What Great Leaders Have in Common
I was quite inspired this morning watching the President’s inauguration and listening to the many speeches and readings in honor of the great tradition of leadership transition that we celebrate on inauguration day. I was particularly taken by the many ways in which people called out for all of us to reach for a higher purpose in our work, our lives and our interactions with others.
I was reminded that the path to higher purpose is one of aspiration, not necessarily achievement. People spoke of their own struggles, as well as reminding us of the struggles of all the men and women who created this democracy. Our country was founded on certain ideals yet at the moment of its founding it was not living up to all of them. For a few specific groups it was living up to very few of them. Yet still, everyone aspired to something better. And I am very grateful for their efforts.
I saw today all the different kinds of people that make up the United States and was reminded of the unbelievable beautiful power of a diverse group of people coming together to create something larger than themselves. The Brooklyn Tabernacle choir was wonderful to hear and to see – so many people working together to create an amazing sound – honoring a President and an ideal – and all of them able to trace their family roots to some place around the globe, near or far. Diversity is one of the great powers of this country.
Myrlie Evers-Williams provided a powerful invocation; wisely spoken words calling on all of us to step up, to remember who came before us and where we are going. She showed us one of the skills of great leaders - an ability to create an image that relies on the past yet does not dwell in it. By calling out people and ideas to whom many of us owe a great deal, she sought to identify the path forward, and named it as one on which all of us can travel. Providing a sense of direction that is inclusive and full of opportunities is necessary if people are going to follow a leader.
The poetry of Richard Blanco was moving as personal testimony to his life and the hard work of his parents, and also as a reminder of the beauty that can reside in words so artfully put together. Poetry helps us to imagine our higher purpose and what we will see along the way as we seek to achieve it. While not all leaders are capable of speaking poetically many are able to convey, through their own words and stories, the higher purpose of their organizations and how every member can be a part of achieving something greater.
President Obama’s own speech was in many ways a leadership parable. The words themselves did not create an allegory yet the entire message, with the details and embedded challenges, identified our need to move forward – as a country and a group of people with, at times, conflicting interests. Yet we need to move forward.
Great leaders are the ones who are able to see through the uncertainty that surrounds them, identify the opportunities in the distance, and bring people together to go forward. Great leaders encourage us to work with each other, they inspire us and help to identify and clarify our aspirations. And we choose to follow them.
In business as in politics seeking to be a leader who pursues a higher purpose is a weighty challenge. In business – the for-profit ones – the purpose has often been said to be to make the most money possible for owners/shareholders. In politics, the purpose has often been said to be getting elected and staying in office while providing special benefits to special interests. Yet if politicians and business leaders seek a higher purpose in their work then they must step beyond the small goals – making money as a capitalist, getting elected as a politician – and seek to do something more.
A business leader seeking a higher purpose should seek to run a profitable organization, yet this is a small goal relative to what is possible. Business leaders need to be aware of and responsible for the consequences of their actions. The lives of people who choose to follow are invaluable to the success of the organization, and people’s contributions create the success of the business. A great leader will understand the balance between his/her role as a leader of people, and the contributions of everyone else in the organization that actually creates the wealth that the organization sells as products or services. Great leaders respect contributors and share rewards fairly.
A great politician seeking a higher purpose should seek to respond to people’s requests in such a way that reelection is possible, yet there is more. Political leaders need to call out our challenges, and inspire large groups of people towards collective action to meet those challenges. Great politicians need to insure that smaller groups, or those who are quiet or afraid, have a voice as well – that their challenges do not get overlooked. Great politicians know how to move among people of great difference and find common ground – an immensely valuable leadership skill.
Too often business leaders and politicians are called out for going after the lower purpose of their profession, not the higher purpose. Yet last week, the 2013 100 Best Companies were announced and this week our President was inaugurated for a second term. These leaders have much in common – they seek a higher purpose in their lives, their work, and the contributions they make to the greater good of this country and world. Not one of them is perfect, for they are aspiring humans like the rest of us. We can learn from them, teach them by making sure they are aware of the consequences of their actions, and hold them accountable for always seeking to live up to the higher purpose they identify as their goal.
Hear directly from leaders of the 100 Best Companies to Work For at the
10th Annual Great Place to Work Conference.
In the healthcare industry? Join us the day before for the 2013 Healthcare Summit.
Amy Lyman is co-founder of the Great Place to Work® and researcher/writer. Her current focus is on the key contributions of Trustworthy Leaders to the creation and support of successful groups and organizations.