It’s Not Your Leadership, It’s the Cause

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“People naturally aspire to be part of something bigger than they are, to not just draw a paycheck but find meaning in their work.”  Douglas Conant: The Thought Leader Interview, Strategy & Business, August, 2012

Leadership by Cause invites greatness to the party. Anything less than a clear, galvanizing, shared cause, promotes compliance-type performance and typically mediocre results.

In my experience, most organizations operate without a cause beyond the numbers. Frankly, the numbers don’t motivate…they don’t inspire. Numbers are proxies for progress, but not substitutes for a great cause.  Konosuke Matsushita, the founder of Panasonic once offered (I paraphrase) that profits were rewards from society for doing something that mattered.

The goal of “growth” is similarly ambiguous and not particularly motivating. Growth is an outcome from the pursuit of a cause, but it’s a weak motivator as the sole focus of an endeavor.

While history is filled with examples of leaders we celebrate, all motivated by a cause to save or change the world, finding or creating the cause in business is a bit more challenging.

In my own experience as an employee and executive as well as consultant, the best performance has come from causes that involved saving the firm, extending the firm into new arenas, neutralizing a competitor that was eating our lunch and most importantly, serving someone with something that would make their life better, safer, more productive and more rewarding. Along the way, the opportunities for personal growth and change served as rocket fuel in pursuit of the cause.

6 Ideas to Ignite the Cause in Your Organization

1. Get beyond the numbers. Connect your cause to the people you serve and the problems you are helping them solve. Even the most seemingly mundane of products or services enable customers to do something, solve something or improve something. Find the passion in those you are serving.

2. Spread the word internally. Too many in organizations labor somewhere in the background only loosely aware of how their work and your firm’s offerings are helping others. Take the time to educate the groups and people laboring way behind the front lines on what your firm is really doing to help.

3. Put a face to the cause. It’s fun to hear about how you are impacting customers, it’s priceless and inspirational to engage with and hear directly from a customer on how you are helping them solve issues in their own world.

4. Leverage the need to change as a cause, but do so carefully. Change is a cause when people internalize that it means survival or it means extending past successes into new and exciting frontiers. However, beware of misusing or over-using the “change” issue as cause. People have good B.S. detectors and change for the sake of change or politically motivated calls to change are quickly sniffed out and either resented or ignored.

5. Match the cause with actions. Words are cheap. Back your words of change or pursuit with the right actions in terms of investment, structure and process, and people become believers.

6. Think in terms of “Change the World.” A great example, Lyle Small, CEO of Chromatic Technologies Inc. and inventor and patent-holder on a variety of photo and thermo-chromatic inks (think the Coors Light beer cans where the mountains turn blue when the beer is cold), looks at his technologies and early successes as stepping stones to truly change the world for the better. While creative packaging approaches might not sound like change the world tools, these same inks can extend into areas of food safety, security and other applications that go far beyond cold beer. His team feels that way and I have every expectation we’ll see many more great things from this group.

The Bottom-Line for Now

All of the advice in all of the pages ever written on leadership and leading pale in comparison to the power that can be harnessed from getting people aligned behind a meaningful cause. Get beyond the numbers to something meaningful to your constituents, team members and stakeholders, and you’ll tap into a renewable energy source to transform people’s lives and careers. And yes, the numbers will flow.

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