I used to believe that Purposeful Leadership had to have all the answers on their own. Their most notable quality seemed to be their intelligence, and making sure that everyone else knew it as well. The best leaders were expected to come from the best schools, which in turn produced the best employment. Professional success was measured in terms of money, power, glory, and fame. Leading corporate figures, such as Jack Welch of GE, were respected for their intelligence, foresight, and aggressive leadership style early in my career. They had a quasi-cult following because they were regarded as unfailing geniuses.
Today’s world does not fit the classic paradigm of the leader-hero who comes to the rescue, is all-knowing, the brightest person in the room, and is far too frequently motivated by fame, fortune, glory, or money. This is accurate for a number of reasons:
- Today’s fast-changing, complex, and unpredictable environment necessitates a different kind of leadership. Nobody can claim to have all the answers to solve the complex crises we’re facing, and the most adaptable organizations are those in which decisions are being decentralized.
- With the idea that a company’s purpose is far more than making money and gaining ground, the hard-charging, profit-optimizing hero-leader model has lost much of its appeal.
- An increasing number of employees now value authenticity and connection over a facade of strength and infallibility.
- The nature of work has changed from the more mechanical, repetitive type to jobs that require ingenuity and creativity.
- Successful hero-leaders can easily start believing that they’re untouchable and, ultimately, indispensable. It’s easy to be seduced by power, fame, glory, and money. It’s easy to become disconnected from reality and from colleagues, surrounded by sycophants and yay-sayers.
People today expect a different kind of leader, which is not surprising. Although every organization must establish its unique Purposeful leadership perspective, this is the mindset we implemented at Best Buy during our unexpected recovery and rebirth. It’s built around five characteristics, or five “Be’s,” that I think best describe leaders who can unleash the kind of human alchemy you see at work at some of the highest-achieving organizations. The fundamental ideas of Purposeful leadership that, in my opinion, form the basis of modern business are supported by this philosophy.
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Be clear about your purpose.
That is, the reason you exist, the reason people around you exist, and the reason your firm exists.
The startling number of workers quitting their employment or giving it serious thought in the past few months has brought to light the pre-Covid understanding that purpose—both personal and group—is the fundamental component of business. I’ve written about a number of topics related to corporate purpose, including how to establish and implement it and why it’s a crucial component of motivation. In order for corporate purpose to succeed, leaders themselves need to have a clear understanding of what motivates them and others around them.
My successor as CEO of Best Buy, Corie Barry, once told me that she links the company’s goal of enhancing lives through technology to her personal objective of leaving things a bit better than when she found them. She asks herself how being at Best Buy made things a bit better that day each day in order to keep her commitment to that goal.
A leader’s ability to comprehend what motivates those around them is equally important. I recently coached a CEO who thought that his team members were more focused on advancing their particular functional areas than the firm as a whole. Together, we came to the conclusion that while he was clear about his own goals and those of his company, he was largely unaware of the motivations of others around him. Without that information, he was unable to assist in tying their goals with the organization’s and in giving the team as a whole a unifying force.
Be clear about your role as Purposeful Leadership.
The main responsibility of a leader is to generate momentum and energy, particularly in difficult situations. Its purpose is to inspire, uplift, and instill hope in others by assisting them in seeing their own potential. Thirty years ago, I would have laughed at this concept, yet it is crucial to the work of a purposeful leader. “If your actions inspire others to dream more, learn more, do more, and become more, you are a leader,” Dolly Parton is credited with saying.
This “Be” is aptly illustrated by the late Marriott CEO Arne Sorenson’s video greeting to staff amid the height of the COVID-19 outbreak. Initially, he extended assistance to workers who were impacted by the illness. He went on to detail how the epidemic was negatively impacting Marriott’s hotel revenue and the steps the company was taking to lessen the situation. There was no pretense, but there was also no fear either. He concluded on a positive note, looking forward to the day when people will begin traveling once more, and finally focused on signs of revival in China. His message was upbeat and inspirational at the same time as it was sincere, touching, and honest.
Conditions are beyond your control, but your perspective is. Your attitude affects whether you uplift and inspire those around you or depress them. So make wise choices. While I was employed at Carlson, I was reminded of this every morning. In the lobby of the company’s headquarters was a monument of the founder, Curt Carlson, with the inscription Illegitimate non carborundum, which is best translated as “Don’t let the bastards grind you down” in faux Latin.
More broadly, as a leader, it is your responsibility to establish the conditions necessary for others to thrive and further the goals of the business. For instance, Netflix, a business whose mission is to “entertain the world,” has defied all predictions with its development and reinvention because of Reed Hastings’s creation of a culture of “freedom with responsibility” that prioritizes people over procedures and creativity over efficiency.
Be clear about whom you serve.
It’s not you, as a hint.
Being transparent about the people you support in your role, whether in easy or difficult circumstances, is a basic component of deliberately leading. Driving the business means that, as a leader, you have to serve those ahead of you. Serving your peers is what you do. To the board of directors, you render service. By first figuring out what they need to offer their all so that you can provide them the best assistance possible, you serve others around you.
Consider everyone to be a customer, in fact. The service you receive, for example, will be significantly impacted by how you treat waitstaff or airline employees. A senior executive in one of the businesses where I once worked had to learn this lesson the hard way. There was an occasion when he got detained at an airport due to a canceled flight.
He lost patience waiting to be redirected in line at the service desk and stormed to the front of the line. He growled, “Do you know who I am?” at the individual behind the desk. The airline employee turned to the passengers waiting in line and said, “Ladies and gentlemen, I need your help.” “We are dealing with an identity crisis. This man over here doesn’t know who he is!”
Being mindful of oneself and exercising caution is necessary to prevent oneself from falling into the trap that wealth, fame, power, and glory establish. Be certain of your purpose and the person you are attempting to help before you speak or take any action. I once stated to the Best Buy executives, “If you feel like you’re serving yourself, your boss, or me as the CEO of the company, it’s okay — it’s your choice.” Therefore, you shouldn’t be employed here.
You ought to be given a customer promotion. I meant that those whose primary goal at Best Buy was to further their personal interests had no place there. Some leaders believe that listening to their egos and having sharp elbows will help them advance in their jobs. However, as my friend Jim Citrin, who oversees Spencer Stuart’s CEO practice, astutely observed: “The best leaders are carried to the top; they don’t climb their way there over the backs of others.” And it happens via serving others.
Be driven by values.
I asked one of my partners at McKinsey early in my career for guidance on Purposeful leadership. “Speak the truth and act morally,” he said.
We all agree for the most part about what is morally correct: decency, accountability, respect, equity, and compassion. Every organization has admirable ideals on paper. However, values are meaningless if they stay on paper. Value-driven behavior goes beyond merely knowing or declaring what is right. It is the responsibility of a leader to uphold these principles, actively promote them, and see to it that they permeate the entire company.
For instance, Johnson & Johnson is well-known for its motto, which was first penned in 1943 by the son of the company’s founder. “We believe our first responsibility is to the patients, doctors and nurses, mothers and fathers and all others who use our products and services,” the opening line of the statement states.
The company’s voluntary recall of all 31 million bottles of Tylenol that had already been distributed across the nation in 1982, along with a swift halt to production of the popular medication, demonstrate how the company’s executives lived up to their motto. The decision was taken in response to multiple deaths in the Chicago area caused by tablets that turned out to be cyanide-contaminated. Even while the recall had immediate costs, it is mostly seen as an example of effective crisis management and Purposeful leadership.
Of course, doing the right thing isn’t always easy, especially in times of crisis when a great deal of stress and strain can cloud our judgment. One of the most important values for leaders to have is the conviction that they will act morally and to the best of their abilities, according to Harry Kraemer, an executive partner at Madison Dearborn and professor of leadership at Kellogg. You won’t have to rely on your own judgment to determine what’s proper in these circumstances if you surround yourself with people whose values coincide with yours and the organization’s. Together, you will decide what is right, and you will then do your best to follow through on it.
Knowing when to quit when you don’t fit in with your surroundings—your coworkers, your supervisor, the board, or the goals and ideals of your organization—is another aspect of being driven by values. As they say, have the discernment to understand what you can and cannot alter.
I delivered a farewell video to every employee of Best Buy along with an email to our board of directors and top leaders when I announced my resignation in 2020. The email was titled “I love you!” I ended the video by addressing coworkers who had similar emotions. It would never have occurred to me to expose my heart and soul in this manner just a few years ago. I’ve always held the opinion, shared by many executives of my generation, that sharing emotions in a business setting is inappropriate. The 18 inches between your head and your heart are said to be the longest journey you will ever take.
It’s a difficult path indeed, and it took me a lifetime to fully accept the fifth and toughest “Be”: be the best version of yourself, your genuine self, and your entire self. Show vulnerability. Be true to yourself. Giving everything to your coworkers does not equate to being genuine and vulnerable. When it is appropriate and beneficial to others, leaders should share their feelings and challenges with others.
Over the past two years, when many of us were compelled to work from home via video, we divulged more personal information about our families, pets, cats, Wi-Fi issues, and other aspects of our lives. This was not always simple or comfortable. However, we all needed to view one another as complete human beings and in a fresh light. Workers anticipate that leaders are also people. Making ourselves vulnerable is the first step in doing this, as does admitting our ignorance. As Brené Brown notes, social connection is fundamentally based on vulnerability. In turn, social interaction is the foundation of business.