Freedom Is A Bigger Game Than Power

I am always amazed that whilst we often want a Braveheart as our leader, we often get one with no substance. It’s lonely at the top. If there is a defining conceit at the heart of how many of us think about leadership – whether the leader in question is the CEO of a global empire or the founder of a start-up itching to take on the Big Boys – it is that of the no-nonsense, hard-charging, often-wrong-but-never-indoubt boss who enjoys the glories (and bears the burdens) of success on his or her own. We still like to transplant the rugged individualism of the Marlboro Man (although smoking has been largely ostracized) from the open range to the corner office – the self-possessed corporate cowboy or don’t-take-no-for-an-answer entrepreneur who solves thorny problems as they arise and identifies lucrative opportunities before they go mainstream. That’s what makes executive life (in theory) so glamorous. Who isn’t eager to match wits with brilliant rivals and stay one step ahead of a complex world? Of course, that’s also what makes executive life (in reality) so exhausting: What happens when rivals come at you from more directions than ever, when markets change faster than ever, when problems loom larger than ever?

As a business culture, we’ve made the lure of executive leadership hard to resist – and the job of leadership virtually impossible to do. A harrowing essay in The Atlantic (titled, appropriately enough, “It’s Lonely at the Top”) captures how excruciating it is for many CEO’s just to make it through the day.

The essay, which does a better job of chronicling the crisis of executive life than empathizing with it, sums up the dilemma of the contemporary business leader this way: “The more CEO’s work, the more isolated they become. Their entourage shield them from workday headaches. Their spot at the top cuts them off from the people lower down on the corporate totem pole, and thus from reliable, ‘un-spun’ information. Everyone reporting to them has his own ambitions; everyone wants a promotion. So what’s a CEO to do?”

The simple answer is to rewrite an awful job description that has been obsolete and counterproductive for an awfully long time. Thus far, I’ve explored a collection of strategies and practices to renew and revive long-established organisations. I’ve also presented a set of ideas, and a roster of role models, about the best ways to start from scratch, whether it’s launching a stand-alone venture or championing a blank-sheet-of-paper initiative inside a big company. I’d like to think that these strategies, practices and ideas challenge much of the prevailing wisdom about how business works and why organisations succeed. But I’m confident that they require executives to challenge themselves about how they work and why they hope to succeed. In an era of nonstop pressure and deep-seated change, the way to succeed as a leader without losing your mind is to change the prevailing and long-standing mind-set about what it means to lead. The one who nails it every time is Jim Collins, especially his philosophy on Level 5 Leadership. Must read!

To be sure, it is a tough mind-set to change. Even a source of business ideas as intelligent as The Economist cant seem to get beyond the idea of the leader as lone (and lonely) genius. In late 2016, the magazine looked at the turmoil of the global corporate culture crisis, as well as the ever-changing face of CEO’s around the world, and concluded that what business needs are more “raging egomaniacs” and “tightly wound empire-builders” rather than the “faceless” and “anonymous” bosses running so many companies – “bland and boring men and women who can hardly get themselves noticed at cocktail parties, let alone stop the traffic in Moscow or Beijing.” You could almost feel the frustration leaping from the page of the magazine.

As if on cue, just as The Economist was bemoaning the lack of charisma and ego in the modern executive suite, Fortune named Apple’s Steve Jobs the most charismatic CEO of the new millennia. On the level of substance, it’s impossible to quarrel with the choice. How many innovators can make the legitimate claim to have reshaped not just one industry but four, computing (the Mac), music (the i-Pod), mobile communications (the iPhone), and movies (Pixar)? And how many CEOs can make the legitimate claim that they achieved their wealth and power by making hundreds of millions of people so unbelievably happy that they worship the company and its products with near-religious devotion? On the level of style, though, Jobs clung to a model of leadership that is outmoded, unsustainable, and, for most of us mere mortals, dangerously unrealistic.

Sure it’s lonely at the top. But only if you keep your organisation’s problems to yourself. Today, the way to succeed as a leader without losing your mind is to change the prevailing and long-standing mind-set about what it means to lead. It’s tempting to divide executives into stark either-or categories: risk takers or bureaucrats, those with true ambition or those prepared to plod along, brash personalities or drab corporate drones. But for most executives, this fascination with the know-it-all style of leadership has become a prescription for disaster, personally as well as organizationally. The problem with trumpeting the virtues of one-of-a-kind geniuses like Steve Jobs is that – duh-there are so darn few of them. Memo to The Economist & Fortune: it’s not a good idea to urge leaders in general to act like a handful of larger-than-life leaders whose success is, almost by definition, impossible to copy. Why not emulate the leader of the next generation: Jacinda Ardern, who puts a premium on CARE (compassion, authenticity, responsibility & empathy).

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