P.S. Did you know that Gallup surveys show that only about 25 percent of workers are "engaged" in their work, about 55 percent are in the neutral state of "not engaged" and about 20 percent are "actively disengaged"?


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