The quest for a better way to lead
(The following is excerpted with permission from Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations, winner of the 2013 International Book Awards business: general category).
“Perfection is not attainable, but if we chase perfection, we can catch excellence.”
-Vince Lombardi, legendary coach of the champion Green Bay Packers
Along with Coach Lombardi, we propose something radical: that we “chase perfection,” embarking upon an epic quest for the triple crown of excellent, ethical, and enduring organizations. Some people view “ethical” and “enduring” as implicit in “excellent,” but ethical and enduring are so important, and so often neglected, that we draw them out for special emphasis. Today, there is so much focus on making your short-term numbers that the ethical and enduring dimensions get drowned out.
Those undertaking this quest can expect to encounter daunting obstacles. With the leadership practices in this book, we fill their rucksacks with tools for the trek. Such quests are part of human nature. Through the ages, seekers have pursued truth. Explorers sought to circumnavigate the Earth, by sea and by air. Adventurers raced to the poles, to the depths of the ocean, and to the heights of Everest. Astronauts sought to demystify the heavens and walk on the moon. Patriots seek freedom for their people.
What is your quest? Are you chasing power or riches, fame or glory, recognition or approval? What is your organization’s quest? Crushing the competition? Enriching the officers? Enriching shareholders?
For decades, the aim of most businesses was singular: to maximize short-term shareholder value. We are now suffering the consequences of that maxim taken to the extreme, ignoring the caveats to do so honorably and over the long-term. Instant gratification predominates. Those who focus solely on profit and share price today face a backlash and a barrage of questions: What about ethical boundaries? What about negative externalities and social impact? What about long-term value creation and sustainable practices? Even Jack Welch, famous for driving for shareholder value as GE’s former CEO, has said, “Shareholder value is the dumbest idea in the world. Shareholder value is a result, not a strategy.”
But there are also problems with the alternatives. “Doing well by doing good” is a noble maxim, but putting blind faith in it is destined to disappoint. The “win-win” is not automatic. In fact, it can be elusive. Choosing to operate ethically and sustainably is only the beginning. Organizations must figure out how to do that while achieving excellent results, maintaining the viability of the enterprise so it can run the next race. There are real tradeoffs and tough decisions here. It requires strong leadership and lots of mid-course corrections.
Today, we do not need more of the same old approaches. We need a quest that raises our sights, summons our passions, unleashes our talents and calls our better angels to the post. Building an excellent, ethical and enduring organization is difficult, but it can be done. It requires a commitment from many people over many years and a different brand of leadership.
Notably, that leadership is not what most people think, and it is certainly not just about the person at the top. It is a job for leaders throughout the organization, even those who do not think of themselves as leaders.
This quest is a worthy and inspiring endeavor—perhaps the seminal leadership challenge of our age. It is a quest we must undertake if we are to address our challenges and honor our aspirations.