In all the work with leaders I have done over the years, I have learned that there is a single concept that tends to divide the successful from those who constantly fall short. If a leader understands this concept, the likelihood that he will be successful is quite high. If not, all his skills and learning will not save him.
What is this all-important concept?
Leadership is fashioning a culture.
Culture is what you encourage to grow. It is the product of what you make contagious in your firm and about your product. It is the sum of the thoughts and beliefs that take physical form in action and art. Culture is the externalization of what you value, what you hope for, and how you see the world.
Leaders often make the mistake of thinking that leadership is a kind of performance, a one-person show before an audience of followers. They make themselves the focus and think that leadership is whatever happens to make it from their lives into their employees or followers. It isn’t true.
As one failed CEO named Joe told me in despair, “I thought leadership was Joe doing Churchill, Joe doing Patton, Joe doing Reagan. I wanted to be great. I realize now that if I had made my people great, we would have been far more successful.”
In my experience, there are two errors in thinking that cause leaders to fail. First, they confuse leadership and management. In short, you manage things, you lead people. To manage people is to treat them like things without regard for their souls, their uniqueness, their aspirations, and their potential. Second, poor leaders think leadership is the way they perform before an adoring crowd of followers. They fail to understand that the art of leadership is the art of creating an ennobling, inspiring culture of success.
I can think of no better lesson of this than the video I watched recently. I want you to watch it too. It is about the crashes of the Challenger and Columbia space shuttles and the culture of NASA at that time, a culture that led to deadly malfunctions.
I’m touched by this story. People died and our nation was badly bruised. I’m also touched because one of the men at the heart of this tragedy is my friend and neighbor. As you watch the New York Times documentary I’ve linked to here, you’ll hear the name Larry Mulloy. He’s a buddy who lives with his wife in the same downtown Nashville building Bev and I do. He sent this video to me along with the words, “I found it to be an accurate and concise treatment of the subject.”
I think Larry was more a hero of the story than this documentary indicates. Still, it does capture the making of a flawed culture and the horrors that grew from it. This is the lesson I hope you’ll learn, though it won’t bother me one bit if you also finish the documentary feeling thankful that there are men of integrity like Larry Mulloy in the world.
Enjoy and learn. Then live leadership as the power to craft a culture.
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