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To Lead Must Follow

Learning from cruise captains, janitors, and Gandhi.

By Michael Beygelman  
Not many things come to mind that can demonstrate the staggering problem with today’s society—a near absence of leadership—than the recent tragedy aboard the cruise ship Costa Concordia. The root cause of this incident also brings to light the fact that our culture has become narcissistic and self-centered. HR leaders face formidable challenges for decades to come because they are charged with developing organizational leaders at all levels in a society that shuns responsibilities and is consumed with promoting one’s “self” first, before the needs of others. In fact, many charitable deeds are done more for self-satisfaction than the importance of the deed itself.
How can leaders build other leaders, and how can companies develop leadership cultures, if employee engagement is low, attrition in certain segments is high, and many people spend more time updating their Facebook or LinkedIn profile than they do on their work? Some use Twitter to basically say, “Look at me! Let me tell you all about me, as I am the most important person in my life, and you really need to follow me.” Soon people will list leadership qualities on a resume measured by a) how many followers they have on Twitter, b) how many endorsements they have on LinkedIn, etc.
What we utterly lack in society are people with vision, because vision is part of culture and leadership. Imagine if Martin Luther King, Jr., had started out his famous speech with, “I have a strategy!” The problem with strategies is that they come and go, whereas a vision can rally people around a cause and move mountains. Vision creates culture, culture appoints leaders, and leaders help to foster prosperity and help people get out of harm’s way. Leaders help people connect and understand that they are part of a collective, and that inspires people to contribute in a positive way.
No better example of leadership comes to mind than the story of JFK and NASA. As the story goes, during a visit to a NASA space center in 1962, President Kennedy saw a janitor carrying a broom. Ready for his photo-op moment—let’s face it presidents need all they can get—he interrupted his tour of the facility, walked over to the man, and said, “Hi, I’m Jack Kennedy. What are you doing?” The janitor responded, “I’m helping put a man on the moon, Mr. President.” JFK inspired people to imagine and work together to achieve a common goal. He wasn’t born a leader; he was a follower, first, but in our narcissistic society today being a follower does not provide instant gratification, nor does it promote self, so only a few are interested.

I am reminded of a famous Shankar cartoon depicting Gandhi striding along briskly with his staff in his hand, behind a crowd. The caption read: “There go my people. And I must hurry to follow them. For I am their leader.” The teaching is that one must be prepared to follow to be able to lead. This does not mean following for appearance sake, but rather to understand the problems of the people, articulate their needs and desires, yet guide and mentor them to work for a greater purpose. Gandhi even adopted a new wardrobe to empathize with his people—a wardrobe they could all afford to wear.
Many company executives are struggling with the topic of leadership and culture, and some know precisely what needs to be done, but they themselves often lack the managerial courage to execute their strategy. As a society, we have become risk averse for fear of devaluing self, but paradoxically our societal risk aversion and apathy are precisely what have led us to the dilemma we are facing today. Leadership does not reside on the top floor of every building. It resides in hallways that few ever go down and in cubes that sometimes never get visited by anyone.
The key to organizational leadership development is to look for traces indicating where leaders have been. If you look for people with enthusiasm, energy, purpose, direction, culture, comradery, no ego, and a strong desire to serve others, you’ll likely run into a leader. And it’s not always the most vocal or charismatic person. You might not be prepared for what you’ll find, but in likelihood that individual can become part of a company’s leadership team. You need to ensure that you develop programs to nurture them and develop them into bigger roles.
In a presentation I once attended Rene Carayol said, “Culture is more powerful than strategy,” and I couldn’t agree more. Strategy, tasks, processes, and plans are things that managers focus on. Leaders focus on vision, culture, teams, and people. If a real leader had been aboard the Costa Concordia, the accident would likely not have happened, because leader don’t recklessly put their people in harms way, and if harm does come real leaders sacrifice themselves first. What is your plan for finding leaders within your organization?

Michael Beygelman is the global practice leader and president, North America RPO, at Adecco Group. He can be reached at

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