The Leadership Imperative: Mission Success

Excerpt from “Breaking the Fear Barrier” by Tom Rieger (Gallup Press; August 2011).

By Tom Rieger, Senior Practice Expert, Gallup

There are no fearless leaders, but there are courageous ones. Everyone has fears they need to face. The key is to learn to overcome those fears. Mark Twain said, “Courage is resistance to fear, mastery of fear—not absence of fear.” To create a fearless company, leaders must master fear—their own and others’. They have to have the courage to fix what’s wrong.

The first fear leaders have to face is their own fear of loss. Step one is putting everything on the table. There should be no entitlements, endowments, policies, or practices that are exempt from examination, except those required by law. Leaders are just as prone to parochialism, territorialism, and empire building as anyone else, if not more so. And if they create barriers, they can’t expect others in the organization not to do the same.

Once everything is out in the open and all past entitlements and barriers have been put aside, on a blank sheet of paper, the organization’s leadership should craft a vision of what the company can become—not an impossible dream, but a realistic assessment of what the organization can accomplish if it defeats its fears, its barriers, and its nagging problems. Achieving that vision should be the mission of the organization.

Mission success must be the ultimate barometer of everything that happens in the organization. Anything that contributes to it should be encouraged; anything that detracts from or has an unknown relationship to mission success should be discouraged or eliminated. However, the mission is unlikely to succeed unless the entire leadership team aligns itself with the shared goal, and achieving that degree of unanimity takes work. The leader needs to present the vision and discuss it with each member of the senior team one by one. Members should have the opportunity to voice their concerns and objections. Some objections will be valid; some will not. The final judge and arbiter must alwaysbe mission success. The leader should embrace suggestions that further the mission; suggestions that don’t are irrelevant background noise.

It may take a few days of wrangling and debating to get all of the concerns and potential conflicts aired. When that process is over, however, the leadership team mustpresent a united front. Team members should have submitted, tried, and judged all concerns by then. As soon as the team has final decisions on all matters, team members need to be in perfect alignment. If members of the leadership team expect to hold their employees to a higher standard, they must hold themselves to the same, if not higher, standard. Those who cannot get on board and who cannot get behind the mission have no place on the leadership team and may need to find another role in the organization or elsewhere.

Once leadership has achieved agreement and alignment with the mission, the next step is to determine how each department and function companywide will contribute to mission success. Recognition, budgets, advancement, hiring strategies, and other decisions should start and end with mission. Every department must consider its role in these decisions, as well as how it will support other departments.

Specific goals, budget allocation, and distribution of resources should be based on these guiding principles:

  • improving financial performance
  • improving the workplace
  • strengthening customer relationships
  • limiting liability
  • avoiding catastrophic failure

These issues are best decided locally. The overall directionof the strategy, however, should be driven by leadership and based on mission.

One faith-based hospital chain created a set of corporate values that reflected the religious convictions of the institution’s management and infused them throughout the entire organization. Unlike many organizations that try to adopt corporate values and find themselves touting meaningless phrases that are widely mocked, this hospital chain’s simple value statements—such as “Dignity” and “Excellence”—became the ultimate arbiters, guideposts, and unifying threads that tied the entire organization together. The hospital chain made all decisions in the context of these values. It built recognition programs around them, as well as promotions, strategies, and even budgets. When conflicts arose, the values determined who won. Violations of the values were not tolerated, regardless of the offender’s seniority. And when employees of all different functions and levels were asked what they would never want to change about the organization, the unanimous answer was “the values.”

When leaders make decisions that determine budgets, recognition criteria, or performance targets, they directly or indirectly create a set of standards that others generally will follow. It is easy to try to enforce those standards through fear, but those who lead through fear will inspire fear. That fear will lead to barriers, and those barriers will inhibit success. While basing all decisions solely on mission—supported by objective, timely, and accurate metrics—doesn’t eliminate fear, it does promote courage. Mission-centric decisions are less divisive and are inherently simplifying, permitting leaders to take a deep breath and judge the best way forward on a clear and powerful construct: If the mission fails, all fail. If the mission succeeds, all succeed. So if one group succeeds and the mission still fails, then, in reality, no one succeeds.

An organization cannot become aligned around a unified mission by being reactive. Success won’t come from directing employees’ every move, thought, phrase, and activity; from checking everything everyone does before it leaves the department; or from dismissing any new idea as insubordinate. Good leaders are obsessively proactive. Leading means inspiring. It means setting the direction, making course corrections when necessary, defining success, and helping people thrive.

In the 1960s, President Kennedy said the United States would put a man on the moon within a decade. At the time, doing so was more science fiction than science. However, aligned with that one mission, industry and academia alike rallied to create a wave of pride, motivation, and excitement that led to countless innovations, and eventually, as Neil Armstrong famously said, a “small step for man; one giant leap for mankind.” If a leader inspires, aligns, motivates, and enables the organization around a common vision, then a company has taken the first step toward becoming fearless.

Tom Rieger is senior practice expert for Gallup, and author of “Breaking the Fear Barrier: How fear destroys companies from the inside out and what to do about it” (Gallup Press; August 2011). Visit Amazonto purchase the book.

Lorri Freifeld is the editor/publisher of Training magazine. She writes on a number of topics, including talent management, training technology, and leadership development. She spearheads two awards programs: the Training Top 100 and Emerging Training Leaders.