“Successful leaders spend a lot of time creating the identity of the organization – what our values are, what our mission is, what our purpose is, how we are going to act together as one. Those are agreements of how we are going to be together. You can actually get a whole team or a whole group to hold one another accountable. The team self-regulates and members call each other in a much more immediate way than a leader can ever do.” — Margaret Wheatley, President of The Berkana Institute, A Global Charitable Leadership Foundation
It wasn’t by accident that we chose to arrange the timeless leadership principles in the shape of a wheel. Of all the principles, there is one that is central, one from which the others emanate, much as spokes radiate from the hub of a wheel. That core principle, Focus and Context, consists of three interrelated parts, which are defined by the answers to three key questions:
Where are we going (the vision or picture of our preferred future or outcome)?
What do we believe in (our guiding values or principles)?
Why do we exist (our reason for being, mission, or purpose)?
These questions are about as simple as I can make them. And this is important, because they can become overly complicated…So I usually try to reduce Focus and Context to its key components, using these terms: Vision, Values, and Purpose.
Microsoft chairman Bill Gates, kept a clear and consistent focus for his company as it pioneered a new industry. He found that “maintaining focus is a key to success. You should understand your circle of competence and spend your time and energy there…I’ve learned that only through focus can you do world-class things, no matter how capable you are.”
Focus and Context is where the contrast between management and leadership is possibly at its sharpest. It is the very beginning point of strong leadership. Consider, for example, all the people you know well, and identify those you think of as being strong leaders. What characteristics do they share? Chances are they don’t just wait for things to happen to them; they go and make things happen. They don’t just follow the crowd; they blaze their own trail. They don’t wait to be told what to do; they do what needs to be done. Leaders seldom waffle or vacillate. They are purposeful and deliberate.
Frederick Smith, Chairman and CEO of FedEx, created a whole new industry when he began his company in 1973. Smith’s idea of locating a central hub in Memphis, Tennessee, to provide overnight courier service across the U.S. was a radical departure from traditional thinking – so radical, in fact, that when he outlined the concept in a paper at business school, his professor gave him a C. (The idea was too unworkable, he said.) Smith’s long and highly successful career as both a start-up entrepreneur and operating CEO (a very rare combination), has led him to conclude, “The primary task of leadership is to communicate the vision and the values of an organization. Second, leaders must win support for the vision and the values they articulate. And third, leaders have to reinforce the vision and the values. That’s probably the most difficult task, and it’s where most organizations fall apart.”