The big why question

Four leadership remedies for convention fever.

The US political conventions launch soon, advancing one of the world’s ultimate leadership selection processes. Kevin Cashman, senior partner on CEO and executive development, identifies four key leadership remedies for what voters want in their next president.

The phone rings at 2 a.m., and shaking both fear and fog out of my head, I am surprised by the calm voice: It’s a caller “from the Capitol in Washington, DC.” Apparently, there is some concern about the nominating process for the next president of the United States. Peppering me with questions, the voice inquires if Korn Ferry could help. “You have the largest executive database in the world, right? You have done global research on the key attributes, competencies, and characteristics of the best, world-class leaders? You could develop a comprehensive, valid leadership model for president, locate the best talent, assess them, and develop them as necessary, correct?”

Only later do I realize I am dreaming.

Was this a nightmare or lucid insight into an alternative approach? Coming out of my slumber, I slip into a reflective mood. It is amazing and bizarre to think that the choice for the most important leader in the world has no research-based guidance, no leadership or character template, no job specification, no real evaluation or vetting process that leverages what we know to be true about effective leadership. We can forgive our founding fathers for not having the wealth of leadership research that we have today. But for us to allow leaders to be selected by popular opinion alone with no real leadership assessment rigor is indeed very strange … and risky.

So, is it any wonder that a good number of people are so disillusioned in this election cycle? But what do these frustrations and disappointments tell us about what we really want, what we hope for in our leaders? If we allow ourselves to think, “Out of all the great leadership talent in the United States, there must be two better choices!”, then exactly what does this reveal about “what we really want in our next president”? I would suggest, regardless of party, we really want at least four things:

1. We want authenticity and honesty

Although we may differ widely on exactly who is “authentic” and who is “honest,” or not, the campaign narrative is dominated by a discussion on whom can we trust. This frustrated desire may be at the root of why both candidates are struggling in many likability polls; we deeply crave authenticity and honesty and are frustrated that these qualities are not highly evident in our choices. Managers build dependability through competence; leaders build trust through character.

President Lincoln put it well: “Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man’s character, give him power.” When we are about to hand one person the ultimate power on this planet, it would be extremely prudent to test, retest, and test again our processes for evaluating the authenticity, character, and honesty of our choices. Character is power: the power to create rather than destroy; the power to energize rather than deflate; the power to inspire versus enslave; and the power to serve rather than be served. Ambrose Bierce wrote: “In each human heart are a tiger, a pig, an ass, and a nightingale. Diversity of character is due to their unequal activity.” We are well advised to deeply assess the character of our candidates to ensure that the well-crafted nightingale does not hide the real tiger, pig, or ass lurking within.

2. We want to be inspired by a new narrative

Managers inform through spreadsheets and process, whereas leaders inspire through stories and purpose.

We crave genuine stories that are deeply authentic, and, at the same time, are profoundly relevant to our needs and aspirations. Stories, the language of leadership, have the unique power to transmit shared values, shared purpose, and shared vision.

In the current election cycle, we have one candidate telling a story of returning to a “better past,” and another with a story of “being the steady, experienced hand” to further the work that is unfinished. However, neither of these narratives, to date, has inspired a runaway majority. A political pundit once commented, “The most successful campaigners tell the best story, stories of hope and fear resolved by self-sacrificing leadership.”

Could it be that the stories in the current campaign are not overly inspiring, because, as suggested above, many doubt the authenticity or honesty of the storytellers? Clearly, we are hungry for authentic leaders and authentic stories. We want a leader who can elevate us to a shared narrative that encourages our higher, best selves to make a bigger difference together.

3. We want leaders dedicated to serving us all

The sad truth of political leadership, at least in our current system, is that the narcissism and financial compromise required to gain office should be the very things that disqualify us from holding office. We want leaders who are not in it for themselves, but the system requires alternating doses of self-adulation and value-bending fundraising—toxic medicine that can kill the best of us. All the more reason we want our candidates to be strong enough to rise above these lethal leadership challenges and demonstrate a higher standard of self-in-service. Candidates who can authentically move from trying to persuade us of “how great or experienced they are” to “why they are so passionate to serve us” would go a long way to move from self-focused narcissism to other-focused servant leadership. Robert Greenleaf, author of Servant Leadership, put it this way: “To the servant leader, the process of change starts in here, in the heart and mind of the leader, not out there in the world of accomplishments or accolades.” Achievements earn us the right to be considered for leadership roles, but values, character, and purpose-driven service sustain the privilege to achieve on behalf of others. Managers focus on success; leaders focus on service-fueled significance.

Dee Hock, the founder and chairman of Visa who was named one of the eight people who most changed the world of business in the past 50 years, put it this way: “When we as leaders get in the bad habit of thinking that other people are there to support our success, we’re actually not leaders; we’re tyrants. Only until we go through the emotional, psychological, and spiritual transformation to realize our role is to serve others, do we deserve to be called a leader.”

4. We want big answers to big questions

Welcome to the real Presidential Leadership Challenge: an infinite number of problems to solve, entrenched competing agendas, and finite resources. So what will guide you through this complex, ambiguous wilderness? Warren Bennis, a true leadership guru who counseled multiple US presidents, advised, “Leaders remind people what is important.” In other words, clarify the chaos and see the top priorities through the lens of purpose and values. This is no easy task, but it represents the essential challenge nonetheless.

In our work with CEOs, these are the three fundamental leadership questions to answer:

1. The big what question (Vision): What does this better future look like?
2. The big how question (Strategy and Policy): How are we going to get there?
3. The big why question (Purpose): Why should we aspire to go there together?

We want our leaders to bring clarity to all three, but also to engage us to participate in the crucial co-creation of real outcomes. And, although all three big questions are critical to sustained leadership, there is one that is more primary: No amount of what and how can ever compensate for a lack of why.

All of us as leaders must answer the “Big why question,” and remedy the low-grade fever that burns in us all. Daily people are asking themselves, “Why should I follow you? Why do you deserve my time, energy, talent, and trust? Why should I give you my precious vote?”