When leadership really matters

I was packing up some boxes recently, getting ready to move my home office from the guest room to the newly finished office space in recent home remodel (13 years in the making!) when I came across an old notebook. Flipping through the pages to decide whether to toss or not I found some notes from a meeting I had with a mentor of mine a number of years ago. Scrawled across the top was written “DO NOT THROW AWAY,” in bold caps. Written just below the blaring warning was a hastily written title, “Leading when leadership really matters.” Too tempting not to read further, I settled into my chair to read on, replaying the meeting in my memory.John was a retired CEO from the manufacturing industry and had been serving as a mentor for new executives in organizations in his retirement. We were discussing qualities of leadership and what it is that he has observed from an outsiders perspective on what effective leadership is and when it is really needed. “It comes down to dealing with ambiguity Rick,” he said plainly, “This is the crux of it, especially when the company is challenged with difficult circumstances. Everyone from the boardroom to the front line is looking to you to tell them how you are going to pull the company through the difficult times.” “Here lays the leadership challenge, leading when leadership really matters, and it starts with the three pillars of leading – Purpose, Persistence and Pace. Here’s how these work,” John explained. “Leaders will face all kinds of challenges that change the rules of the game. They will be continually faced with situations where the same old routines just don’t work anymore. Leadership is dynamic. We cannot continue to be content being the hammer looking for the same old nail every time. This can be incredibly frustrating and unravel even the most levelheaded leader. Thus the continual challenge of leadership is not for the feint of heart and to get us through the toughest of times when we just don’t know what to do or where to turn, we must have a clear purpose, a transcendent cause for what we do to ground us.” John was on a roll now and I was taking notes furiously, barely keeping up with him.” Hardly stopping to take a breath, John proceeded, “This is the first pillar of leadership. A purpose answers the why of what we do. As Nietzsche said, ‘he who has a why to live for can endure almost any how.’ And believe me, the aspiring leader will undoubtedly face many how’s that will test their resolve!” John paused for a moment, sipped from his latte and continued. “The second pillar of leading is persistence. There are no two ways about it. Persistence is the dogged determination to see through the how and cannot be substituted with any amount of knowledge or intellectual mastery. The pursuits of many a leader have been dashed when they were literally on the threshold of success, caving in to the pressures against them and not seeing the effort through.” Continuing to scribble madly in my notebook, I noticed he had stopped talking and looked up to see him gazing quietly at what I was writing. Silently determining that I was keeping pace, he continued. “The last pillar, and perhaps the most unheralded is pace. Most leaders either stall at the starting line due to inaction, fearful of making the wrong decision or fire off like a shot out of a cannon only to see their well intended efforts fizzle out shortly into their tenure. The leader who recognizes the leadership journey is a truly marathon will pace themselves for the long haul, choosing their moves carefully with an eye toward the long term.” I put my pen down and kneaded the cramp out of my writing hand. “Is it really this simple John?” I asked reflectively. “Don’t kid yourself,” he said flatly. “It’s rarely as simple as it seems, yet never as complicated as we make it.” I laughed out loud as I pondered his Zen-like wisdom. He proceeded calmly, unfazed by my outburst, “The truth of leading when it really matters is it is rarely about heroics, but rather a consistent adherence to the three pillars. Whether good times or bad, the leader is always served by the discipline of purpose, persistence and pace. That is what leads to success in the long run.” Looking back on that conversation now, it seems incredibly prophetic. John was absolutely right. Is it too late to adopt the principals of the three pillars? Only you can determine however the real question should be, “can I afford not to?” Clearly, given the events unfolding before us in the economy the future of our organizations hang on the quality of the choices we make now, in the moment, when leadership really matters. May we all choose wisely!