Defining Leadership

Today I am continuing with my impressions of presentations from the 2014 Global Leadership Summit (GLS), which I attended last week.

Carly Fiorina was the first woman to become CEO of a Fortune 50 company, Hewlett-Packard. Being first at anything is rarely easy. It seems many of those around, instead of rejoicing with us in our success, root for us to fail. Her tenure was relatively short, six years, and ended with her leaving after a dispute with the board. Still, those six years were longer than the average for a Fortune 500 CEO, a leadership problem I may address in a future post.

Her 2014 GLS presentation was a tough one for anyone to deal with comprehensively, a topic I have wrestled with for years: How do you define leadership? “We call a lot of people leaders who are not leaders at all” she pointed out. So why do we think those people are leaders? I suspect it is because they are the ones who shout the loudest. We value aggressiveness in our culture, and don’t always look at whether it is a positive attribute or not.

Carly Fiorina is an example of what determination can bring when it comes to business success. She started as a secretary and wound up as head of one of the top corporations in the world. It wasn’t easy, but she persevered, a trait that has stood her well since leaving Hewlett-Packard.

According to Fiorina, the most important lesson for a leader to learn is that everyone has more potential than most of us realize. Human potential is limitless, especially when focused on worthy goals and common purpose. Certainly I can agree with her in theory, but I doubt many people are able to put it in practice.

So what is leadership according to Carly Fiorina? Well, it is definitely “not about position and title and power.” Leadership is rather about changing the order of things. An example of such a leader is the Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King Junior, a pastor with a dream, who instead of negotiating with the people in power unlocked the potential of “nobodies.” That would not have been what most people would have thought of when defining leadership, but Dr. King’s name inevitably comes up when you talk about people who made a difference in American society.

Fiorina stresses that leadership is not management (I gather a lot of people confuse the two). Management is about producing acceptable results, within known constraints and conditions. Leaders are people who change the order of things, not just those who can make a great speech. The most important acts of leadership are not the words. Leaders are those who choose to lead, choose to change the order of things and choose the joy of unlocking potential in others. “Like faith, leadership is a choice.” People, she added, have lots of reasons they choose not to lead.

“True leadership is not about us, it is about others.” Carly Fiorina may no longer be leading a major corporation but she is still instead utilizing her leadership talents through organizations such as Good360 and Opportunity International.

That model is both very old and counter-cultural. Servant leadership, looking out for others first, has been an important aspect of Christianity from its beginnings. From what I see around me though it seems to have fallen out of fashion, and that is a pity.

Next post: Crucial Conversations


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