Executive Leadership

Executive leaders who conform to the norms and expectations of others are not leaders at all.  Execuitve leaders who conform are implementers of the tasks, goals and expectations that others have created.  But, isn’t the CEO supposed to deliver on the expectations of the Board and the shareholders? Isn’t the Division President supposed to achieve the numbers laid out in the business plan for the division?  The answer to both questions is certainly “yes, but.” Just because they deliver on the expectations or achieve the numbers, does this make them a leader?  That answer is “no”.

Recently I came across writings by two men talking about leadership. The first was sent to me from a good friend and advisor to me, Mark Oakes and was actually a lecture delivered to the plebe class at West Point in October, 2009 by William Deresiewicz. Mr. Deresiewicz is described as a former professor of Literature from Yale and who is currently a literary critic.  The text of his lecture can be found  here. So what does a literary critic know about leadership?  Good question, which can support my assertion that a leader who conforms or who listens to only other “leaders” is not a leader at all.

The other writing is by one of my favorite bloggers, Michael Hyatt, CEO of Thomas Nelson Publishing.  He recently wrote a blog extolling the value of leaders having a trusted group of advisors available to them.  That blog can be found here and is well worth reading.

Mr. Deresiewicz points out that “we have a crisis of leadership in America because our overwhelming power and wealth, earned under earlier generations of leaders, made us complacent, and for too long we have been training leaders who only know how to keep the routine going.”

Most executive leaders are just trying to replicate what the earlier generations have done and we are realizing now that it is not working.  Because they are not really leaders, they don’t know what to do, but to keep trying to conform, because it worked before. What we are failing to recognize is that times are definitely changing and different executive leadership is needed – in a critical way.

He goes on to assert that today’s leaders:

•    Can answer questions, but don’t know how to ask them
•    Can fulfill goals, but don’t know how to set them
•    Can think about how to get things done, but not whether they are worth doing in the first place. (It was Peter Drucker, I believe, who said that manager makes sure things are done right and leaders make sure the right things get done.)

“What we have now are the greatest technocrats the world has ever seen, people who have been trained to be incredibility good at one specific thing, but who have no interest beyond their area of expertise.”  This is a scathing review of leaders – coming from a literary critic, no less.  Yet, I have to agree with him.  Our executive leaders today are expected to conform.  CEOs of public companies are expected to conform to the expectations of Wall Street. If not, there will be tremendous pressure for the Board to find someone who will conform.

Governmental leaders are expected to conform to the expectations of the people who elected them.  By the very nature of wanting to conform to the masses, these leaders can’t have a shred of original thought – if they propose something radical, they risk being fired in the next election.  It has been said that the first thing a newly elected politician (including the President of the US) does when entering their new role is to begin the planning for their reelection.  Whose interest does that serve?

Mr. Deresiewicz’s lecture makes the case that leaders really need solitude to think for themselves and to resist the natural tendency to conform to what others expect.

For years, I have tried to have a block of time in my schedule each week to just think.  I would take a situation, ask a question, consider a problem or circumstance and enter into a time of “personal brainstorming” to think of ideas, potential solutions, etc.  I would write each one of them down, regardless of how ridiculous or absurd it sounded at the time.  This has been an extremely valuable exercise for me. I owe that idea to Earl Nightengale who wrote or spoke about it probably 50 years ago.

Next, reading Michael’s blog on having trusted advisors caught my attention.  In comparing the two lines of thinking, they can actually combine to form a powerful tool for executive leaders.  Trusted advisors are just that – they don’t make decisions for you, they advise.  They are trusted because their only agenda is to help you do what is best – they have no gain in the outcome, other than the intrinsic satisfaction of knowing they may have helped a leader consider something they had or had not considered.

So, what are the takeaways?  I think there are a few:

•    Real executive leaders need time to think of ideas, solutions and resolutions that are non- conforming.  I certainly do not mean they should be illegal, immoral or unethical.  They should be different, even revolutionary.
•    Real executive leaders must give worthy time to thinking for themselves and not be overly influenced by quick snippets of others, regardless of the source.  Thinking takes time, concentration and focus to be valuable.
•    Real executive leaders take the output of their thinking and have intentional, deep and meaningful discussion with their trusted advisors – those who know more about the subject than they do and who can be relied on to give an honest assessment and valuable input to the leader.
•    In the end, the leader has to make the decision; after all, that is what is expected of them.

What are your takeaways?