What is Leadership? Like a rock in a tumbler, this question continuously rolls around in my mind as I work to polish off the rough edges. What intrigues me is the importance of sustainability as a core leadership value.
Sustainability and leadership may sound like an odd combination, since by default many think of sustainability in terms of environmental and/or energy issues. But in fact, sustainability is defined as “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” To me, this sounds a lot like my core responsibility as the leader of my companies. If I am doing my job correctly, not only am I taking the actions necessary to meet the numerous and varied needs of my current team, but I am also taking the actions necessary to ensure that my organization will persist well beyond my tenure.
But if a commitment to sustainability is core to leadership, one must ask: How many true leaders are there these days? It has been my observation that, rather than leading, many in positions of authority are simply managing to short-term objectives without considering the long-range consequences. Whether this tendency to manage for the now is due to lack of vision/understanding (an inability to adapt), lack of confidence in the future (fear), or dare I say, just pure self-interest (greed) is up for debate. What is not debatable is that this myopic approach to leadership is frequently on public display and erodes opportunity for those they serve.
We live in complicated times, but the fundamentals of leadership and the stewardship it requires remain solid anchor-points regardless of current challenges. The concept of sustainability serves as an umbrella covering many of these leadership fundamentals and provides a focal point by which actions and intentions can be assessed. Fundamentals tend not to change. Whether leading a family, a small company, a multinational corporation, or a nation, the fundamentals apply.
Leadership and sustainability is a big topic with seemingly endless edges to polish, but here are a few thoughts for your consideration:
Infrastructure – Whether leading a household or a major enterprise, infrastructure matters and requires investment. Ignoring a car repair for a vacation will eventually have consequences, perhaps even impacting your ability to earn a living if you can’t get to work. A government ignoring maintenance of its infrastructure is no different.
Education – Never in the history of the world has a commitment to continuing eduction been more critical. Leaders must be proactively engaged and committed to the development of those they serve. I recently saw two ladies in their 80s taking a class at an Apple store. This is putting ego aside and embracing change. This is being a positive role model. This is being a leader.
Situational Awareness – A leader must be acutely aware of changes to their operating environment, but awareness alone is not sufficient. All leaders – household, corporate, or government – must take the proactive actions necessary to remain competitive. Too many in positions of authority are pining nostalgically for a bygone day, either by assuming their position next to a fearful ostrich or by aggressively attacking any ideas that challenge their worldview. This form of denial serves no one and puts both them and the team they lead at risk.
Self-Awareness – The days of the egocentric leader are over. More than ever a leader must be aware of, acknowledge, and take action to correct for deficiencies in their knowledge and/or experience. This certainly includes the theme of old dogs learning new tricks. But more critical is an individual’s ability to build a nimble team of trusted advisors and to coordinate their efforts. Ideally, this group of advisors is made up of individuals from both inside and outside the organization and is refreshed as needs change.
Listening – You don’t know what you don’t know. And in today’s changing world what you don’t know is increasing daily. One need look no further than Mark Zuckerberg’s testimony before Congress to get a sense of the true cost of not being engaged. No one can lead something they do not understand.
What is leadership? It is nothing short of our character and values on display. It is the public expression of who we are. Sure, there are times when tough and unpopular decisions must be made. But it is the motivation behind the decision that matters. Are we leading in a sustainable manner for the benefit of those in our charge, or simply for our self-interest? Will future leaders see us as visionaries or simply as fearful opportunists? Either way, many in positions of authority today will be around to bear witness to their legacy.