Engagement Practice _ 52: Inspire Confidence in a Clear Vision, a Workable Plan, and the Competence to Achieve It

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One of the first requirements of trust is competence. We will follow only

those leaders we judge to be capable. Traditionally, leaders were selected

from among the most skilled functional specialists, but that is certainly not

the case today. Leaders are more like orchestra conductors, blending the

efforts of the most skilled musicians.

So what kind of competence do employees expect from leaders today?

At the most basic level, they simply want to know that the organization

will be successful, assuring them of a job and a future. Because so many

businesses fail, this is unfortunately a promise that many employers cannot

deliver. So, as a prerequisite for becoming an employer of choice, an employer

must be successful currently and inspire the confidence of workers

that it will be successful going forward.

It is natural that we look to the leaders for this assurance. We want our

leaders to have a clear and achievable vision, confidence in their capacity

to achieve the vision, the ability to inspire and mobilize followers to

achieve the vision, the ability to transform the vision into a workable strategy

and plan, the right team of people in place to carry it out, and the

ability to follow through with persistence to achieve the plan. And while

they are at it, we require complete honesty and integrity, and, yes, please

show us you care about us as individuals. This is a tall order, but we demand

nothing less.

We may want servant leaders, but we do not want ‘‘soft’’ leaders. In

his best-seller, Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap and Others

Don’t, Jim Collins studies the leaders of companies that achieved and sustained

exceptional financial performance over a fifteen-year period. He

describes them as ‘‘Level 5’’ leaders—executives who ‘‘build enduring

greatness through a paradoxical blend of personal humility and professional

will.’’10

As an example, Collins profiles Cork Walgreen, CEO of Walgreen

Drugs, a man of fierce resolve who saw that the company’s future lay in

convenient drugstores, not in the food service business it had built. He

challenged his executive team to get the company out of the restaurant

business within five years. At the time, Walgreens had 500 restaurants, but

the CEO was firm and fanatical in his vision, which turned out to be the

right one.

Walgreen and all the other CEOs of the good-to-great companies did

not fit the mold of the attention-seeking, heroic CEOs who were glorified

in the press during the 1980s and 1990s. In fact, all these executives were

described by their associates as rather quiet, self-effacing, and humble. ‘‘It’s

not that Level 5 leaders have no ego or self-interest,’’ writes Collins. ‘‘Indeed,

they are incredibly ambitious—but their ambition is first and foremost

for the institution, not themselves.’’11

Collins also profiles George Cain, CEO of Abbott Laboratories, who

turned the pharmaceutical company around by courageously attacking its

greatest weakness—nepotism. Cain, who had been with the company for

eighteen years when he took over as CEO, instituted new standards of

excellence for every position and rigorously raised the talent level of the

management team by gradually replacing mediocre family members with

the best professionals he could find.

While he cares deeply about his people, Jet Blue’s David Neeleman

appears to be cast in the same mold as other ‘‘Level 5’’ leaders, although

only time will tell if he can sustain the financial success he attained in the

airline’s first five years of operation. He is firm about his ‘‘tripod’’ business

model: ‘‘low costs, a great product, and capitalization.’’ But Neeleman

knows his limitations. Because he had never run a large company before,

he surrounded himself with senior executives who had.12

Humble, yet passionately determined, Neeleman and the other chief

executives briefly profiled here are the kinds of leader that today’s workforce

seems to find most engaging. Bottom line: it’s not about ego, quick

results, and personal ambition—it’s about patiently, quietly, but tenaciously,

executing a shared, compelling vision with a valued and dedicated team.