Talking Leadership

Posts Tagged ‘Leadership’

Chasing Potential

In Leadership Articles (Archives) on September 26, 2018 at 9:47 am


Just yesterday, during a workshop (The 5 Hallmarks of Great Teams), someone asked me if caring leadership is really all that important when there are successful leaders who treat people harshly – leaders who act as though they actually dislike those they lead. He cited a harsh and apparently uncaring UK soccer coach who has produced some winning teams as an example. His question was a reasonable, maybe even obvious one, and it presents us with an uncomfortable reality.

The truth is, we cannot argue that poor, uncaring, even harsh leaders don’t produce good corporate results at times. There are workplaces led by bullies and intimidators that remain in business for years. The reality is there are just far too few workplaces led by caring skilled leaders for everyone to work at one. The numbers just don’t add up. Consequently, there are a lot of people who must find a way to pay the mortgage and buy the groceries at workplaces that are less, sometimes much less, than they could be. People do what they must. They find a way to survive.

With this in mind I offer the following brief except from my book, The Heart and Hands of Leadership: The Twelve Timeless Practices of Effective Leaders:

“With the right leadership, people care more about their work. Their achievements become a motivating force that gives rise to cycles of success. Creating these environments is critical work. Positive workplaces create momentum as they attract other high achievers. For the best leaders, creating these places becomes an inspiration. They build entire leadership teams that share it.

However, we must concede that it is possible to treat people poorly and still achieve a measure of commercial success. The evidence is all around us. For this reason, let us fix our gaze on something higher: on potential. I believe that every team that achieves commercial success with poor leadership could become so much more with good leadership. Let’s ask ourselves what these teams could become if the people who did the work were enthusiastic participants and not reluctant survivors, if they were chasing a dream they cared about for a leader they cared about. We cannot develop potential without reaching the hearts of those we lead. We cannot simply demand they give us their best; this choice rests with them.”

I can wish that work and leadership were different, that more poorly led teams would produce disastrous results. This would certainly provide more incentive to organizations to work harder at ensuring good caring skillful leadership from the president’s office down through to lead hands on the factory floor. The reality is, this isn’t going to happen.

Instead, I’ve tried as best I can to inspire leaders to chase the untapped potential that exists in so many organizations by focusing on equipping good men and women with the practical leadership skills they need to build successful and satisfying workplaces. Throughout my executive career, I didn’t have any tolerance for harsh leadership. Those who couldn’t or wouldn’t lead well led didn’t last long.

I call this gap between what people must do to keep a job and what they could do if they were really inspired to do their best work the potential gap. And it’s this potential gap that holds the possibility of taking so many organizations beyond what may have been thought possible. I suppose it really becomes a question of whether or not you really do care about people and what you’re willing to settle for with the team you lead.

The Timeless, the Trendy and Emotional Intelligence

In Leadership Articles (Archives) on May 10, 2018 at 4:36 pm


Those who know my work know me to be a strong advocate for timeless leadership in an era where we seem fascinated by what I describe as a lot of trendy, faddish leadership thinking. It seems almost every week we get a new best seller on the new “best” way to become a better leader. While these trends come and go, some have gained more traction – emotional intelligence fits this category.

Peter Salovey and John D. Mayer coined the term 1990, describing it as “a form of social intelligence that involves the ability to monitor one’s own and others’ feelings and emotions, to discriminate among them, and to use this information to guide one’s thinking and action.”  In the 1990’s Daniel Goleman, a science writer at the New York Times, became aware of Salovey and Mayer’s work, and this eventually led to his book, Emotional Intelligence. A new industry was born.

So why do I place this in the category of trendy leadership thinking? It is not because I don’t believe emotional intelligence exists – it most certainly does and it is a valuable, likely even an indispensable, leadership attribute. The issue is not with emotional intelligence but rather with the proposition that it is something new or that it can be acquired by simply enrolling in the right course or reading the right books.

Until this phrase was coined in 1990, we simply called emotional intelligence, empathy. The Oxford Dictionary describes empathy as, “the power of identifying oneself with (and so fully comprehending) a person or object of contemplation. I describe it more simply as the ability to understand how others are feeling and be appropriately responsive to their feelings. There are really no significant differences between emotional intelligence and what we used to call empathy.

Here is the issue: some people have a lot more of it than others. Over a lifetime in leadership, with thousands of people, I have never seen anyone with low levels of empathy, or emotional intelligence if you will, acquire more of it. I have had far more success hiring and removing leaders with this characteristic in mind than I did trying to help people with low levels of empathy become leaders who connected with and inspired their teams.

Robert Hare, in his book Without Conscience: The Psychopaths Among Us writes, “It’s as though they can read the notes but they’ll never hear the music.” To be clear I am not suggesting that people with low levels of empathy are psychopaths, only that the phrase is helpful. One can explain empathy and its importance to someone who is not demonstrating it (I’ve seen much of this over the years) and the individual will understand – will read the notes if you will – and still continue to come up short demonstrating it.

Author John Ortberg in his book Everybody’s Normal Till You Get To Know Them puts it this way, “People who don’t read others well aren’t aware that they don’t. It’s like being emotionally tone deaf.” He continues, “These folks are not aware that they’re doing anything wrong.” 

That’s the way it goes with empathy, or emotional intelligence if you will, people who don’t have it don’t know they don’t have it but everyone around them knows. The leader lacking in empathy will constantly say the wrong thing, often the wrong way, as everyone in the room wonders, “How could he have said that?” or “How could she be so insensitive?”

Watch a person with lots of empathy and you’ll see them naturally adjust to a wide variety of people in differing situations. They always seem to know how to approach a situation the right way, even when it seems sensitive or a bit tricky. For the most part, they not drawing on learned behaviour, they are acting naturally. This is not to say that good leaders don’t work on refining skills – they do – only that the foundation, the characteristic empathy, must be there for the refining effort to yield results.

A lengthy career working with thousands of leaders has convinced me that empathy just cannot be coached. This may not be good news for the industry that’s been built up around coaching emotional intelligence but I am convinced it is a clearer picture of reality. I focused my limited training resources on the more timeless and enduring fundamentals that can be learned, like feedback, communication, coaching, building team culture and performance management.

A final observation: people who don’t have lots of empathy are not lesser people, they simply have different attributes.  Many if not all people with highly analytical or scientific minds, don’t have lots of empathy but they have the right qualities for other very valuable work. The problems arise when we try to fit them into work they are not well suited to, like leadership.

Looking to go deeper on timeless leadership practices? Check out my book, The Heart and Hands of Leadership: The Twelve Timeless Practices of Effective Leaders, available in softcover and all major e-book formats.

Simple Purpose

In Leadership Articles (Archives) on February 23, 2018 at 11:40 am


“But in Britain, too, there were those – especially those among the commercial classes and ruling caste, best informed about the nation’s weakness – who continued to fear the worst. It was Churchill’s epic personal achievement to rally them in support of the simple purpose of repelling invasion.” Max Hastings. Inferno, The World at War 1939-1945. Vintage Books. 2012

I am currently enjoying the early pages of Max Hastings exceptional account of the Second World War. During this morning’s time, I came across our opening excerpt. Hastings describes Churchill’s leadership in rallying his country behind what he describes as “simple purpose” as his epic personal achievement. Can there be anything more essential to good leadership than that ability to rally a group of people to a simple purpose? I think not.

Simple purpose is powerful. Simple purpose has the ability to inspire, to unite and to energize a group. Simple purpose elevates work beyond something we do only to provide for our financial needs.

While it is clear that most of today’s workplace situations do not provide for the kind of urgency Britain felt during the summer of 1940, this does not diminish the importance of simple purpose in inspiring a team’s best work. People in all organizations still crave leaders who can distill a simple purpose and rally them to it. Without purpose – and there are far too many organizations where people feel little or no sense of it – work is reduced the the often uninspiring repetition of tasks. This type of environment does little to bring out the best in anyone. Daily work has to be connected to purpose to become meaningful.

So what is the simple purpose you are rallying your team behind? And know, making money won’t cut it with most people. Money is important but its not as inspiring as many people think it is. How often and how passionately are you talking about your team’s purpose? Is it driving your planning? Are you measuring progress and set backs against it? Are you talking about it with each potential employee during the interview process?

Inspiring your team with a simple purpose is ground zero, the very foundation of effective inspiring team building leadership. For some of us, it may well be time to revisit it.

Looking to go deeper into good leadership? Why not check our my book, The Heart and Hands of Leadership: The Twelve Timeless Practices of Effective Leaders to consider a 1/2 day workshop.

Lead Like Scrooge?

In Leadership Articles (Archives) on December 1, 2017 at 11:51 am


“Oh!, but he was a tight-fisted hand at the grindstone, Scrooge! a squeezing wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching old sinner! Hard and sharp as flint, from which no steel had ever struck out generous fire; secret and self-contained, and solitary as an oyster.” – Charles Dickens. A Christmas Carol

At this time of year it seems fitting to turn to Dickens with A Christmas Carol for some seasonal leadership inspiration. Let’s see what we can learn from one of literature’s most well known bosses – Ebenezer Scrooge. Read the passage again and this time let your mind linger over the words, then let’s take a closer look.

As the story unfolds, we can’t help but sympathize with the diligent and hard working clerk Bob Cratchit, a devoted husband and father who must endure the scorn and mistreatment of a cold and uncaring boss. Scrooge sees Bob’s wish to be with his family over Christmas as an imposition. As far as he’s concerned Cratchit is taking advantage of him. Even today there are a great many people feeling torn between unreasonable bosses and their families, they are often as discouraged as Bob Cratchit. Encouraging a healthy work / life balance is not only the right thing to do – it builds loyalty and performance. So this Christmas season why not take time to do a balance audit. Look a little more closely at how hard the members of your team are working and how they are feeling about it. Make sure there is time for family, rest and even a little Christmas cheer.

Dickens describes Scrooge as “secret and self-contained, and solitary as an oyster.” I think we can pull two good lessons from this passage. Today too many leaders hoard too much information. They don’t talk to team members regularly about the business, and when they do their comments are often superficial. If you want involved employees then you have to involve them – that’s the way it works. When you share information openly, when you genuinely work to help the members of your team understand the situation (whatever it is), you send a powerful message that you trust them and care about them. This is why a good communication plan is a strong loyalty builder. Remember, we talk to people we care about. This is the message good communicators send. So this season, take stock of how often you’re holding staff meetings and how openly you are sharing information.

Finally, I ask what might be the most important the question: Can a leader be “solitary as an oyster” and still build a high performance team? You of course know the answer. Leadership is at its heart all about relationships. When the people you lead know you care about them, they care about you – team members don’t want to disappoint leaders who care about them. I am convinced this is a powerful and enduring leadership truth. Whether you are encouraging, challenging or correcting, it must be evident that you care. So your final assignment as this Christmas approaches is to ask yourself how well you know the people you are leading and how well they know you. If you have well developed relationships, you are doing the work of a good leader, keep it up. If you’ve lost touch, if you’re spending too much time in your office and not enough on the shop floor resolve to get out more – Christmas is a great time to make a start.

We all know how the story ended. Ebenezer had a change of heart. He became the very best of leaders, illustrating the last and most important lesson: a change in the right direction can have a dramatic effect on everyone involved. Merry Christmas all, let us all try to keep the spirit of Christmas all year long.

Dan Gaynor

Follow Well To Lead Well

In Leadership Articles (Archives) on October 6, 2017 at 9:58 am


Great teams are ordered, and order starts on the leadership team itself. There is no place for anarchy, yet too many leaders unwittingly create more chaos and discontent than they realize. The conditions arise when we are directed to lead a mission we don’t personally agree with.

These situations are important tests for every member of the leadership team. If we’re honest with ourselves, we’ve all failed this test at some point. So how should we deal with them? First, a good leader will welcome input from the members of his or her leadership team. Advisors help leaders find tune plans and avoid unnecessary mistakes, so advocate for your point of view as an advisor, and when you’ve had your say, fully support the direction you receive as you carry it to your team. You would expect the same from those you are leading. If you cannot do this, even when it is contrary to a choice you would have made, the time has come to leave. Anything else invites chaos and eventually conflict for you and those you lead.

In his book, Shake Hands With The Devil, Ret. Lieutenant General Roméo Dallaire poignantly described his thought process at the height of the FLQ crisis of 1970, when he was asked to lead a mission he was uncomfortable with. His men had live ammo in their guns and he might have to give the order to fire on fellow Quebecers. Dallaire wrote, “If I gave the order to shoot, I could not let my men sense the slightest shiver of doubt in my belief in the rightness of that order. Any uncertainty on my part would communicate itself to my men; any hesitation on their part could result in chaos and innocent casualties. In a nanosecond I had to be able to set aside deep personal loyalties and put the mission first.”

Leaders who cannot put the mission first and follow well create three problems:
1. Divided loyalties
When the team sees you don’t fully support an initiative, they are caught between their loyalty to you and their obligation to the larger team. They hesitate, they cannot give the mission their best work and are often cited for poor performance, they become the innocent casualties of your leadership.

2. Multiplied resistance
It’s not good when anyone resists a mission their leader has charged them with, but a single individual does not have the same impact as a leader who is resisting. A leader can and will multiply that resistance across an entire team, undermining the effort for everyone who is trying to make a success of the effort.

3. Hypocritical example
If you are to become a transformational leader – someone who leads important changes – you will soon discover that leadership is not a popularity contest. There will be times when doing what is right is just not popular. Times when you must direct the team to follow you on a mission they don’t agree with. How do you do this when your example is contrary to what you ask of them?

I offer one caveat. You do not take a mission you believe is morally wrong to your team. If you find yourself in this situation, try to change your leader’s mind and if you fail it’s time to find a new shop. This said, these situations are generally rare. Most often resistance to a mission is the product of pride, preference and a need for popularity. What we’re asked to lead is not morally wrong, we just think our way is better, or we don’t want to take unpopular news to the people we lead.

A leader who follows well offers advice and then, regardless of the decision that’s made, accepts the mission and takes the hills he or she his charged to take. Anything less invites chaos, conflict and disorder. Anything less undermines the mission and the success of the team.

Interested in going deeper into timeless leadership practices? Check out the book or call or write for some individual coaching or a group workshop.

Dan Gaynor

Making the Most of Coaching

In Leadership Articles (Archives) on August 29, 2017 at 8:00 am

Personal Development Career

Sometimes it’s hard to believe that 14 years have passed since I resigned as president of a large daily newspaper to pursue a new direction in leadership development. Maybe not new so much as a sensible next step. I spent much of my newspaper career developing the men and women who served on my leadership teams. I did a lot of coaching.

In the years since, through Gaynor Consulting, I’ve provided a lot of coaching to a great many clients in many different industries – both in group workshops and individual sessions. Some have been more successful than others, I believe because they took the right approach. So how do I think you can get the most benefit from coaching?

Be an active honest learner
I can quickly tell those who want to learn from those who are across the table because they have to be. Those who want coaching come prepared with questions. They know where they want to get to (they have goals for growth) and they are open and honest about their situations. With coaching you really get more out when you put more in.

Make it a priority
We spend time on the things that are important to us so if you just squeeze your coaching session in when you can around everything else you are speaking volumes about what matters. As I have often observed, without coaching people under pressure usually just to the same things harder faster and you know what Einstein said about that – doing the same things over and over and expecting a different result is insanity. Developing better, more refined leadership skills is the key to meeting old challenges in more effective ways.

Be teachable
I’m sure most people would like to think of themselves at teachable. The reality is, for many pride closes the door to learning. It’s humility that opens the door. Too many of the leaders I meet don’t make it to a workshop or a coaching relationship at all because they are too proud to be open to learning. It’s as if they believe that finding out they didn’t know something, like how to provide expert feedback, is an admission of weakness, when in fact it’s just the opposite.

A few years ago I was presenting workshops to a large organization. I had to present each workshop several times to cover the group. The CEO, (one the most accomplished leaders I’ve ever known) attended each and every session. His opening comments included the observation that he picked up something new in each one. Now that’s the posture that leads to continuous learning and sets the right example for every other leader on the team.

Keep an open mind
Too many people are so committed to a belief that they cannot see the value of a new way of doing something even in the face of the most compelling rationale. I often see people defend a flawed position far too long. Admitting a mistake, even to oneself, is an act of strength and a key to learning.

Revisit and reinforce
Over these years presenting workshops I’ve also come to appreciate the value of reinforcement. You simply will not attend a workshop or learn something new in a coaching session and lock it away for good in one pass. Learning requires repetition. I see the evidence when I do a brief knowledge check to discover time and time again that too many people have forgotten some of the most important fundamentals. This is why I encourage everyone to take lots of notes on the handouts and revisit the material from time to time. With enough repetition knowledge starts to stick.

Apply what you learn
I once heard it said that information alone does not lead to transformation. It’s information and application that gets the job done. The goal of good leadership development is to help people build strong new leadership habits but new skills don’t start as habits. Discipline always precedes habit. Nothing new, whether it’s an exercise regimen or a new approach to providing feedback, starts as a habit. It starts as a discipline that says, “I’m not going to miss that daily workout” or “I’m going to find at least one opportunity every day to apply the feedback skills I just learned with a member of my team.”

Over the years I have coached I’m sure hundreds of men and women, first as a newspaper executive and now through my own company. There are undeniably two groups: those who became better more skilled leaders and went on to produce great results and those who remained stalled right where they were wondering why the next promotion never came. Reflecting on this experience it seems to me that those in the first group knew how to make the most of coaching.

For more on timeless leadership practices check out my workshops or consider some individual coaching.

Dan Gaynor

Thinking “Corporate”

In Leadership Articles (Archives) on January 31, 2017 at 1:10 pm

Like so much of our language, the word “corporate” has taken on new meanings over the years, many of them not very flattering. Often when we hear it we think of power, money, cold-hearted leaders, business in it’s worst manifestations. A look at its classic definition provides a different perspective. Our english word corporate gets its roots in the latin word for the body, corpus. It literally means to form one body of many members.

We can draw insight from this perspective as we consider corporate life in all its forms – business, non-profit organizations, community groups or any other situation in which people come together to work or play.

The classic definition of corporate gives us powerful insight into organizational life and leadership. it carries with it implications that are worth thinking about, regardless of where you lead. It’s helpful to see the organization then as a corporate body.

Let’s start with the idea that corporate gets at the reality that we are at once highly individual and at the same time connected to everyone else who is part of the group. The contributions of one affect all. Whether or not we like it, we rise and fall together.

There is a reciprocal relationship within every corporate body. The body needs strong members; the members need a strong body. When the body is strengthened everyone benefits; when it is weakened everyone suffers. The body will only ever be as strong as its members and what they contribute. When one contributes even a little more, the entire body is strengthened for everyone. When one contributes less, or undermines the effort in any way, the body is weakened for all. This is why great leaders treat every performance like it really matters.

At newspapers across Canada, I shared this thinking in my own way, with the many different teams I led. I held a staff meeting, usually within a few days of my arrival. Among my comments, I told everyone that I believed people were the most important part of every newspaper. I waited for the predicable response, “Oh, he’s one of those guys, those people guys.” Then I would continue, “No, I really mean it. So if I really believe that people are the most important part of this newspaper, I will treat every performance like it really matters. I will insist on your best and accept nothing less.”

When you really believe people and what they do matters, it carries with it a responsibility to pay attention, and it sends the message to team members that they must approach work as though what they do really does make a difference. There can be no free rides. I have always believed that people want to make a difference, they want their contributions to matter. I sent this message early and often. I supported it with strong caring performance management throughout the organization.

In a strong corporate body there are no unimportant contributions. So how does your leadership team treat the development of the organization? Does every member of your leadership team treat the work of each individual as indispensable? How would this corporate perspective change the way you lead?

Want to go deeper into good leadership? I wrote, The Heart and Hands of Leadership: The Twelve Timeless Practices of Effective Leaders to pass on what I’ve learned through a career of building strong teams. Or consider some individual coaching or a leadership group workshop.

Dan Gaynor

The Pain Problem

In Leadership Articles (Archives) on October 18, 2016 at 11:37 am


“Pain insists upon being attended to.” C.S. Lewis

There is no question that pain presents a significant problem for many leaders. For many, their reluctance to say or do something that will be painful causes them to avoid many of the most important interventions. To develop expert performance management practices we must accept pain as a constructive and even essential force.

Pain often provides the motivation to correct a bad habit – it insists upon being attended to. Sometimes it leads someone out of the wrong work and into right work, providing for lasting job satisfaction. Pain is so often part of the dynamic of meaningful change. I know it has been in my life. Indeed it is in every life. Because pain is a universal part of the human experience it stands to reason that it serves a purpose. And yet the reluctance to accept it as an inevitable consequence of a leader’s work causes too many leaders to choose avoidance over engagement. Surfacing and resolving the big questions about people and their work often entails some pain and yet it among a leader’s most important work.

When you become aware of a performance problem, the first step is always to provide corrective feedback – a simple 2-5 minute coaching conversation that describes the situation, the problems it’s giving rise to, and the change that is required. Caring and fair leaders voice their concerns as soon as they arise, they don’t delay. This minimizes damage and provides the best likelihood of a successful correction, but the pain problem often prevents leaders from holding even these initial conversations. The individual loses the opportunity to correct a problem early and the mission must accommodate a poor performer. As performance issues worsen so too does the deterrent effect pain can have on leaders.

When corrective feedback doesn’t bring the change that’s needed, consequences up to and including job loss should follow. Experience has taught me that pain has a tendency to intensify until it is resolved at the source. This is the way progressive discipline should work. Job loss is painful, often intensely so, this we know. At times it provides the motivation for someone to learn an important lesson and make a necessary change. Once again, a skillful leader must in all things treat people fairly. This means clear feedback with a clear warning about future consequences. When the feedback is not acted on, however there is the limit to a leader’s influence, we cannot force the change we would like to see in someone else. When leaders are unwilling to resolve these issues in a timely manner, they become accomplices to the problem.

Pain often motivates change because it forces us to address it at its source, nothing else brings relief. Good leaders never deliberately cause pain for others, however the best all come to accept it as a natural, even necessary by-product of their work. In doing so they serve well the missions and people they lead.

For additional leadership resources I offer group workshops, individual coaching, speaking and a book.

Dan Gaynor

Discussion Questions:
1. When has pain played a purposeful role in your life?
2. When was the last time fear of pain stopped you from taking steps you should have taken to resolve a performance issue? What were the consequences?

Risky Business

In Leadership Articles (Archives) on March 23, 2016 at 1:58 pm

Red pill, blue pill

Lately I’ve encountered too many leaders who seem far more concerned with playing it safe than they are with making a difference. The simple truth is that powerful transformational leadership and risk are inseparable. Leadership – real leadership – isn’t safe. Never has been, never will be. The few leaders who actually make a meaningful difference to their teams and missions all accept risk as part of the package.

The reality is that the risks of transformational leadership are real. There are no guarantees of success. At times you prevail and at other times, well you know what they say, the pioneers are the one with the arrows in their backs. Churchill put it his own way when he said, “Do you have enemies? Good, it means you stood for something.” Standing for something will eventually cost you something.

There is a bit of a paradox here. Leaders who make a difference are the ones who earn the promotions and rise through the ranks. Become a leader who makes teams better, stronger, faster and people notice. But that same work entails rocking the boat and challenging the way things are, that can also get you fired.

I’ve plenty of first hand experience with this. At one newspaper my drive to assemble a best in class leadership team entailed removing several people who were popular with leaders at head office and one who was popular with a very significant shareholder. There I was back at risk again: do the safe thing and leave a touchy situation alone or take on the problem and the risk. I approached it with care and was able to make the changes I felt had to be made. We built a leadership team I am proud of even today and went on to build that newspaper’s performance quite significantly together. The same approach though has cost me a few good clients in the work I do these days. I consider speaking the uncomfortable truth as tactfully as I can to be essential to my work. I know that I have to look into the mirror each day and feel good about the fellow I see. I know that real change isn’t possible without confronting difficult and often unpopular choices.

Taking risks is essential to powerful leadership. Taking them foolishly is not. When a move was risky I always took care to approach it thoughtfully. In the leadership team example I cited I took care to build my case step by step before I sought the approval to remove the individuals. Still, know that a thoughtful approach reduces risk, it doesn’t remove it. So many leaders today just seem unwilling to go there. They will spend careers as safe and ineffectual leaders, stuck endlessly in junior or middle management roles.

Just today, I was coaching another young leader through this same dilemma as she wrestled with whether or not to talk to her boss about an uncomfortable situation – play it safe or take a risk to try to make a difference. The choice will be hers alone as it must be. So where is your leadership today? Are you taking risks to make a difference or are you playing it safe, unwilling to rock the boat. This is a choice that separates the few truly transformational leaders from the league of ordinary managers who populate so many of our organizations.

Want to go deeper into great leadership? Check out my book, The Heart and Hands of Leadership: The Twelve Timeless Practices of Effective Leaders. Available in soft cover and in all major e-book formats.

Dan Gaynor

1. What was the biggest risk you’ve taken in leadership.
2. Can you name a risk you had to pay for

Powerful Ambition

In Leadership Articles (Archives) on February 2, 2015 at 8:00 am

Hands and power

“Power is a tool. It allows us the freedom to be who we truly are.” Erwin McManus.

Ambition gets a bad rap, at times deservedly so. But the question is not whether ambition is good or bad but whether it is selfish or selfless. One way or the other, ambition is a powerful force that drives change and underpins accomplishment.

Let’s begin by reaffirming that all great leadership is sacrificial. The leader wields power, and power is a necessary tool that must always be used it in the service of the team and its mission. Power reveals the character of leaders. For the best leaders, team and mission always come before personal interests – the leader’s interests always come last.

It has been said that motivations, drive actions and actions create outcomes. Motivations and the power to do something about them are a potent partnership. Honourable motivations drive honourable actions and outcomes. Dishonourable motivations… well you know what they produce. The formula also works in reverse: outcomes help us understand actions and reveal motivations. I believe this can be said of ambition – among the most powerful of motivators. Let’s look at the two variations of ambition, and the actions and outcomes they produce.

The less common form of ambition is selfless. Nobel Peace Prize recipient Martin Luther King Comes to mind. By any standard pursuing a dream to see racial segregation ended was ambitious. It was an unselfish ambition intended to benefit not just one race but to pull down the barriers and hatred that split a nation. So powerful was King’s ambition that it motivated him to a life of hardship and risk. As we know, he gave his life for it. When a leader is driven by selfless ambition the outcomes always benefit others. This type of ambition is inspiring, it invites trust and becomes a powerful force for good.

The more common form, and that which correctly gets a bad rap, is selfish ambition. Alberta politics has recently given us an example in the floor crossing of nine elected representatives, including the party leader. If we go back to outcomes as a reliable indicator of motivations it’s hard to accept this as a case of mistaken motivations. The move has been widely criticized by people of all political stripes. A host of commentators have described the widespread betrayal experienced by those who believed in and supported the Wildrose dream. This kind of ambition breaks trust and is a big reason so many people are so cynical about leadership.

The best leaders are always ambitious people, so are the very worst. The use their positions their power and their influence to improve the situations of others. The worst use the same advantages to improve the situation for themselves – to feather their own nests. For the best leaders people are the purpose of leadership; for the worst they are the means to an end.

Ambition is a powerful force. In and of itself neither good or bad, a force channeled in one direction or the other by the heart of the leader. Want more on power and ambition? Check out chapter 12 of my book, The Heart and Hands of Leadership: The Twelve Timeless Practices of Effective Leaders. 160 pages, available in soft cover and all major e-book formats.

Discussion questions:

1. When have you experienced an ambitious leader, what was the goal and how did the leader affect those who followed?
2. What is your ambition, where is it focused and will it stand the test of power?