Several years ago I was watching an interview on C-SPAN that was sponsored by the American Management Association. The CEO of the Japanese giant conglomerate, Mitsubishi, was talking about his “long-range” vision. After a few minutes of dream casting, the question everyone was thinking was finally asked.
Exactly how far into the future does your long-range vision go?
Three Generations. 150 years.
He said that without even blinking. He was serious. 150 years?! We can barely think beyond 150 days.
In a recent conversation someone gave me some unsolicited advice on how I should adjust my leadership style to garner more power and ensure a greater career trajectory. I explained, as I often do, that
true leaders focus on the success of their organizations rather than the success of their careers.
Of course we all need to watch our career steps carefully, but the best leaders are not necessarily committed to making a name for themselves. They are committed to making a difference – for the long term. They make a difference for their employees, their customers, and for their communities. Certainly the careers of leaders can benefit. But let’s never forget that the true success of leadership is a healthy and effective organization that enhances life, both inside and outside the company walls.
It is this type of commitment that engages leaders to cast long-range vision. They are committed to ride out the tough times. They are not looking for their next career opportunity, but looking for ways to build their organization for long term sustainability.
Someone told me a few weeks ago that their company had gone through five CEOs in six years. Each had assumed their role with a hefty package from their previous company, and secured a similar arrangement in their new role. In other words, they boarded the ship wearing a life vest and were given another once on-board. They made a fortune stone-stepping from one company to the next, accumulating settlement cash along the way. Unfortunately, each time the organization was left in worse shape than when they came. The loyal employees who had remained for years watched the revolving doors of the C-suite parade with self-preservation, uncertainty, and fear.
It’s almost like bouncing around the foster-care system, one person told me. You never know who your next parent will be, or how long they’ll stay.
So what do we do?
For nearly 20 years, I have taught how leaders typically move their organizations through three common stages during difficult times. Sometimes, unfortunately, a few select the fourth option – not for the benefit of their organizations, but for the benefit of their careers.
- During times of true uncertainty, hostile threats toward the organization create expectations for directive leadership. People want leaders to assume control when a crisis is apparent. During these unique times of crises leaders must take charge, avert the crisis, and build the team.
- Over time, if the crisis still exists and the people tend to settle into complacency, the leader must fight apathy and remind the organization of the critical situation.
- However, once the crisis is over, the focus for the leader should adjust. He or she should then focus on calming the organization and reassuring the team that there is no longer an immediate threat or crisis. Of course lessons learned and preventative caution to ensure future sustainability is built into the course of daily operations.
- However, on occasion, once the leader has tasted the blood of absolute power (from stage one), he or she will often continue to heighten and extend the sense of crisis in order to maintain that intoxicating control. Of course this dark side of leadership is manipulative and dysfunctional at best.
We’ve all heard about the leaders who, in order to gain quick recognition for immediate job approval, catastrophize the initial situation. To establish themselves as the great rescuers, they over-dramatize the condition. They create a drama in which they are the star. They talk of the dark precipice on which the company was perilously dangling, and then ultimately of their divine appointment, just in the nick of time. The Messiah had come.
If you are assuming a new position of leadership, do all you can to not be that person. We all know how tempting it is. While it might feel good for a while, it won’t for very long. After a short time, people start looking around and realize that you are responsible for your own mess. This is usually when the short-term, quick-change artists leave for their next magic show. Again, don’t be that person. Instead, take the hits early on. Keep your eyes focused on the future. Appreciate the hard work accomplished before your arrival and build on it.
To lead effectively, we must step up, take control, and give direction when necessary. We must step back, stay calm, and give encouragement when necessary. We must accept power, use it, and then share it appropriately. Finally, and most importantly, we must focus more on the success of our organizations, and less on the trajectory of our careers.