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The challenge of leadership

Rudolph Giuliani is today’s flavour of the moment in the leadership hit parade, thanks to two achievements, neither insignificant. He presided over the New York City administration that cleaned up the city’s streets; and he rallied the citizenry around the resurrection of the city after the devastation of 11 September 2001.

The Giuliani road less travelled by the media and the followers of fads is the fact that his reputation had all but faded away before 9/11. “Yesterday’s man”, as the Guardian described him after he chose a press conference as the moment to announce to his wife that he would be leaving her, was even kicked out of the mayoral mansion by his bitter spouse not long before Giuliani took centre stage at Ground Zero. 9/11 was his redemption, but that didn’t mean his aberrations went away.
The previous claimant to the leadership mantle came unstuck in eerily similar ways. Jack Welch, who built General Electric into one of the world’s biggest businesses, is credited with the concept of rewarding a firm’s top 20% of performers and systematically getting rid of the bottom 10%. The concept works beautifully in businesses managed by motivational, visionary and compassionate leaders, where “getting rid of” is interpreted and implemented as “guiding in the right direction”. In companies where it is used merely as a system for culling, it is disastrous. Indeed, GE is today counting the cost of the strategy, as are countless former employees. As for Welch, his autobiography, Straight from the Gut, is revealing for what it does not include: any warmth towards his own family.

As if to confirm what many readers noticed, Welch promptly revealed his startling lack of judgment by seducing the high-profile editor of a high-profile journal, resulting in a high-profile divorce suit from his wife. The dirty laundry that has emerged from this process, in particular the gratuitous and ostentatious freeloading indulged in by Welch, characterised him as a snorting animal feeding at the trough of excess, and shoved him unceremoniously off the throne of leadership.
As if to confirm what many readers noticed, Welch promptly revealed his startling lack of judgment by seducing the high-profile editor of a high-profile journal, resulting in a high-profile divorce suit from his wife. The dirty laundry that has emerged from this process, in particular the gratuitous and ostentatious freeloading indulged in by Welch, characterised him as a snorting animal feeding at the trough of excess, and shoved him unceremoniously off the throne of leadership.This leads us to at least one obvious conclusion: business leadership is not about a single achievement, or a single philosophy. Before 9/11, Giuliani was detested by many of the same people who were benefiting daily from his clean-up act. And few executives profess to follow Welch today, even if GE shares made them wealthy on the side.

Leadership is also not about quick fixes. Most talented accountants can turn a large organisation, whether a city or a company, around by attacking the balance sheet with bitter medicine like staff and benefit cuts and selling off operational units.
Leadership is also not about quick fixes. Most talented accountants can turn a large organisation, whether a city or a company, around by attacking the balance sheet with bitter medicine like staff and benefit cuts and selling off operational units.The real challenge lies in rebuilding an organisation and to continue building that organisation in such a way that investors, customers, staff and all other stakeholders feel they are part of the process. It’s something that goes far beyond the balance sheet.

“It is a question of character and a matter of trust,” says Derek H. Burney, president and CEO of high-tech company CAE and former Chief of Staff in the Canadian Prime Minister’s office. “Your objective should be to inspire respect and commitment, not obedience, and you do not have to always be right to be respected.”
“It is a question of character and a matter of trust,” says Derek H. Burney, president and CEO of high-tech company CAE and former Chief of Staff in the Canadian Prime Minister’s office. “Your objective should be to inspire respect and commitment, not obedience, and you do not have to always be right to be respected.”Addressing the Bank of Canada on the nature of leadership, he argued that it was an art rather than a science, but that there was still a formula:

“To succeed as a leader, you need first to focus and define clearly and convincingly what it is you are trying to achieve and why. Only then can you hope to oblige others to follow your lead. You can call it strategy or vision or problem-solving or purpose but, under any definition, it is the premise for effective leadership.
“To succeed as a leader, you need first to focus and define clearly and convincingly what it is you are trying to achieve and why. Only then can you hope to oblige others to follow your lead. You can call it strategy or vision or problem-solving or purpose but, under any definition, it is the premise for effective leadership.

“Having defined what you are doing and why, you need to commit fully to the task at hand and be seen to be doing it. It helps, too, if you can explain what and why clearly, coherently and simply. Because the ability to articulate or communicate is basic if you expect your colleagues to support what you are trying to achieve and if you expect others … to understand or agree to what you are advising.”
When leaders treat the institution as their own fiefdom, and stakeholders as pawns in their plans, then their status as paragons of leadership will be fleeting indeed. An equivalent of 9/11 is hardly something they would wish for when their reputations need redemption.

This column appears in the current edition of Intelligence magazine. Arthur Goldstuck is editor of The Big Change and MD of World Wide Worx. He can be contacted on arthurg@internet.org.za

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The Big Change is a business strategy blog and newsletter published by Arthur Goldstuck, managing director of World Wide Worx, a leading technology research organisation based in Johannesburg, South Africa.

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