Lead your organization with a higher purpose

Leadership is an essential and even dominant element in any company’s business success. Data from benchmarking studies and subsequent analysis through statistical correlations indicate 'leadership’ to be the primary influence on the success of a company in applying best practice. But what is leadership? How do we become leaders? Are we born with leadership qualities? Can we learn it...


Leadership is an essential and even dominant element in any company’s business success. Data from benchmarking studies and subsequent analysis through statistical correlations indicate 'leadership’ to be the primary influence on the success of a company in applying best practice.

But what is leadership? How do we become leaders? Are we born with leadership qualities? Can we learn it by attending 'leadership school,’ or by using leadership mentors, or should we read the latest books on leadership?

As we all know, leadership is simultaneously simple and complex, and it’s likely to be context-dependent %%MDASSML%% what works in one situation may not work in another. It’s somewhat like the description of pornography that Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart once offered: “It’s hard to describe, but I know it when I see it.”

Below are several leadership models offered with a view to help improve your business performance through better leadership, and to identify what these models have in common.

Leaders vs. managers

Warren Bennis suggests that the following characteristics of leaders and managers:

Challenge status quo
Innovate and develop
Ask what and why
Do the right things
Watch the horizon
Accept status quo
Administer and maintain
Ask how and when
Do things right
Watch the bottom line

Using this model, could we do without either leaders or managers? Most people would agree that we need a good mix of both. Do managers only manage, or leaders only lead? Most would also agree that there are times when leaders manage and managers lead, and we’re likely to see a mix of behaviors in the same individual, depending on the situation.

When I first joined a small, fast-growing, technology company as its president, I spent most of my time managing; we didn’t have many of the basic systems and processes in place, and using the phrase organizational structure to describe us was an oxymoron.

To allow for effective leadership, or perhaps through effective leadership, we had to have some basic systems in place and operating well. After we managed to establish these systems, it allowed more time to exercise what Bennis characterizes as leadership.

Does this suggest that I didn’t do any of the leadership activities while I was in my management mode, such as 'watching the horizon,’ or 'challenging the status quo,’ or developing 'trust?’ No, but it does suggest that the differences between the two, and the effort expended in either, is often context-dependent and difficult to distinguish.

I would suggest, however, that as one moves up the organizational hierarchy, they need to spend increasingly more time applying Bennis’ leadership characteristics and less time applying his management characteristics.

Doing what’s right

Bennis goes on to say that there are three basic rules:

  • Do what’s right

  • Do the best you can

  • Treat others like you would like to be treated.

    • It’s difficult to argue with these three as good leadership principles supporting the success of any group. The difficult part is trying to define 'right’ and 'best;’ those decisions are generally based on our personal value system. Even his last one, a paraphrase of the 'golden rule,’ can get a bit fuzzy depending on how you like to be treated, but it’s still a fairly good rule, and provides a key element of leadership.

      Having been through a West Point experience, I would like to add something that has had a key influence in my career. A concept that was stressed was that the unit commander is responsible for everything his unit does or fails to do. My first reaction to this was that it was unfair. How could I control the behavior of 10, or 100, or 1,000, or 10,000 individuals. What if some 'nut case’ went berserk and destroyed my unit’s performance? Was I responsible for this?

      With time, however, I came to realize that despite these misgivings about this principle, it forced me to be proactive in anticipating problems, looking ahead for potential failures in performance and creating an environment that engaged the people in doing the things that needed to be done, and, perhaps more importantly, looking for ways to improve the organization and anticipate potential problems.

      No, I couldn’t control everything in the absolute sense, but I could leverage the knowledge of the people to minimize the possibility of failure and maximize the opportunity for success. And it forced me to take responsibility, irrespective of the circumstances.

      Managing change

      Finally, Bennis’ definitions provide some insight into managing change. That is, leaders are likely to be better at facilitating change, but once the change has been reasonably accomplished, it must be sustained. Managers are likely to be better at sustaining change. If you’re engaged in substantive change in your organization, you may want to consider these principles, either individually or when selecting people to lead or manage change.

      Within organizations, I think it is appropriate to rely on these same principles, that is, that people want to feel they are a part of something greater than themselves, that they are contributing to superordinate or lofty goals. For example, this goal might be becoming the best company in the world in their market, or it might be involved in saving lives on a daily basis, or it might be routinely giving your customers peace of mind.

      Leaders set the example and create an environment of pride, enjoyment and trust. Leadership requires a combination of high standards and expectations, and a willingness to let people try, and sometimes fail, and learn, and try again. It is context-dependent. There are times when it would be easy to step in and tell people what to do, but they would not learn.

      I used to tell people that it was acceptable to make mistakes, but they had the responsibility to correct and make up for them. I also told them that any big mistakes were my responsibility, and that I had to make sure our systems prevented those, and if I didn’t it was my fault and not theirs. I believed, and said so, that they were closer to the problems than anyone, and they should take the initiative and act in good conscience and solve them. It freed them to perform at their highest level. Finally, I think leadership begs the question “How do I get people to genuinely look forward to coming to work every day?” You give them the freedom to be successful for the company, and to give them work that is challenging, rewarding and calls them to a higher purpose.

      These should be lofty, perhaps even altruistic, goals that make people proud to be part of the organization. Of course money is important, and of course status is important, but if we can align the organization to a greater purpose we are more likely to achieve exceptional performance.

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      Excerpted from the new book, “Selecting the Right Manufacturing Improvement Tools %%MDASSML%% What Tool? When?” by Ron Moore, published by Elsevier Books, Butterworth-Heinemann Imprint. Ron Moore is the managing partner of The RM Group, Inc. He can be reached at (865) 675-7647 or by email at RonsRMGp@aol.com .