The Leadership Imperative

Reprinted from Human Resource Professional Magazine

By Brent Filson -

When we perceive the simple center in the seemingly complex, we can change our world in powerful new ways. Albert Einstein perceived the simple E=MC2 in the complexities of physical reality and changed the history of the 20th century.

Big Daddy Lipscomb, the Baltimore Colts 300 pound all-pro tackle in the 1960s perceived the simple center of what was perceived to be the complex game of football.  "I just wade into players," he said, "until I come to the one with the ball.  Him I keep!"  — and changed the way the game was played.

Likewise, human resources, despite its complex activities, should at its center  have a fundamentally simple mission, yet it is a mission that is being neglected by many HR professionals.  I call that mission the Leadership Imperative — helping the organization recruit, retain, and develop good leaders.

Clearly, without good leaders, few organizations can thrive over the long run.  What characterizes a good leader?  A good leader consistently gets results — in ethical and motivational ways.  Because they interact with all business functions and usually provide education and training for those functions, human resource professionals should be focused primarily on recruiting, retaining, and developing leaders that get results.  Any other focus is a footnote.

Yet working with human resource leaders in a variety of companies for the past fifteen years, I find that many of them are stumbling.  Caught up in the tempests of downsizing, compliance demands, acquisitions, mergers, and reorganizations, they are engaged in activities that have little to do with their central mission.  Ignoring or at least giving short shrift to the Leadership Imperative, they are too often viewed, especially by line leaders, as carrying out sideline endeavors. 

Many HR leaders have nobody to blame for this situation but themselves.  By neglecting the Imperative, they themselves have chosen to be sideline participants.

Here is a three-step action plan to get the HR function off the sidelines and into the thick of the game.

Recognize.  Link.  Execute.
Before I elaborate each step, let me define leadership as it ought to be.  For your misunderstanding leadership will thwart you in applying the Imperative.

The word "leadership" comes from old Norse word-root meaning "to make go."  Indeed, leadership is about making things go — making people go, making organizations go.  But the misunderstanding comes in when leaders fail to understand who actually makes what go.  Leaders often believe that they themselves must make things go, that if people must go from point A to point B, let's say, that they must order them to go.  But order leadership founders today in fast-changing, highly competitive markets.

In this environment, a new kind of leadership must be cultivated — leadership that aims not to order others to go from point A to point B — but instead that aims to  motivate them to want take the leadership in going from A to B.

That "getting others to lead others" is what leadership today should be about.  And it is what we should inculcate in our clients.  We must challenge them to lead, lead for results with this principle in mind, and accept nothing else from them but this leadership.

Furthermore, leadership today must be universal.  To compete successfully in highly competitive, fast changing markets, organizations must be made up of employees who are all leaders in some way.  All of us have leadership challenges thrust upon us many times daily.  In the very moment that we are trying to persuade somebody to take action, we are a  leader — even if that person we are trying to persuade is our boss.  Persuasion is leadership.  Furthermore, the most effective way to succeed in any endeavor is to take a leadership position in that endeavor.

The Imperative applies to all employees.  Whatever activities you are being challenged to carry out, make the Imperative a lens through which you view those activities.  Have your clients recognize that your work on the behalf of their leadership will pay large dividends toward advancing their careers
Recognize: Recognize that recruiting, retaining, and developing good leaders ranks with  earnings growth (or with nonprofit organizations: mission) in terms of being an organizational necessity.  So most of your activities must be in some way tied to the Imperative.

For instance: HR executive directors who want to develop courses for enhancing the speaking abilities of their companies' leaders often blunder in the design phase.  Not recognizing the Leadership Imperative, they err by describing them as "presentation courses."  Instead, if they were guided by the Imperative, they would offer courses on "leadership talks."   There is a big difference between presentations and leadership talks.  Presentations communicate information.  Presentation courses are a dime a dozen.  But leadership talks motivate people to believe in you and follow you.  Leaders must speak many times daily — to individuals or groups in a variety of settings.  When you provide courses to help them learn practical ways for delivering effective talks, to have them speak better so that they can lead better, you are benefitting their job performance and their careers.

Today, in most organizations, the presentation is the conventional method of communication.  But when you make the leadership talk the key method by instituting "talk" courses and monitoring and evaluation systems broadly and deeply within the organization, you will help make your company more effective and efficient.

Link: Though such recognition is the first step in getting off the sidelines, it won't get you into the game.  To get into the center of things, you must link your activities with results.  Not your results — their results.

Clearly, your clients are being challenged to get results: sales' closes, operations efficiencies, productivity advances, etc.  Some results are crucial.  But other results are absolutely indispensable.  Your job is to help your clients achieve their results, especially the indispensable results.  You must be their "results partner."  Furthermore, you must help them get sizable increases in those results.  The results that they get with your help should be more than the results that they would have gotten without your help.

For instance, when developing company-wide objectives for leadership talks, you should not aim to have participants win a speaking "beauty contests" but instead to speak so that they motivate others to get increases in measured results.  When you change the focus of the courses from speaking appearance to the reality of results, you change the participants' view of and commitment to the courses and also their view of and commitment to you in providing those courses.  So have the participants define their indispensable results and link the principles and processes they learned in the course to getting measured increases in those results.

Execute: It's not enough to recognize.  It's not enough to link.  You must execute.  "Execute" comes from a Latin root exsequi meaning "to follow continuously and vigorously to the end or even to ‘the grave.'" Let's capture if not the letter at least the spirit of this lively root by insuring that your activities on behalf of your clients are well "executed," that they are carried out vigorously an


© The Filson Leadership Group, Inc. All rights reserved.

The author of 23 books, Brent Filson's recent books are, THE LEADERSHIP TALK: THE GREATEST LEADERSHIP TOOL and 101 WAYS TO GIVE GREAT LEADERSHIP TALKS. He is founder and president of The Filson Leadership Group, Inc. – Celebrating 25 years of helping leaders of top companies worldwide achieve outstanding results every day. Sign up for his free leadership e-zine and get his FREE report "7 Steps To Leadership Mastery"