Reimagining the Leadership Principle

We embrace the words as the faithful do their relics: with devotion, hope and a flawed understanding of their meaning. Indeed, “The Leadership Principle” appears everywhere in the capitalist code of conduct, ready to bestow boons if only we believe in their mystical power to change our uncompetitive ways.

Those who we imagine have been touched by such magic are our heroes. They are Warren Buffet and Bill Gates, Wallace McCain and Pierre Peladeau, J.K. Irving and John Bragg. We admire them for their preternatural success, unwavering determination, indefatigable optimism, and remarkable ability to amass vast amounts of capital.

But, as a friend who is an entrepreneur and a self-made man points out, leadership isn’t really about any of this. “It took me some time to figure out what I really wanted from my own business,” he says. “And then one day it hit me. I wanted to exterminate myself. I wanted to build something that no longer needed me in any capacity. I wanted others I may have inspired to leave me behind.”

It’s a rare and poignant definition, but it suggests that at some fundamental level true leadership is as much about loss as it is about gain.

Again, my friend explains: “Too often, we fail to make the distinction between leaders and managers. Some leaders are managers, and the reverse is also true, but not always. Managers have specific, supervisory roles to perform. And, so, they accumulate resources in order to get the job done.  Leaders, however, can appear almost anywhere, at every level in an organization. They give things away freely – their time, their ideas, even their personal ambitions – in order to build something bigger than themselves.”

If he is correct, then the world has all the managers it can handle. Now, more than at any other time in recent history, it desperately craves leaders.

What was the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico this spring but a colossal failure of leadership? As soon as the extent of the damage became clear, those who were responsible – the corporation’s senior executives, the industry’s regulators, the U.S. administration – scuttled for their nearest silos of selfishness, pointing accusing fingers, and tallying the costs of the disaster to the bottom lines of their respective reputations. It was an egregious display of pathetically bad management.

What was the decision to spend $1-billion on security for the G8 and G20 summits this summer but a sparkling example of short-sighted, process-oriented thinking? Anyone with a mote of vision in the federal government would have divined this as an unnecessary waste of tax dollars at a time when public deficits all over the developed world are spinning out of control, necessitating deep cuts to the very programs that spur innovation, productivity and competitiveness.

And what does Parliament’s refusal to open the books on member spending signify but a jealous and reprehensible attempt to protect the perks of public office? It has occurred to very few of them that their first and most important role is to inspire confidence in our system of government. In effect, it is to lead by shining example, to nurture the next generation of those who will advance the progressive cause of Canadian democracy and economic growth. It is not to play hide-and-seek with restaurant receipts, boarding passes and taxi chits.

Atlantic Canada has never been particularly deep in visionary talent. But it has been fortunately rich in the leaders it boasts. Its once-backwards regional economies have been transformed by those at all levels of government, industry and higher education who believe that what they’re doing pays competitive dividends to the future, even if the personal rewards of the present are decidedly underwhelming.

The task now is both attitudinal and demographic. We must find and encourage new leaders who understand the practical and comprehensible magic of self-sacrifice. Or, says my friend: “You can make a real business case for relinquishing your hold on short-term, personal interests if you’re strategically laying the groundwork for long-term results. The leadership principle is like a virus; once it infects a corporate or government culture, it tends to spread very quickly.”

And it’s why, in the best of all possible worlds, winning and losing can sometimes amount to exactly the same thing.

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