Special thanks to Prof. Christopher Robichaud and Prof. Dana Born of Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government for their assistance in compiling this material, and their invaluable perspective on this topic.
This article explores the idea that effective leadership is when a leader’s values focus an organization on a well-defined purpose. Leadership is managing the challenges of an unpredictable world while keeping an organization focused on shared values and common goals.
It’s Not a Math Problem
Leadership has been described as a planned and predictable series of actions; a formulaic approach to meet managerial and organizational challenges:
- Define the problem.
- Give guidance.
- Manage expectations.
- Be adaptive.
- Measure results.
But leadership is much more than an algorithm. It combines understanding an organization and making the goals and vision of that organization consistent with your own. This is a much greater challenge because it magnifies an obvious tension — the struggle between who you are and who you need to be for your organization; what do you want both you and your organization to become — and why are you doing this?.
Leadership is about being authentic to your organization and to yourself — and connecting the two. There is a constant struggle between a leader’s authentic self and the authenticity of his or her message. The wider the gap, the less effective and more conflicted an organization will be. How does one become an authentic effective leader?
An effective leader asks the organization questions instead of delivering answers and commanding with authority. Authentic leadership poses the right questions and focuses on the organization’s pursuit of answers to those questions:
- Why do we exist? What purpose do we serve?
- What, specifically, do we need to do and how do we do it?
- What essential skills are needed, what can be taught, and what resources are necessary to solve problems?
- What have we planned for and what contingencies do we need?
- What other perspectives are critical?
- What is the schedule and how do we manage outcomes?
- How do we deal with disappointments, delays, unforeseen challenges, and fundamental changes?
- How do we manage uncertainty?
While these are all important components, there are a few that distinguish true leadership and are often overlooked. Leadership is being comfortable with uncertainty, managing unforeseen influences, necessary revisions and potential disappointment while keeping an organization focused on shared values and common goals.
These questions force a leader and an organization to think beyond “what we do and how we do it.” There’s no manual that can define the steps needed for success; formula is not adaptive. Certain steps can be used as a guide, but these can lose effectiveness and applicability quickly.
Leadership is overcoming the most important challenges, and that means being adaptive — managing expectations, dealing with uncertainty, managing disappointments, struggling with your own authenticity as an individual and a leader, and grappling with why we are doing any of this — and why am I doing this?
Learning and Creating
Dynamic and competitive environments create unforeseen changes, unknown impacts, unpredictable circumstances, and uncertain responses. There is no choice but to be adaptive.
Adapting means learning and creating. Openness and flexibility, essential for learning, are typically the first casualties in a fast-changing, highly competitive environment. It is easy to succumb to these pressures, but it is openness and flexibility that enables the most effective leadership within that very competitive and challenging environment.
It is a classical symphony orchestra versus a jazz ensemble. One performs a musical piece composed precisely to be performed with little variance within well-defined parameters. The other performs within some structure and general guidance with a common goal, but many specifics are uncertain and surprising. Passages are created spontaneously, and the direction can change as new ideas are explored. A learning organization is a jazz ensemble creating with, and learning from, each other, pushing each other forward. A leader works to combine a common vision and goal into a coordinated performance.
Leadership is creating something new, harmonic, and beautiful.
A leader is more than a combination of authority, ideas, and hard work. A leader is a person, and that person can sometimes struggle with his or her personal image behind the “leader.” The image can be at odds with reality — who is the man behind the curtain? Our organization sees us one way, but we may see ourselves differently. Plus, we may choose to act differently for the benefit of the organization. This is an often unseen, but profound struggle. Understanding the tension between who we are as a person versus how we are perceived by others is an underestimated, often ignored, and increasingly challenging leadership dimension.
Who am I and what am I trying to accomplish? What is my authentic self, and can I be that person for my organization and still be an effective leader?
Is there a tradeoff between who we are and who we should be? We want both as closely related to each other as possible, but are they? As a leader, we need to act in a certain way, but we also need to be true
to ourselves. If a leader is not authentic, an organization suffers and will know when “you are not you.” A leader will fail if this is the perception. You must be authentic. You must be you.
What does it mean to communicate effectively? Defining a problem and developing and implementing a solution will fail without effective communication.
Communication is not just the message, but the perception of, and the feeling toward, the person delivering the message. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the feelings toward the person and the way the message is delivered matter more than the message itself. Communication can be described effectively as having three components (from the Greek words ethos, logos, and pathos):
- Ethos (character): what is the quality of my character? Does my organization respect and value those qualities? Who am I to my team and to myself?
- Logos (reason): have I defined the problem effectively? Have I communicated the essential components and my expectations for performance? Am I willing to teach, deal with issues as they arise, and map expectations to reality? Will my logic be well-understood, and will I be perceived as reasonable?
- Pathos (empathy): do I understand the meaning behind what we are doing? Have I communicated a purpose — do I give meaning to our actions and understand their full impact? “What is our “why?” Can I communicate what drives me and connect that to the meaning and purpose of our actions? Do I let people see the authentic me and my true motivations? I want my team to know who I am. When they see me, will they understand and share more of the focus and direction that I want?
A leader’s role is to define an organization’s “why.” Empathy (pathos) is disproportionately critical, and a leader must communicate why we do what we do — our purpose. Explaining what to do and how to do it follows from that. But, a set of actions without the context of purpose and meaning will never be genuinely effective.
Mark Twain is credited with saying “the two most important days of your life are the day you were born, and the day you figure out why.” This is leadership — figuring out why.
The answer to an organization’s “why” must be consistent with the leader’s authentic self. Your authenticity as a leader will be challenged if you don’t understand your purpose, make it consistent with your company’s purpose, and communicate it effectively.
How do you determine your “why?” For an organization and its leader, it is found in service to others. Serving others means a shared sense of leadership developed from your inner narrative and combining that into a set of actions that ultimately determine the direction and achievements of your organization. That is the “why.”
The Pebble Effect
A powerful saying describing destiny is, “Thoughts lead to words which lead to actions leading to behaviors and habits that define character and lead to destiny.” Small changes in thoughts (beliefs) can ultimately cause a major impact, much like the effect of a pebble on a pond. An adaptive leader is that pebble, inspiring the hard work needed to overcome obstacles and react to new circumstances.
True North and Why Am I?
Plato’s admonition to “know thyself” confronts all leaders. Who are you? A public narrative exists, based on impressions, speeches and appearances, but it might not reflect who you are. Emotional distress exists if there is a protective barrier between who you really are and the public profile your organization sees. A leader may feel he or she needs to act consistently with this public persona because “this is what a leader is like” even if it conflicts with who they really are as an individual. There is a struggle between who we are versus who we believe we should be. “How can I be authentic and still be an effective leader?” Authenticity sometimes can be counter to our sense of leadership strength because it means exposing your issues, weakness, uncertainties, and other human frailties. But these conflicts lead to a more profound issue.
You must confront yourself — You must be you. The most critical and existential issues arise for any organization when the leader does not confront who he or she is. Thoughts, words, behaviors, habits, character, and destiny are a chain of causal reactions that will determine the fate of an organization. That destiny starts with the leader’s inner narrative — a “True North” defining an uncompromising and unmovable direction.
True North is defined by integrity and is the centerboard from which you navigate. There are values you will always uphold and things you will never do. Ask yourself, “Why am I?” The answer is you being authentic to who you are. You are an original, which means a leader will not be effective trying to be someone else, even if that person was effective with their own style. It is not your style. You lead from “the inside out,” revealing your values and integrity. This is your foundation and guidepost. This is your True North.
Adaptive leadership means looking at circumstances and understanding what needs to be changed. Authentic leadership means projecting your true self into a situation and letting it guide your decisions. Adaptive leadership is “outside in,” and authentic leadership is “inside out.” Both are essential.
Understanding “Why Am I?” gives you the license to be you. This is very powerful because it will be a leader’s most effective tool in dealing with the most important problems. Difficulties with any organization arise when “you are not you.” Understanding yourself and your purpose, then putting that into action is an individual’s single greatest challenge. Self-assessment and reevaluation are challenging and easy to avoid. But, as Winston Churchill said, “the further you look back, the further you see.” A leader must look at himself or herself to understand what you bring to the situation, constantly reevaluate, and learn.
Most importantly, seek to understand your purpose and follow your “why.”
The combination of all this will enable your team to also work for a greater purpose. In the end, an effective leader essentially shares leadership when there is a common purpose because everyone has agreed on it and is working for a greater cause. Now, the leader’s inner narrative is unleashing his or her true self. This is where leaders have the biggest impact — authenticity driving singular purpose creating the greatest impact.
Managing the Three D’s
Many times, leadership is about managing disappointment. Often, detailed and thorough planning needs to be changed. Change may not mean failure, but it often generates disappointment. As Dwight Eisenhower recalled in planning the D-Day invasion, “it was the most thoroughly and extensively planned human endeavor up to that point in history. As soon as the invasion began, the plan needed to be thrown away. Everything could have gone sideways if we did not manage that disappointment well.” Or as Mike Tyson puts it rather succinctly, “every fight plan is great until someone hits you in the face.”
Managing disappointment is an underestimated and essential component of leadership. The capacity to understand how to deal with disappointment and embrace doubt as your organization progresses is a core leadership component. Leadership is not needed if there is a problem that has an algorithmic solution (a component is not working, distribution is inefficient, the new process is ineffective, etc.). It’s an engineering problem and can be framed and solved fairly effectively. Leadership is needed when there is no formula and an uncertain (or unknown) outcome.
Leadership challenges often require improvisation and a high level of tolerance and fortitude. Stick with your values but understand what needs to be changed. New decisions create uncertainty. Brace the organization for it because uncertainty will linger long after these decisions.
Managing disappointment also means managing loss. Assumptions were incorrect, situations change, markets change, individuals are unpredictable, and “unknown unknowns” arise. Organizations change and difficult decisions mean change, and that can mean loss. It is not change that bothers organizations (change for the good is always welcome), it is the prospect of loss. Difficult environments cause loss, either to individuals or to the organization itself. We don’t always win. Managing loss is also critical.
Disagreements always arise, but leadership finds where we agree and holds people together with that foundation. Leadership communicates what we’re trying to do so we can find an agreement on how we can do it. Agreement requires different levels of abstraction to get to the level where we have common ground. We may disagree about what we are doing at one fundamental level, but a leader can bring the critical individuals up to a level of abstraction where we all have a common understanding of the organization’s purpose. Creating this common ground manages disagreements, and, ultimately, creates agreement or a constructive environment enabling the organization to move forward.
A leader works in the center of a contentious situation. Individuals are responsible for different, sometimes unrelated, components, and they may also have distinct perspectives about the different constituents of work required. But the leader is always the common ground at the center defining the problem and managing the work. Successful leadership is getting people to focus on the hard work that needs to be done.
This requires moving slowly. Popular perspectives say to move fast, and then move faster still, to be an effective manager. This is usually more inefficient than constructive. While companies need to move fast, it is even more important to reduce wasted moves. A company and its leader can move even faster by going slower, reducing wasted moves, and being focused and more effective for the organization.
Leadership requires an enormous capacity for despair. Leadership is lonely and sometimes decisions are existential. Leaders constantly grapple with choices that could end very badly. Even some of the most significant achievements have a traumatic history requiring a tolerance for despair and embracing uncertainty until ultimate success. This is a distinction among leaders. A leader cannot share his or her despair easily, if at all. A leader must be adaptive in order to restore himself or herself, as much as anything. Learning to tolerate despair but not give up is a critical distinction among successful leaders. The emotional toll of countless challenges, trade-offs, and critical decisions is often ignored, but it is an essential component of leadership. Unfortunately, despair is a common denominator in all leadership experiences. Decisions have risks and sometimes the consequences can seem intolerable. In this context, leadership requires special qualities, and it is a unique challenge.
Leadership is a courageous endeavor. It may not seem heroic, but it requires hard work, moral leadership, and an ever-present True North to effect real change and handle disagreement, disappointment, and despair. Failure of courage and imagination is a fundamental failure of leadership. Leadership is a courageous challenge fraught with disappointment and despair, and sometimes seemingly overwhelming odds. That makes it heroic indeed.