What does it take to be a leader and for leadership to show up? (Part III)


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This post continues and completes the conversation on what it takes to be a leader (and for leadership to show up) from an ontological perspective as put forward and taught by Werner Erhard et al. There are three foundational strands to this model: ‘integrity’, ‘authenticity’, and ‘being committed to something bigger than oneself’. The first post dealt with integrity, the second post dealt with authenticity and this post deals with ‘being committed to something bigger than oneself’. Warning: this is a long post and it takes something to read it. If you are looking to skim, easy to consume content, then I advise you to go and do something else.

Leadership is a choice you make for yourself

Let’s kick off the conversation through a quote from Werner Erhard et al that speaks to me, it may do the same for you:

“In a certain sense, all true leaders are heroes. Heroes are ordinary people who are given being and action by something bigger than themselves…… Each of us must make the personal choice to be a hero or not, to be committed to something bigger than ourselves or not, to go beyond the way we “wound up being” and have the purpose of our lives and our careers be about something that makes a difference or not, in other words, to be a leader or not.”

What does it mean to be committed to something bigger than oneself?

First I will share with you how Werner Erhard et al see this and then I will give you two examples to help this way of understanding come to life. Here is what Werner Erhard et al talk about, relate to and ring-fence “being committed to something bigger than oneself”:

“is being committed in a way that shapes one’s being and actions so that they are in the service of realising something beyond one’s personal concerns for oneself – beyond a direct personal payoff. As they are acted on, such commitments create something to which others can also be committed and have the sense that their lives are about something bigger than themselves. This is leadership!”

Let’s just take a look at Tony Fitzjohn (OBE): a conversationist who worked extensively with George Adamson’ and who shows up for me as a leader who gave himself being as a leader through his commitment to something bigger than himself. Besides putting his life at risk in working with lions (he as badly mauled by a lion whilst working with George Adamson) I want to draw our attention to the following:

“The challenge facing him at Mkomazi demanded all these skills, and more. It required someone who was an experienced wildlife manager, fluent in Swahili, a bush pilot, a skilled engineer and mechanic who could build roads, cut boundaries, strip down and re-assemble 4WD vehicles and plant machinery, set up two-way radio networks, construct and de-silt dams, maintain electrical and power equipment, organize anti-poaching patrols, deal with the bureaucracy, and keep a remote camp supplied. All this, and the ability to establish breeding programs for highly endangered species whilst constructing and repairing schools in the villages around Mkomazi Game Reserve, helping with medical dispensaries and maintaining friendly relations with the local communities…..

Arriving in 1989 with nothing but a Land Rover and a hangover, he put in all the infrastructure himself: an airstrip, 600 miles of roads, dams, electricity, water. He built a house and learnt to fly, married Lucy and had four children…..

His track record includes:

  • Established and stocked the first successful Rhinoceros sanctuary in Tanzania.
  • 30 years of successful rehabilitation of zoo animals into the wild.
  • Gained National Park status for two game reserves.
  • Completed the construction of a new secondary school for 400 children.
  • Provided local communities with clean water supply, dispensary and Flying Doctor service.
  • First successful captive breeding program for endangered African Hunting Dog in East Africa.
  • Ground-breaking veterinary research into disease of endangered species.
  • 20 years of developing and supporting Anti-Poaching Units.

The modern-day requirements of this operation, staffed only by volunteers, means that Fitzjohn has to spend a lot of time traveling in order to raise funds and generate publicity for the project. He lectures at the Royal Geographical Society, schools, zoos, wildlife parks, and talks to diverse groups of supporters….”

If you want a business person as an example then I suggest looking at James Dyson, Anita Roddick, Howard Behar, Tony Hsiesh and Steve Jobs.

Leadership and the valley of tears

Many want to be leaders, few have what it takes to persevere in the valley of tears when nothing goes right, when there is nobody to count on, when there is no help at hand. I have experienced this myself and can vouch for it.

I remember the pain, the hurt, the tears, the anger, the fear, the criticism, the questioning of my motives and character, the envy, that I had to deal with when I set up Humanity In Action (small charity) some ten years ago. And the only thing that got me through it was that the purpose of the charity pulled me through/around/under/over all the obstacles.

I also remember standing in front of the CEO and senior managers and refusing to carry out the CEO’s instructions. What allowed me to take the risk despite being fearful/concerned about how I was going to pay the bills, support the family that was counting on me? A calling, a commitment to a stand (“people matter more than things”) and a set of values of how to be in life and how to treat people.

Here is how Werner Erhard et al put it:

“.. without the passion that comes from being committed to something bigger than yourself, you are unlikely to persevere in the valley of tears that is an inevitable experience in the lives of all true leaders. Times when nothing goes right, there is no way, no help is available, nothing there except what you can do to find something in yourself – the strength to persevere in the face of impossible odds…….”

“Is that all there is to life?”

We live in a culture that encourages selfishness and the pursuit of fame/wealth/success. Put differently we are encouraged to simply look after oneself, pursue one’s personal agenda, and leave others to do the same. Here is what Werner Erhard et al have to say on that:

Wealth, fame, and the like, are both no more than the scorecard for success; they are not the source of corporate or personal passion and energy.”

More importantly focussing solely on oneself and one’s personal interests does not mean that one escapes the existential question: “Is this all there is to life?” This is how Werner Erhard et al have to say on this matter:

“No matter how good you look, no matter how good you’ve gotten your family to look, and no matter how wealth, fame or power you have amassed, you will experience a profound lack of fulfillment….. expressed by the commonly asked question: Is This All There Is? Dealing with the crisis of “Is this all there is?” lies in having a commitment to the realisation of future (a cause) that leaves you with a passion for living.

Werner Erhard et al go on to make a powerful point. A point about discipline, about sticking to one’s stand. Why does this matter? Because we swim in a culture that is about ease, convenience, comfort, finding the short-cut and focussing on the short-term. Here is what they have to say:

“… a commitment to something bigger than oneself empowers not only a human brain’s executive function to avoid “eating the marshmallow”, but works in the same way to empower the corporate “executive function” to forgo “eating the marshmallow”“.

As I write these words Steve Jobs pops up: his commitment to creating great products and a legacy overpowered the corporate addiction to making the sort term revenue and profit numbers. How many times was a product introduction shelved or delayed because the product was not deemed perfect by Jobs? How many times were ‘complications’ to the supply chain introduced (different colours…) to meet the commitment?

And finally

You might be wondering why I have dived into leadership given that this is The Customer Blog. Because the move to customer-centricity requires leaders to show up as leaders and exercise leadership. And it is not any kind of leadership. It is the kind of leadership that Werner Erhard et al are speaking at. And without this kind of leadership organisations can talk as much as they like, put in as much technology as they like, redesign processes etc and they will still not show up as customer-centric as experienced by the customer. Honestly, how many of your customers are going to help out your company when it falls on hard times? How many are going to mourn your company when it dies? Think RIM (Blackberry), think Nokia, think HP, think Dell……

The shift to customer-centricity requires a genuine shift to being a company that stands for creating superior value for customers: enriching their lives, improving their welfare, helping them with the issues that they are grappling with… As such it requires a commitment to something bigger than one’s need to make the short-term numbers to collect the bonus cheques. It requires integrity – keeping one’s promises including those that customers can reasonably expect you to keep even if you have not explicitly promised that promise. And it requires authenticity.

Enough for today. I thank you for listening to my speaking and I invite you to share your perspective by commenting. And if these last three posts on leadership speak to you then you might get value out of this blog: Possibility, Transformation and Leadership.

Republished with author's permission from original post.

Maz Iqbal
Experienced management consultant and customer strategist who has been grappling with 'customer-centric business' since early 1999.


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