Chairman's Corner

Chairman’s Corner: June 2006

June 09, 2006

A Definition of Leadership

by Mario Morino, Co-founder of VPP

In our work with Venture Philanthropy Partners, leadership—in our case, of organizations—is critical and one of the keys to our philanthropic investment approach. Simply put, if an organization has a strong leader willing to change and grow, almost everything else, from the board to programs, can be improved or fixed. But, when an organization does not have strong, effective leadership at the top of the organization, efforts to strengthen and improve are marginalized and, at times, akin to re-arranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.

As such, we place a very high importance on the person (or persons) who leads the organization―the CEO in business, the Executive Director in nonprofits. To emphasize the vital role, we use adjectives like “compelling” and “transformational”.

Even though VPP began with a “leadership-centric” investment approach, what we’ve learned since 2000 has been quite instructive and, we hope, beneficial for future investments and our current investment partners. Perhaps one of our (or at least my) biggest mistakes was to make assumptions about how leadership was perceived and interpreted―certainly in the nonprofits with which we engaged, but also within our own team and board. And, as such, it proved to be extremely difficult to get shared clarity on what we meant by leadership, its importance, and how it’s recognized or judged. What we, or I, quickly learned (and the cost was high) is there is much confusion about what leadership is (and isn’t).

As one simple measure of the difficulty of defining leadership, consider that a quick Google search yields 934,000,000 hits. Let me add the American Heritage Dictionary definition:

  • The position or office of a leader: ascended to the leadership of the party.
  • Capacity or ability to lead: showed strong leadership during her first term in office.
  • A group of leaders: met with the leadership of the nation’s top unions.
  • Guidance; direction: The business prospered under the leadership of the new president.

While the definition is seemingly straightforward, interpreting what leadership is and who has it is not at all analytical and more akin to reading tea leaves—a process of judgment and anything but formulaic. Despite all that is written about leadership and its development, I maintain the field remains in a quandary in terms of what it means and what leadership implies. Almost a billion hits in a Google search certainly reinforces that we are in a sea of information about leadership, but lack practical insights as to what it is, how it’s recognized, and what can be done to develop or, better said, nurture it.

What follows is my personal view of leadership, but one that has permeated much of VPP’s thinking and approach.

I believe that leadership, like entrepreneurship, can’t be taught. Leadership is more like coral. We’ve never figured out how to create coral, but our actions can either nurture or neglect its growth. A former top partner at management consulting firm McKinsey & Company observed that “leadership is a lot like speed [of a runner]. It’s hard to define, but you know it when you see it. And, like speed, you either have it or you don’t. You can’t teach or develop speed. Similarly, one can’t teach or develop leadership.”

My experience aligns with this view. While we can’t create or develop people into leaders, we do have the opportunity to inspire and encourage those we come across who have the capacity or the intangibles to be true leaders and then nurture their growth to help them fulfill their potential.

Much of the field is awash in a myriad of leadership development programs, which, for the most part, develop management skills versus nurture and draw out leadership skills. Management talent and skills can be developed; leadership talent and skills less so. Management is finite and definable; leadership is more intangible—much more so. And, being a good manager does not necessarily equate to being a leader, and vice versa.

So what are signs of leadership?

  • Great leaders can look at apparent chaos and articulate a clear vision of what is possible.
  • Great leaders influence others and marshal resources toward a common horizon.
  • Great leaders have a pragmatism―an understanding of what it takes to achieve their vision—at least at a high-level and in conceptual terms. Visionary or charismatic leaders unable or unwilling to understand what it takes to achieve or operationalize their vision run the great risk—and greater disappointment—of generating great interest and support only to see their efforts fail or not materialize as envisioned.
  • Great leaders have great judgment.

What are other signs?

  • They produce, they get results, they get things done.
  • Leaders see the “big picture” and keep themselves and others focused on their mission.
  • They recruit and retain good, ideally great, people—on their boards, senior management teams, and staffs. The great leader discerns between good and great and will not settle for good and certainly not for mediocre.
  • They concentrate on effectiveness, instead of efficiencies. They focus on “the right things to do, instead of being in the weeds to do things right.”
    Bold leaders recruit people who are their intellectual peers or better. They have personal confidence and aren’t afraid to reach out to others for guidance and counsel; they learn to use their boards and confidants well.
  • Leaders look beyond their organization to see and adapt to trends and changes, while managers are more often focused on “executing the plan.”
  • They see the possibilities of a situation and can cut through minutia to get straight to the most salient, relevant points.
  • Leaders motivate. Great leaders make those around them better by giving them the opportunity, encouragement, and sometimes a “kick in the pants” to help them “do what they didn’t think they could.”
  • And, they inspire and encourage their organizations when times are difficult and create a sense of “paranoia” when things are going well.

To further complicate the conundrum, leaders themselves must continue to grow to stay aligned to the needs of their organizations. For example, the leader who created an organization from scratch, cobbled together resources, and started programs may not possess the leadership skills required for the organization to go through its next stage of development. The same problem permeates the for-profit world when founders who had the drive, conviction, and obsession to create and start a business, either do not have the skills or do not want to grow into what the organization needs for its future. The thing to remember is that as an organization goes to a new stage of evolution (and it happens periodically), the expectations and needs of its leadership change as well. And, great leaders―those truly committed to their mission―have the insight and courage to step aside when new or different leadership is needed or the personal conviction to change—often dramatically—to become the leader the organization’s future calls for.

So, like much of life, spotting great leaders is not a checklist exercise, but an ongoing process of identifying demonstrated behaviors that yield transformational results for the organizations and the children and families they serve.