Setp 5: Leading from ABOVE
The most crucial challenge for leaders will be to build confidence in order to meet the challenges of coming out of the crisis and manage the profound changes we have described in previous posts. Some leaders can do this and generate the confidence needed to keep their teams motivated and energized. They are generally considered to be above the crowd. Above is the word.
It may seem strange to talk about superiority in a world that is wary of authority and hierarchy–but where autocratic figures abound. However, when a young painter, at the very beginning of the 16th century, had the privilege of entering Raphael’s studio, did they ask themselves questions about the master’s superiority? When a young apprentice is accepted into a great chef’s kitchen, do they wonder about their mentor’s superiority? When a child, a football enthusiast, thinks of Mbape or Ronaldo, do they hesitate to position these heroes “way up there”: “above”?
These are examples of the “Above” posture, which is easy to illustrate with great figures who have marked the history of their discipline. But the same “superiority” exists in outstanding craftsmen, in doctors, nurses, schoolteachers. None of us ever forgets the teacher who was “above the crowd”!
Whatever their inborn qualities, these individuals exude passion, focus and commitment, and constantly demonstrate the energy and hard work that has allowed them to achieve their level of excellence.
They are our role models, or mentors, because they inspire us and release the energy and passion we need to progress in the discipline we have chosen. They give us confidence and stimulate our engagement, growth and progress.
In a corporate context, leaders do not acquire this kind of recognized “superiority” because of their hierarchical position. Usurpers are quickly spotted, even if sometimes it takes a while to unmask them. It also takes time to gain recognition for “superiority” that is not skill-based but that grows out of a set of three qualities, or characteristics: ambition, vision and passion.
Sonner or later, these remarkable individuals feel the drive to aim high, to achieve something important and unique. That’s what fuels the long journey to exceptional mastery of any activity. That’s the positive side of Ambition: it helps an individual realize their dream, go beyond their limits and be recognized for that.
Ambition can have different objectives. It can be related to oneself (“I want to be a rock star”); it can concern a physical or virtual object (“We want to design the first supersonic airliner”); it can feed an idea (“We will fight for our independence”). Ambition also has a dark side — the narcissistic or contemptuous pride of a person who abuses their talent and humiliates others. But in any case, Ambition is essential to achieving what is ordinarily thought to be impossible.
Within companies, ambition does not always have a good reputation because it implies the desire to climb up the ladder even if that involves stepping over others. But no great leader has ever gotten to be great without a solid dose of Ambition.
For the leaders, the period we are about to live through makes it necessary to question their ambition. In what areas must they demonstrate their superiority: the ability to survive? Development? Global citizenship? Human qualities to deploy in order to react collectively? etc. The trade-off between these options will profoundly determine the cultural change required.
For the dream to come true, ambition isn’t enough. The leaders need a clear image of the goal, at least clear enough to share it and move it forward. “Visioning” is part of the skills kit usually included in leadership development programs. But what does it mean exactly? And how special are those who know how to project themselves into the future and invent a new product, a new service, a new theory, a major innovation, make it happen and get the buy-in of others? Just having a vision is no guarantee of success. George W Bush had a “vision” of a democratic Middle East in 2003 and so he launched a Western military intervention to remove the Iraqi dictator, despite his allies telling him that vision was off-base. When a vision is blurred the consequences can go seriously off target! Steve Jobs on the other hand, had a vision of a microcomputer that was “different” from the IBM and Microsoft products. Because it met a need, albeit a yet unexpressed need, he was able to impose it alongside these giants. When the vision is accurate and precise, and when it responds to an underlying social need, it can be realized.
There are three things involved in forming a vision :
- The quantity and diversity of information and knowledge that is “stored” by an individual in their “personal hard disk, housed in the most developed structures of the brain. This includes elements gleaned from their environment, education, experience, desire, exposure to the world and to people and to the history of their discipline.
- The ability to connect, store, combine, sequence, and organize this information, more or less consciously, and to give rise to a new “idea”, in one or several new forms, that responds to a need that is yet unexpressed, or provides an answer to a still-open question. When Steve Jobs “linked” microcomputer technology with the typographical tradition of the American publishing industry, he created the Macintosh. The rest is history. Einstein said that “the intuitive mind is a sacred gift and the rational mind a faithful servant”. This “servant” had access to his extraordinary knowledge of mathematics and physics to propose the theory of relativity. His intuition did the rest.
- The ability to formalize an idea so that it can be communicated in an exciting and convincing way. New ideas always generate resistance because they challenge the status quo and even the state of the art. Without the ability to inspire and mobilize others and to implement winning strategies and plans, a vision remains an only an idea.
Companies do not expect that every manager who is invited to attend a leadership development programs will morph into become Steve Jobs or Einstein. But experience shows that in our rapidly changing world, connecting digital technology and old world businesses such as the hotel business or restaurant business, for example, can lead to the emergence of giants that shake up entire sectors of the industry in a very short time. Digital technology can also improve day-to-day activities that are otherwise restrained by the status quo. A vision is not always global in impact, but it remains essential to generating a successful breakthrough.
Leaders would therefore do well to develop their curiosity and the diversity of their knowledge and information sources because that is where intuition and ideation lie.
What a word! It applies to love as well as to art, science or business. Those who achieve great things in their field are almost always passionate people, and we know from experience that these individuals are not easy to deal with. They can go very quickly from high-voltage communicative enthusiasm to sadness and depression. That’s because their passion mirrors a level of commitment and energy that might even be described as unreasonable or irrational. The intense joy at success or sorrow felt at failure is simply a reflection of their total commitment.
However, passion cannot be decreed. You cannot just say “I want to be passionate about X or Y”. Passion must be nourished through continuous commitment focused on a limited number of fields. Let us not forget that people who are «fascinated by everything” are probably fascinated by nothing! Finally, Passion comes from accumulating knowledge in a specific discipline, experiencing repeated success and failure and thereby increasing a feeling of control (remember the Master). For Passion to exist these moments of pleasure must always compensate for the pain of occasional failures.
You cannot decree Passion for yourself and you cannot impose it on another person either (“I demand that you be passionate!”). But a leader can trigger, accompany and nourish it through the encounters and relationships they build with people. For me, it is to a great teacher that I will adore Shakespeare forever.
Not all leaders are passionate. If they aren’t, it is unlikely that they will transmit the slightest passion to those around them. But if there is a hint of passion around, then it must be nurtured because it is the psychological engine necessary for personal development and the development of others.
Fortunately, few individuals have the Ambition to become Master of the World and those who have tried it have generally failed. Few have sought to provide a rational, scientific and complete explanation for the existence of the universe and how it functions. But if some people “rise” when others do not it is thanks to their level of ambition, the clarity of their vision and the passion that fuels their actions. And to how they build on these three individual pillars to develop a collective project.
In STEP 6: Leading form ahead, we’ll have a look and question “classical” definition of leadership.
Have a look at Step 1 Leadership definition
Have a look at Step 2 The world as it goes
Have a look at Step 3 Facing dilemmas
Have a look at Step 4 Leader tomorrow
 UBER, AirB&B and the like