Against the backdrop of your personal motivations and expectations about leadership, you have a broad array of choices about what to do as leader. The readings referenced above can be a guide in making those choices but none of the articles says ‘this is what you should do,’ because of course it all depends on your situation. You have an opportunity to ‘do the right thing’; the problem is to figure out what that is. And guess what? As the speed of information and physical transportation reduce the time span for decision making, as declining access to and supply of natural resources increase competition for the factors of production, and as headline-ready belief systems tighten and factionalize our communities, the task isn’t getting any easier. It’s a dirty job, but somebody’s got to do it, and that person could be you.
Leadership is a difficult, dynamically changing task. It is the highest and best use of certain kinds of talent that there is. Many are called, but few are chosen, goes the saying. If you hear the call, there is no guarantee you’ll be good at it, but you will never forget whether you answered it. It will sit there in the Inbox of your Ambition, on the Bucket List of your Work Life and haunt you, the less travelled road diverging in the wood that could make all the difference between a life fully lived and one with nagging questions.
So it says here that you owe it to yourself to give it a try. And if not to yourself, maybe you owe it to your team, or your company or your boss or your spouse or your children or your parents or your god or your destiny . . . or someone. If that feeling that you owe it to someone is talking to you, listen. It’s an essential prerequisite of leadership. For you there will be nothing quite like the experience of having other people look to you to lead the way and count on you to get it right.
Each of us is the leading character in the story of our own lives. Stories have characters, a narrative voice, a plot with twists and turns, encounters with good and evil, and an end that needs to ring true, just like leadership. If you’re going to be a leader, you’re going to be a leading character in the life dramas of those who follow you. The sooner you get that, and recognize the inescapable obligation to make it a good story, the better.
Here are a final two things to ponder as vital parts of the context for your choice. Consider these as you develop your ‘teachable point of view’ as a leader.
Thing One is an emerging body of thought about management as a force for good, promulgated until his untimely death in 2004 by Sumantra Ghoshal, a prolific business researcher, writer and teacher with a global reach and perspective. He died on the brink of a fundamental reworking of the theoretical basis for education in management practice. Driven by his belief that people are born good and only learn to act selfishly when threatened in some way, Ghoshal was vexed by two dominant practices of his academic colleagues: their propensity for discovering behavior patterns in their research, and then building theories and proposing management practice based on the assumption that people will always behave that way—which ignores the fact that people can learn and their intentions can change for the better; and the dominant influence of transaction cost economics and agency theory on all the management disciplines, from finance to strategy, such that companies are seen as markets whose organizational and interpersonal interactions are transactions to be managed so as to maximize shareholder value—which subordinates all nuance in motivation and the vast range of human emotional sentiments to economic success.
He warned that if you teach people that this is the truth long enough, as we have done, enough of them will behave accordingly, such that management education will enshrine destructive motivations without ever debating their place. In a world so instructed, good intentions – what Abraham Lincoln called ‘the better angels of our nature’ – become marginalized. “Bad management theory is at present destroying good management practice,” Ghoshal concluded, observing that the dominant leadership archetype of today, “hard driving, decisive, ruthless, heroic, independent, volitional, male” was an inevitable outgrowth of this inadequate theory and related teachings.
Finally, he saw legislative and regulatory forces acting at the beginning of this century, not without reason, as if driven by the fundamental premise “that management, left to itself, is evil and that society’s primary task is to prevent the exploitation of people by companies. This premise runs the risk of becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy, thereby further damaging the credibility and legitimacy of companies, as institutions, and of management, as a profession.” These words from almost a decade before the Occupy Wall Street movement, the rise of the 99 Percent faction, the polarization of Congressional debate and the gridlocked economy of the Obama years in the US are a sober warning of the risks incurred when leadership does not embrace the challenge of being a force for good.
Ghoshal’s extensive research and writing covers a broad array of strategy, organization and management topics, but he had only begun to link his work into a comprehensive theoretical base and explore the implications of these observations when he died. While the momentum of the conversation collapsed when he passed away, the implications for practice are manifold. The goal of my work and yours, if you so choose, is to reenergize leadership’s engagement with choices in the critical few domains that matter – strategy and organization, engagement and execution, managing self and other – from the perspective of leadership as a force for good.
Thing Two is a body of thought about sustainability, and the emerging recognition that the planet’s natural resources, which have been in practice infinite, but are in fact finite, are currently being utilized in such a way that, absent fundamental changes in how we operate the global economy, the children of today’s young leaders will inherit a natural world on an irreversible declining path. If the natural world’s ability to sustain life is compromised, goes the argument, decline of our social and economic worlds will follow. Consequently, if we don’t make a fundamental shift in resource utilization and waste production happen in our lifetime, our children will very likely experience catastrophe in theirs. Iroquois leaders warned tribesmen in the 19th century to treat their actions as if their product must last seven generations, a wisdom that has survived marginalization of the tribe’s scope of practice. This sobering realization – the ‘inconvenient truth’ of the eponymous Oscar-winning documentary – is fueling an explosive growth in ideas and initiatives in both public and private sectors, which will hopefully re-balance availability, access and usage of natural resources. The green economy, the sustainable economy, zero carbon footprint, net positive environmental impact, and corporate social responsibility are new sustainability-related thrusts vying for inclusion on the leadership agenda of the early 21st Century.
A leading spokesperson for this point of view is author Peter Senge, whose groundbreaking 1990 book The Fifth Discipline argued that improving organizational functioning required distributed expertise in five different modes of thinking and learning, the fifth of which, systems thinking—the ability to see patterns and posit larger, integrating frames of reference for organizational phenomena—was most important for organizational growth. Fifteen years later in 2005, he and four co-authors published The Necessary Revolution: How Individuals and Organizations Are Working Together to Create a Sustainable World, expanding the frame of reference for his thinking from organizations to the world. Citing numerous scientific studies reporting highly elevated levels of CO2 in the environment and a 30-50 year lag for its full effects to be felt on temperature and climate, they argue for embracing an 80-20 Challenge – we make a 60-80% reduction in global emissions within the next 20 years, or face irreversible and uncontrollable effects of increased CO2 levels – and give extensive coverage to efforts across sectors already underway to make necessary changes happen. Although debate continues about ‘how high is too high?,’ unusual partnerships have already formed between business leaders and NGOs around issues of common concern, e.g. Coca Cola and the World Wildlife Fund on the water crisis, and show that increasing numbers feel the urgency is high enough, and the time for action is not later but now.
Inspired by Einstein’s observation that ‘We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them,’ the authors take pains to explain the predominant system of thinking that led to this crisis, evolved over the past hundred-plus years of steady economic progress in the Industrial Age, so that we understand what produced the current situation. While effective in delivering economic growth and prosperity, its optimization of production and consumption over other societal goods had unintended consequences in the natural and social spheres. Waste production is seen as inevitable and a business opportunity. Resource depletion calls for innovations in extraction and development of substitutes. Planning assumptions such as ‘energy is infinite and cheap . . . there will always be enough room to dispose of all our waste . . . and basic resources such as water and topsoil are unlimited’ are made without question. There’s no problem the system produces that markets, new technologies and appropriate laws, regulations and enforcement methods can’t solve. In addition, negative social impacts, such as lost jobs, environmentally determined illnesses, and the societal consequences of economic inequities are seen as inevitable and hence acceptable side-effects of the economic production system. None of these indicated the need for the fundamental refresh of the system of thinking the authors argue for until the inconvenient truth of environmental decline became undeniable.
Keep these still-evolving ideas fresh in mind as you vault into the arena of leadership!
 ‘Towards a Good Theory of Management’, in Sumantra Ghoshal on Management, p 12.