On Management: The Role Of A Leader.

Dec. 21, 2004

A few months ago, a reader e-mailed me regarding several of my columns on leadership. He was about to attend a session with noted author Warren Bennis and wanted to get my perspective on this topic. I was flattered -- until I realized the difficulty of the question he posed. He asked me to define leadership in one sentence! I took a stab at it, but cautioned that Bennis has written numerous books and studied leadership exhaustively, so my one-sentence attempt was unlikely to add much to that body of work. After the session, the fellow sent another e-mail reporting that the sentence I wrote was very useful to him. So I decided to share it in this column: Leadership is the ability to convince people to follow a path they have never taken to a place they have never been -- and, upon finding it to be successful, to do it over and over again. For any business to be successful, the one ingredient that is not optional is strong leadership. Leadership starts with a single leader at the top -- usually the president and/or CEO. Put a weak leader there, and leaders in various other parts of the organization will become demotivated and leave. A few years ago, an M.B.A. intern in my organization posed another, somewhat similar question: "What is the role of a leader?" My answer at the time was lengthier and less logically formed. But I have since refined it, and it also may be worth sharing here. The role of a leader is:

  • To create a clear understanding of the current reality and a healthy dissatisfaction with the current situation.
  • To help develop a shared vision of a more desirable future situation.
  • To create the belief that there is a viable path from the former to the latter.
  • To create an environment in which people are motivated to embark on the journey to that future.
I had just finished answering the first question when the intern fired a second one: "If that is the role of the leader, what are the responsibilities of the leader?" Once again, I fearlessly launched into another spur-of-the-moment reply. The responsibilities of a leader are:
  • To help the organization remove or overcome obstacles on the journey.
  • To assure that the resources needed for the journey are available or can be obtained.
  • To provide encouragement, honest feedback (positive or negative), and continued support during the journey.
  • To take part in the journey.
At an IW conference a few years ago, I asked Robert Galvin, the former chairman of Motorola Inc.: "What is the most important aspect of leadership?" His answer: "To take people to places they would be afraid to go alone." I liked that answer so well that I have integrated it into my own leadership definitions. I also asked him whether leadership can be taught. "Not exactly," he replied, "but it can be modeled and emulated." As I reflected on Galvin's observations, I realized that there is a large quantity of "unrealized leadership" in everyone. The amount varies, and the circumstances under which it emerges (if ever) depend on whether it is needed, the other potential leaders available, and the risks involved in assuming a leadership role. In an earlier column, I concluded that great leaders need one ingredient more than anything else -- great followers. Those followers are also leaders in their own right, but they lead only a few people at most. Real leaders must help the followers decide where they are going and how they will get there. Then they must keep the group on course during the journey as unexpected obstacles and pitfalls are encountered. When leaders assume their roles properly and take their responsibilities seriously, followers will almost always respond -- and usually successfully. John Mariotti, a former manufacturing CEO, is president of The Enterprise Group, a consulting business. He lives in Knoxville. His e-mail address is [email protected].

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