Tag Archives: Visionary Leadership

The Story of A Great Leader

teacherIf you were to ask me to describe someone who demonstrated greatness in leadership, I
might be tempted to paint the picture of a larger-than-life super hero, perhaps a president, a king, or a captain of industry.

I might not come up with Roberta Guaspari. Nonetheless I believe she is just that, a great leader.

Roberta Guaspari teaches children to play the violin. When she first started, she was a single parent to two young boys. To earn her living she arranged to provide violin lessons in school to the children of East Harlem. What she had going for her was the love of music; the ability to play; and the strong desire to make a difference for children whose opportunities were limited by their circumstances.

She has a clear and passionate vision which is simply,“for kids to have music in their lives

She believes that her vision is important because music, “empowers these children with the ability to make something beautiful that allows them to believe in themselves and know they’re special”

This is Roberta’s primary purpose, to help children love music, play music and believe in themselves. It is not about money or attention for herself but about something bigger than that, much bigger.  She is a great leader because not only can she see a better future for the children she teaches, she helps them get there, even against great odds.

In 1991, Roberta’s music program was cut from the school board budget. That meant, not only was she out of a job but the children (and their parents), who so depended on her, would lose something that had become vital to their development and future.

Roberta did not back down. Instead, she kept her focus. She forged relationships with people who had the power to help. And they did. She plucked up her courage and made much larger strides than I suspect even she thought herself capable of. Throughout it all, it seems  she never lost sight of her primary purpose.

Empathy, Vision, Focus, Determination, Courage, …and a violin. This is what makes Roberta Guaspari a great leader.

And, (the violin, notwithstanding),  such qualities exist in other great leaders, each of whom typically:

  • Have clear, well-articulated visions of the future
  • Lead with great will, humility and focus
  • Build strong alliances with a variety of people
  • Strive to achieve things that are greater than themselves and for the greater good

To demonstrate that the kind of leadership I describe can bring great results, here is a clip of Roberta Guaspari presenting her students at Carnegie Hall in a fine performance accompanied by Isaac Stern, Itzhak Perlman and Mark O’Connor.

Great leadership Indeed.  that’s what I think anyway.  What do you think?

Note: This is a refreshed version of a post I wrote in 2010.

Leave a comment

Filed under Leadership, Leadership Style, Leadership Values, Leadership Vision, Uncategorized

Leadership Lessons from the Old Man and the Sea

The end of summer is, for me, also a time of beginnings.  And, it is a time when many of us choose to refresh or re-affirm our goals and plans, whatever they may be.  This post, originally presented in March, 2012, uses a popular Hemingway story to illustrate the importance of doing just that.

===================================

The other day, while channel surfing, I caught a glimpse of Spencer Tracy playing Santiago in Ernest Hemingway’s, The Old Man and the Sea.  It didn’t register much at the time because as you may know, when one channel surfs, the little grey cells kind of take a nap.  Later though, I began to think about that story and the lessons it has to teach us.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

For those who are unfamiliar with the story, Santiago is an old fisherman living in a village not far from Havana.  Fishing is his livelihood and yet he has failed to catch any fish in eighty-four days. The young boy, who usually goes out with him, is instructed by his father to stay away from the old man. He is bad luck.  So Santiago goes fishing alone.

On the eighty-fifth day, he decides to go out further than he usually does because somewhere within him, he believes there is a big fish just meant for him.  His instinct proves to be correct as his hook and bait are swallowed by a Marlin so large it dwarfs the boat.

The Old man is determined to catch this fish.  He wants to prove that he isn’t bad luck. He envisions bringing the giant fish into the tiny harbour of his home with enough to feed the whole village.  Perhaps, deep down, he likes the idea of being a hero.

So, Santiago hangs onto the fishing line with all his might.  The fish fights valiantly all the while dragging the boat further and further out to sea.  The old man suffers as the line cuts through the muscle of his hands and his back goes into spasms of pain from pulling and resisting.

In the end, the fish tires enough to allow the old man to reel him in closer to the boat.  It is then that Santiago is successful in sinking his harpoon into the fish’s heart.  The battle is won.  But, the war is just beginning as the old man realizes the fish is bigger than the boat.  So with great diligence and respect, he straps the fish to the side of the boat and begins to make the very long journey home.

Over the course of the journey, the fish is attacked again and again by sharks.  And, as much as the old man fights to preserve it, he fails.  By the time he reaches home, he is completely exhausted… and the fish is reduced to a skeleton.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

So, let’s, just for fun, suppose that Mr. Santiago is the CEO of his own company.  His fishing business is not doing well.  He has no allies except perhaps a young assistant who, while eager, is being influenced by his family to look for work elsewhere.

Mr. Santiago is desperate to save his business and his reputation in the business community. He decides to take a huge leap of faith without really thinking it through.

At first, it looks as if his tactic is paying off.  In fact, he starts to reel in more business than he can possibly handle.   And, it’s starting to draw the attention of other businesses hungry to expand.  Mr. Santiago fights hard to protect his interests with the few resources he has, but to no avail.   Eventually, he is forced to close his doors and the glorious outcome he envisioned when he set out, becomes unattainable.

So, what advice might we give Mr. Santiago to help him realize a different outcome?  Well, a few things come to mind for me:

Have a clear goal

Spend some time envisioning the goal.  In your vision, where are you fishing? How much and what kind of fish are you catching? How big is your boat? What equipment do you have?  Who is giving you support?  What have you learned that you don’t know now?  How did you learn it?

Build a plan to support the goal.

Being able to clearly imagine the goal is important but you must also have a realistic plan for achieving it.  This includes ensuring you have sufficient resources and capability to execute the plan.   And, by the way, a good plan is only good when it is acted upon. Otherwise it becomes an exercise in wasting your time.

Consider the potential risks and rewards

Before venturing into uncharted waters, it’s a good idea to first reflect on what you stand to gain and lose by doing so.  If the risk seems greater than the potential reward, you might want to re-think the strategy.

Develop Solid Relationships with others

John Donne once said, “No man is an island entire of itself”.   With that in mind, consider inviting others to share the goal and be part of the venture.  Protect your interests from becoming shark bait by offering other, like-minded people of your choosing to participate and share in the rewards.

Think Beyond the Achievement of the Goal

To consider achievement of the goal as the end would be a mistake.  You also have to anticipate what might happen in the event of a huge success.  What then?  How will you manage it? What more will you need? How will it change you? How will it change your company?

Know When to Cut the Line

There is of course a point of no return on just about everything. In the case of Santiago in the original story, going further and further out to sea after he had caught the fish ensured that by the time he made it back to shore, there would be nothing left of it.  In business we also have to know when to stop.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

The bottom line is that striking out to explore new territory is an essential part of leadership.  However, the success of such exploration and the achievement of goals rely on one’s ability to marry leadership skill with management ability. Perhaps if Santiago had understood this, the outcome of his story might have been more positive.

That’s what I think anyway. What do you think?

4 Comments

Filed under Establishing Direction, Leadership, Leadership Development, Leadership Vision

Leadership and Encouraging Dreams

This post, from 2010 reminds me just how important dreams can be in building something concrete…and just how much work it takes to convert them to reality.

======================================================

When I first sat down to write today, I didn’t really know what I was going to write about but my mind kept drifting off toward Homer Hickam Jr. and the power of dreams.  So I guess I’m meant to write about that.

Homer Hickam is the main subject of a movie entitled October Sky, which in turn was based on Homer’s memoir Rocket Boys. Basically, it’s about his life growing up in a small mining town in West Virginia and his dreams about, and devotion to, rocketry.

It was a time when the notion of space flight was a fanciful one, especially for those who made their living in a coal mine.   In spite of that, the impact of hearing and reading about Sputnik, the first artificial satellite launched into space, was enough to inform Homer, from somewhere deep within him, that he had found his purpose.

Homer Hickam is a lucky guy.  I say that because I rather think many of us flounder around a bit when it comes to being really sure of our purpose.  And, I suspect that unlike Homer, our purpose does not present itself in such a blindingly obvious way.  Well, at least that’s the way it is for me.

But dreams are important.  They’re important because they have a way of leading us to our purpose and each dream realized, each purpose fulfilled, makes a difference to a life, to a community, and sometimes to the world.  It was that way with Terry Fox.

Terry Fox had a dream.  He dreamed about a cure for cancer. He believed in his dream so much that he ran over three thousand miles on an artificial leg to raise funds for cancer research.

Even though Terry didn’t finish his run, he fulfilled his purpose and his dream lives on, long after his death.  That’s what dreams can do…outlive us.  There’s something quite wondrous about that.

Some might think that dreaming has little to do with reality, but dreams become reality if we do the work. And, I think there are two conditions that make the conversion of dream to reality possible:

One is, we have to want it badly enough to do what it takes to make it real

The Road to fulfillment is always fraught with challenge. If a dream is worth it, it is also worth fighting for. Other people may get in the way.  Fear can put us in our own way but, if we want it badly enough, none of that matters in the end.

And secondly, we have to make sure that the dream is really ours and not something, someone else wants for us.

Sometimes, when we are trying to figure out our purpose or find a dream we can make our own, we can slip into someone else’s view of what it looks like.  This can be a convenient way of getting on with our lives.  Someone else’s dream though, no matter how magnificent it might be, is often like a suit of clothes that doesn’t quite fit and isn’t as comfortable as we’d like, no matter how good it might look on us.

Leadership is about dreaming too.  After all, if leadership were about maintaining the status quo, we wouldn’t need it.  We’d only need management. So dreams are frequently the beginning of new adventures and are about the pursuit of something that calls to us from within and makes us want to change, or be, something else or something more.

Dreams help us define our purpose. At least that’s how it was for Homer Hickam Jr. and Terry Fox. What do you think?

Leave a comment

Filed under Employee engagement, Establishing Direction, Leadership, Leadership Vision, Leading Change

Leadership…And All That Jazz

This week, I’m offering you a refreshed version of a post I wrote in 2010.  Not to be immodest but it is one of my favourites. I love jazz and I think it a perfect metaphor for leadership. I  hope you enjoy reading it as much as I did writing it.  

====================================================

Warren Bennis once said, ‘I used to think that running an organization was equivalent to conducting a symphony orchestra.  But I don’t think that’s quite it.  It’s more like jazz.  There is more improvisation”

I must confess that I really like the symphony orchestra metaphor, simply because it is, well, beautifully uncluttered. But, as much as I would like to think it possible for all things to be in harmony at all times, I know the reality to be a lot messier, or jazzier, metaphorically speaking.

In fact, it is perhaps the jazz of life, (that stuff that requires spontaneity and improvisation), that transforms the vanilla of a well-ordered enterprise into something spiced with possibility and potential for greatness.

So it is with leadership.

In leadership, there are times for following a well-planned strategy.  And, there are times when doing so isn’t going to work.  The landscape has a way of changing rapidly, often requiring leaders, as creative beings, to rely on instinct to successfully navigate unexpected challenges or opportunities and explore unknown places.

At those times, improvisation is a useful tool.  However, as with jazz, improvisation, on its own will not create a joyful noise. It must somehow find its way back to the primary melody no matter how far afield it may go.

In leadership, the primary melody lies in the organizational vision and purpose.  And, how far afield we are willing to go to realize the vision and fulfill the purpose is usually dependent on a number of  things like:

How much we know

The more curious we are and the more we seek to learn about the immediate environment, our markets, our politics and the world, the better equipped we are to make spontaneous decisions that will serve our purpose, either now or in the future.

How much we are willing to risk 

When it comes to risk, those who extend themselves too far, risk losing sight of their core purpose and those who don’t explore at all, risk missing opportunities for growth that go beyond their current expectations. Being clear about how much we are willing to risk can help us determine the extent to which we are willing to improvise.

How much we believe

If we have our organization’s core purpose and future vision etched on our brains and hearts, the likelihood is that we will also feel more at liberty to play with improvisation without fear of getting lost.

How much we imagine

Just as jazz music is highly interpretive, the extent to which we use our imagination in leadership often determines the kind of organizations we build and the ability of the people working in those organizations to improvise effectively.

In short, I think there is a vital role for improvisation in organizations. Our appetite for spontaneity will of course vary but if we are wise, we will allow room for it.  It could make the difference between mediocrity and excellence.

That’s what I think anyway. What do you think?

Oh, and just for fun, here is Oscar Peterson providing a fine example of what can happen when improvisation blends beautifully with the primary melody.

5 Comments

Filed under Leadership, Leadership Style, Organizational Effectiveness, Uncategorized

Leadership and Faith

Faith. It’s not a word I’ve heard used a lot in my working life.  Perhaps it is because it has a tinge of uncertainty about it that many in traditional organizations tend to view it with misgiving.  It is an important word though… especially important if you want to achieve anything; rise above anything; or stretch beyond the boundaries of your current understanding.

This occurred to me recently when I went to see the movie, Salmon Fishing in the Yemen.  Without spoiling it for anyone, this story is about a very wealthy Sheik who loves to fish.  He owns a castle in Scotland and part of his vision for the future of his people is to make it possible for salmon to live and thrive in Yemen.  It seems like an impossible dream to everyone but him.   And yet, he continues to pursue it and to believe in it.

The truth is, Leadership asks a great deal of us.  It often demands that we strike out into the unknown and convince other people it’s a good idea.  It asks us to trust that some things do not come complete with scientific or rational explanation.  It asks us, too, to believe in our own abilities: the potential and ability of those who work with us and in the value and viability of our vision, even at times when that vision seems unlikely enough to be unattainable.

Faith also asks this of us.   And, it makes room for great things to happen.

It allows us to ‘step off cliffs’  ~ Building and growing a business requires us to take chances.  Sometimes these are measured and well researched and sometimes they constitute a leap of faith.   I think the success of the latter often depends on how fervently we believe in our imagined outcomes. Those who doubt either themselves or their ability to realize their imagined outcomes rarely see them come to fruition.

It allows us to let go ~ Simply put, when we place our faith in the ability and good intentions of others, we are free to concentrate on other important things.  Of course, part of letting go includes successfully transferring our vision of the future to others but, once done, it allows them the freedom to think, create and produce great results in ways that we might not have imagined.

It allows us to see mistakes as reparable ~ When we really believe in what we are doing, mistakes become part of the learning and growing process.  Indeed, if our faith in the direction we are taking is strong, the setbacks we will inevitably experience will find a way of teaching us something useful.

The bottom line is that faith in organizations is an essential part of growth and exploration.  It belongs in the workplace.  It does not guarantee success but it allows for small, and sometimes very big, victories.   And, like stepping stones in a stream, they eventually lead us to the other side where we can look back and marvel at the journey and maybe even go fishing in the Yemen.

What do you think?

12 Comments

Filed under Leadership, Leadership Vision, motivating & Inspiring, Organizational Effectiveness

Servant Leadership…Creating an Environment of Service


A lot is being said about the leader as “servant”.  I expect, given that it is a relatively young term (having been ‘born’ in 1970), it is also subject to wide interpretation.  As such, while some people will experience great results from their efforts to serve; others will consider it a fad that will go away if they ignore it; and still others will make every effort to embrace the notion of the Servant Leader but find themselves exhausted, confused and possibly resentful because people seem to be walking all over them.

So what to do?  Well, first I’m thinking that we need some clarity about what it means to serve or be a servant.  So I looked it up in a number of dictionaries and found:

Servant leaders are humble stewards of their organizations’ resources

A Servant is one who serves another, providing help in some manner

A servant is a person who performs duties for others.

So far so good.  Then I went to the Thesaurus for some synonyms for the word servant. Between the words attendant and steward lay these words, lackey, flunky, minion and drudge. Okay then, herein may lie a problem.

Perhaps it is that many of us, when we think of the term Servant Leadership, take this subservient perspective (a.k.a. lackey, flunky, minion and drudge).  In other words, it suggests that by serving, we are also submitting to the whims of others for no other reason than to render them superior. And, let’s face it; our egos are going to have a hard time with that.

So, if you have been leaning in that direction when you think about the notion of Servant Leadership I have some good news for you.  I don’t think it’s about that at all.  Here’s what I do believe it’s about.

It’s about…knowing the Over-arching purpose

I believe a good servant leader will focus on an over-arching purpose. This purpose becomes the master and the guide for all activities undertaken within the framework of the company. The leader serves the purpose through people. For instance, Southwest airlines’ over-arching purpose is stated as:

“To provide the best service and lowest fares to the short haul, frequent-flying, point-to-point, non-interlining traveler.”

This simple statement lets everyone know why Southwest Airlines is in business and whom it is there, ultimately, to serve.  However, in order to succeed, this understanding of service must permeate the organization and so it also becomes the role of the leader to:

Serve the people who are working to fulfill the over-arching purpose

This means that the leader works to provide the resources needed for people to do their jobs well and happily.  It includes providing needed training, supplies, connections, information, accommodation, direction and anything else that allows people working in the company to move the organization closer to the achievement of its purpose.

It also means…encouraging and developing an environment where people serve each other

Okay, so I think where we can go wrong with this servant leadership thing is that we fail to expect all people working in the organization to serve too.  Or, we simply don’t convey it very well.

Those who believe servant leadership to be a role only for the designated leader would be wrong. In truth, an environment that embraces service will do so in an all-encompassing way.  This means that regardless of title or position, each person will both lead and serve another, or a group of others, to achieve company goals and make a contribution to the achievement of its purpose.

So, having said all that, what does it actually take to create this environment where service is king?  Well, for what it’s worth, this is what I think about that.

It takes Discipline: Staying focused on the over-arching purpose and using it, as a guide for providing service to others is not easy.  As humans, we can become easily distracted.  It may be easy to stay the course and remain true to the purpose when times are good.  But, when they are not so good, it becomes tempting to stray and do what is expedient instead.

It takes Humility: Putting others before ourselves is sometimes a challenge, especially in business, but humility is an essential ingredient in a successful service environment.  I’m not talking about being obsequious here.  I’m talking about simply being unselfish and mindful of others’ needs and contributions.

It takes Collaboration: Simply put, in order to serve the purpose and each other, we have to learn to work together, avoid internal politics and protectionism and share our ideas and resources with each other more freely.

It takes Trust:  Trust is often an earned thing.  However, a leader who serves the people will, in my view anyway, start from a platform of trust rather than skepticism.  In my experience, people respond well to a leader who conveys faith in their intent. People who feel trusted are more likely to be willing to serve the over-arching purpose.  Will you be disappointed? Yep, from time to time you will. But, if you start out not trusting my hunch is you’re going to be disappointed anyway.

And:

It takes Faith: I’m not talking about the religious kind of faith here.  I’m talking about the kind of faith that makes you believe so strongly in your company’s purpose and its people that all of your activities centre around them and the financial results that you realize from that come as a by-product of your collective effort.

So, is servant leadership for the faint of heart?  I’d say no.  Is it about subservience, or slavery?  Certainly not.  What do you think? What rewards have you experienced from leading from the perspective of service?  What challenges have you faced? What would you add?


2 Comments

Filed under Building Relationships, Employee engagement, Leadership Values

Leadership…and All That Jazz

Warren Bennis once said, ‘I used to think that running an organization was equivalent to conducting a symphony orchestra.  But I don’t think that’s quite it.  It’s more like jazz.  There is more improvisation”

I must confess that I really like the symphony orchestra metaphor, simply because it is, well, beautifully uncluttered. But, as much as I would like to think it possible for all things to be in harmony at all times, I know the reality to be a lot messier, or jazzier, metaphorically speaking.

In fact, it is perhaps the jazz of life, (that stuff that requires spontaneity and improvisation), which transforms the vanilla of a well-ordered enterprise into something spiced with possibility and potential for greatness.

So it is with leadership.

In leadership, there are times for following a well-planned strategy.  And, there are times when doing so isn’t going to work.  The landscape has a way of changing rapidly, often requiring leaders, as creative beings, to rely on instinct to successfully navigate unexpected challenges or opportunities and explore unknown places.

At those times, improvisation is a useful tool.  However, as with jazz, improvisation, on its own will not create a joyful noise. It must somehow find its way back to the primary melody no matter how far afield it may go.

In leadership, the primary melody lies in the organizational purpose.  And, how far afield we are willing to go from that is usually grounded in a number of principles emanating from considerations like:

How much we know

The more curious we are and the more we seek to learn about our immediate environment, our markets, our politics and our world, the better equipped we are to make spontaneous decisions that will serve our purpose, either now or in the future.

How much we are willing to risk

When it comes to risk, those who extend themselves too far, risk losing sight of their core purpose and those who don’t explore at all, risk missing opportunities for growth that go beyond their current expectations. Being clear about how much we are willing to risk can help us determine the extent to which we are willing to improvise.

How much we believe

If we have our organization’s core purpose etched on our brains and hearts, the likelihood is that we will also feel more at liberty to play with improvisation without fear of getting lost.

How much we imagine

Just as jazz music is highly interpretive, the extent to which we use our imagination in leadership often determines the kind of organizations we build and the ability of the people working in those organizations to improvise effectively.

In short, I think there is a vital role for improvisation in organizations. Our appetite for spontaneity will of course vary but if we are wise, we will allow room for it.  It could make the difference between mediocrity and excellence.

What do you think?

Oh, and just for fun, here is Oscar Peterson providing a fine example of what can happen when improvisation blends beautifully with the primary melody.

18 Comments

Filed under Leadership Development, Leading Change, organizational Development