The Leadership Continuum (Part One)

I have been thinking about and practicing leadership as a professional pursuit for 30 years.

My husband Jarda and I run an institute devoted to leadership principles and practice, the International Leadership Institute,  and we debate leadership every day.

One thing that's changed over 30 years is how we view leadership. In the 1980s, there was a dichotomous division between successful leadership and failure. The idea then was to direct all effort toward being a successful leader rather than a failure.

The 1980s: Either a Success or a Failure
In this either/or paradigm, the leader succeeds completely or fails utterly. The theory was put forth in business schools and popular business books that one could readily learn the principles of successful leadership and put them to use. Implied was the idea that a failure meant faulty understanding or application of the principles and skills of leadership. The onus of failure was on the leader.

In business, this way of looking at leadership meant that "unsuccessful" CEOs were fired and replaced by people who talked a better leadership talk. Naturally, CEOs started looking for ways to define "success" that would be favorable to their actions. Measuring success is never easy, so methods like "the bottom line" (profits) took precedence over other characteristics of success, such as making high-quality products or providing useful and effective services. Businesses were seen as money-making machines; long-range consequences of polices took a back seat to immediate profit, for CEOs who wanted to be successful and keep their jobs. If they failed to make money, they were complete failures.

In politics, this concept of leadership meant that politicians were no longer representatives of the people, in the sense of governing in the best interests of all their constituents, making sure that the values and morals of their constituency had a voice in government. Other signs of success were more important: how much money a politician could bring to his or her state, city or district, or how much power he or she exerted in Congress, City Hall or county politics. The President was judged by how he enhanced the prestige and power of the US in the world, not by how he lived out principles of democracy and freedom. An unexpected political development many miles away could turn him into a failure, as in the case of President Jimmy Carter and the Iranian hostage crisis.

What about other measures of success?
A crucial aspect of success is how it is measured. If success means making a huge profit in a business, the business may be successful only as long as it has an advantage in a particular market. Once the advantage erodes, success may flee. On the other hand, if success is measured by having a positive impact in a community, or having satisfied employees, or continually adapting for future opportunities, success may be viewed over decades or longer.

Non-profit organizations are often caught in the success trap: if they allow themselves to be defined by numbers of people served or any such quantitative measure, they can end up chasing numbers rather than living their original mission. This, by the way, is why it's crucial for organizations to define their own mission and set their own goals annually, so they are in charge of their own "success." If old-fashioned measures of success are in place, such as having a good bottom line, losing money one year can close down a useful organization.

In all these considerations of leadership, little mention is made of outside factors that can change the situation so drastically that even well-prepared leaders have to hope for good luck. Weather catastrophes, political revolutions, popular uprisings, deaths and births, disease, criminal activities and (these days) technological disasters can turn a success into a failure overnight. Thus, success is not a one-dimensional judgment but must be viewed in the context of surrounding circumstances and changes.

The 21st Century: Success and failure on a continuum
By 1980s measures, only a few could be successful leaders, as only a few have the will and resources to win all the time. This left large numbers of well-meaning, talented individuals to the fate of being labeled a failure, as if there is no space between the two poles of success and failure. These failed leaders may have indeed lacked necessary skills, but may also have been temporarily hampered by outside factors; changes in the business and political environment could have turned their success into failure. It's also possible that the failed leader of yesterday is tomorrow's visionary, creating successful new ventures, but if he or she has been consigned to failure, the whole society will lose.

In the past years, then, it has become clear to Jarda and me that success and failure in leadership are on a continuum, rather that two sides to a coin. It's like following the stock market; one day there are gains, another day there are losses. Depending on where you are standing at the moment, a leader can look like he or she is succeeding, but every experienced leader knows that some failure is sure to follow.

So, more than ever, it's up to the aspiring leader to not just absorb the principles and practices of leadership, but to also have a deep, unshakable certainty that he or she is in it for the long run. Success and failure are not opposites: they are markers at either end of a long line that spans time and space. The leader who today looks like a success may in fact be slipping towards failure, due to personal weaknesses, upcoming unfavorable changes or the simple whims of fate; the failing leader may be sliding towards success.

Defining success on one's own terms is a key leadership task; constantly refining and adjusting these terms to meet changing conditions is just as necessary. Those who stubbornly stick to one definition of success will find themselves slipping into failure; those who never know exactly who they are and what they believe will meet the same sad fate. Success in this regard lies in walking the line between refusing to change principles and beliefs, and refusing to clarify principles and beliefs.

The successful leader of the 21st century knows that he or she can't be measured by just one dimension of success, and thus avoids the trap of basking in past glory. This leader is flexible, adaptable, and looking for new opportunity while preserving what is best about the present.

Failure is, for the successful leader, not welcome. Yet he or she knows and accepts that it is the price of success--no one can always succeed. Remembering the continuum of leadership can keep people from overreacting in moments of failure as well as from getting unreasonably optimistic in moments of success.

Theodore Roosevelt by John Singer Sargent, 1903

"Far better is it to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs, even though checkered by failure... than to rank with those poor spirits who neither enjoy nor suffer much, because they live in a gray twilight that knows not victory nor defeat."


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