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July 2010

Leadership advice usually travels from developed to developing countries. I wrote the below piece for colleagues in Pakistan, aimed at Pakistan. Reviewing it, it struck me how pertinent it was for anyone, anywhere who aims to lead and manage successfully.

Accordingly, with a few adaptations, I offer it here, as an example of leadership advice flowing in the other direction!


Management is about improving today; leadership is about creating the future. This is the overwhelming consensus among practitioners, gurus, wits, and savants.

So the title makes the point: we need leaders first. But we need more than rhetoric-gushing futurists…grand visionary plans for the future are often far too abundant in developing countries – as they tend to conveniently distract from the nettlesome and more dispiriting realities facing us today. Grand visionary plans are often no less abundant in “developed” countries as politicians distract from today’s inadequacies by promising a rosier tomorrow.

In companies, leaders rarely link tomorrow to today. We plan forward from today, often replicating today with some incremental addition, and write future visions detached from today’s behaviors.

So corporate leaders and national leaders alike have to manage today so it becomes a platform for tomorrow. Today’s performance has to pave tomorrow’s possibilities. So, we need great managers too.

What does this mean pragmatically? First, we have to separate out “roots” and “chains”. We are justly proud of our culture, our national cultures, and in successful organizations, our organizational culture.

That’s fine…to an extent. We need to understand its fundamental strengths and preserve those zealously. As the landmark book on corporate vision, Built To Last extols, “Preserve the core and change everything else”.

And there’s the rub. We have to separate out our “roots” from the manacles and inhibitions of dysfunctional paradigms. Leaders insulated from the truth does not represent “values”, it represents backward medievalism. A lack of diversity in senior leadership is not a “value” but often, ethnic or at least paradigmatic blinkers. Top down hierarchical leadership is arguably as unappealing in philosophy as it is unwise and unduly rigid in a global environment in which the metabolism of change is constantly speeding up.

So what are our roots which we will preserve at all costs, and what are the chains which we will confront and transcend with the best of our imagination, courage and collective commitment? Let that be a seminal corporate or national exercise. Let’s do a deep dive here first, before soaring above the clouds looking for the next horizon.

Then, having identified all that we’re willing to change, from feckless bureaucracy to misguided prejudices, from ossified procedures to retrograde human capital practices, from chest-beating charismatic leadership to shoddy corporate governance, from aberrant recognition policies that detach values from results to PR hype substituting for a true service culture, let’s then tackle these armed with a few key reminders.

And here let’s let gurus of various stripes help. We all decry gurus, but if instead of creating false idols out of them, we can mine for key insights…it can be quite enriching.

Michael Porter can go first. His seminal insight is that all of strategy comes down to how you will differentiate, and in that area of differentiation how you will secure and sustain or perhaps even grow a competitive advantage. How will you dramatically differentiate? And don’t just make this an internal exercise. Ask those that experience your company in action too. Look out the window as much as you look in the mirror here.

Tom Peters can go next. Practice “MBWA”, management by wandering around. Customers matter, people matter. Leaders grow leaders, not followers, and leadership is a “contact sport” . Connect, listen, engage, enroll, re-calibrate, course correct, and be out there. As someone observed, “Leaders today have to be the Rock of Gibraltar on Roller Blades.”

Gary Hamel and CK Pralahad follow by reminding us that cost effectiveness matters, but isn’t enough. You can’t shrink your way to greatness. Most red pencil “efficiency experts” would have you shrink the denominator…certainly it produces an immediate balance sheet bounce. But it can undermine competitiveness, and capital rarely goes to companies who just excel in corporate anorexia. You have to grow the numerator! Make sure your vision is about that…in exciting, purposeful, but relevant, tangible and measurable ways.

Let’s jump the queue and go to Marshall Goldsmith who reminds us that when you get to a certain level of leadership, the things that keep you from peak performance as a leader/manager aren’t technical skills. After all, you wouldn’t have scaled the corporate heights if you weren’t technically skillful. Therefore, at that altitude, what holds us back are behavioral blinkers, how we act and interact. A coaching culture is needed of high accountability with active and abundant feedback (how we did in the recent past) and with a greater more energized focus on real-time feedforward (future based expectations of behavior and performance). Taking a stand for the future is far more productive and valuable than defending the past.

Relative to customers, my friend Ron Kaufman is on hand to remind us that service can be a powerful source of differentiation and that companies need to set up listening posts and relay stations to keep the “voice of the customer” paramount in their business and to ensure we thrive at all key “moments of truth” or perception points. We need to climb the ladder of service experiences from “basic” to “desired” to “unbelievable” and make that fully believable as a part of our promise…as experienced through what we deliver.

Come to me then. I’ve argued that companies liberate passion or become passion killers. Passion is how we convert talent into performance, it is oxygen to the fire, it is the catalyst for creativity, and it is the final report card for leadership. If our customers are passionate to partner with us, if our people volunteer their best commitment and offer their discretionary effort in synergy with each other, we will more than produce the results we are after. Become a student of passion liberators and passion killers. Become a leader who becomes a catalyst for the first and who actively goes to war on the latter.

Every one of these leadership distinctions and insights, by the way, could be applied at the national level if we chose to create, a culture of meritocracy and accountability from our civil services to our diplomatic services to what we require of political leaders, Ministries and Departments. Why can these not be run on solid customer and total quality principles? It sounds myopic. Perhaps it is true that the government that governs best is the one that governs least. But where it must govern, why should we not demand both excellence in management and leadership? Why should we not ask, “How are you practically improving today…and how are you laying a foundation for the future?” And if the answer isn’t as simple and as compelling as that which we give our own customers, beware!

Leaders everywhere have to get today right certainly. We have to produce quick wins that build up momentum. We have to behave our way today to tomorrow’s success. We need leaders who can manage, and managers who actually, actively and passionately lead! So let’s root ourselves in the best of our traditions, break our chains, and build a future worthy of both our values and our dreams.

One powerful idea to help you do so, is to look for “bright spots” or what are called “positive deviants” within your business. Where are the peaks? Where are the role models? Why not study success instead of failure? Is there anyone in your business producing disproportionate results? Somehow they’ve managed to succeed despite the manacles. Become a student of what they’ve learned and how they work. As Tom Peters says so powerfully, “Heroes, Demos, Stories!”

That will often offer compelling insight into actual “roots” and real “chains” as well as powerful leadership. You may also learn how work really gets done in your organization — or at least how it could. What if you could leverage a powerful breakthrough today based on this forensic look at disproportionate success at various epicenters of the organization — as you gather the will and wherewithal to lead the organization towards the future? What if we could hype it as it happens — and let results rather than rhetoric light the way?

We have to manage to lead…to make sure the realizable future is bigger than the experienced past…but also to make sure we can sustain ourselves en route to actualizing the future we’re staking our future on!