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Four lessons of Salem

Samhoud on leadership

AUTHOR

Salem Samhoud

DATE

22/01/2024

length

min read

My question to you as a leader is: Are you motivated by purpose or ambition? In my career as an advisor, I’ve observed that both leaders and organisations naturally tend towards one of the two: purpose or ambition. Successful leaders and organisations ensure a balance by surrounding themselves with diverse perspectives (countervailing power), including people with different natural inclinations. Leaders must navigate significant trends such as globalisation, digitisation, and the growing need for meaning and purpose, trends currently driving changes in the world. This demands CEO’s and leaders to respond effectively and steer their organisations. Consequently, leadership has become an even more strategic theme. Drawing on my experience with clients worldwide, I’d like to share four lessons on successful leadership with you:

1. The countervailing power for the balance between ambition and purpose

Let me start by posing two questions:

  • Why does your organisation exist?
  • And where do you want to take your organisation?

 

These are two crucial questions that answer the higher goal (the purpose) and the audacious goal (the ambition) of an organisation. Often, I observe that both leaders and organisations are driven by one of the two. The leader motivated by purpose will set the long-term vision, inspire based on it, and advocate for the organisation’s raison d’être. The leader driven by ambition ensures the execution of the organisation’s strategy, putting it into practice to achieve the right results. Both are crucial within organisations. My advice to leaders is to harness the power of countervailing power to make your organisation excel. Who does your leader have around them to provide countervailing power? The balance for purpose and ambition is necessary both at the top and in teams within organisations.

How do you do this as a leader? Reflection is the key. Know yourself well: your strengths, areas for development, and preferences, and leverage countervailing power accordingly. This way, different perspectives are considered, leading to the right decisions, both by the leader and the organization. Even major stakeholders recognize the power of countervailing power. A recent example is Blackrock, a large investor inherently driven by ambition. They acknowledge the strength of countervailing power and inquire about the purpose of the organizations they invest in. (Want to read more about this? Check out Blackrock’s letter to CEOs.)

2. Purpose or ambition without action is lip service

Despite the noted distinction in preference for ambition or purpose, some leaders have no preference for either, which poses the greatest danger for an organisation. They often establish a purpose and display it on beautiful posters, but they don’t internalise or translate it into actions for the organisation. Alternatively, they define a strategy to fulfil their ambition but fail to actively manage it. In both cases, without action, it remains mere lip service. How does an organisation address this?

Purpose

A purpose alone is insufficient; it comes to life only when coupled with action. Purpose drives ethical behaviour, provides direction to culture, and offers a consistent framework for decision-making. A deeply ingrained purpose felt throughout the organisation positively impacts both organisational and business results. It extends beyond the organisation, connecting management, employees, and society.

Make bold statements and bold moves regarding the purpose. Communicate and make your purpose public to the outside world. What is the long-term vision or driving force behind your organisation? Launch provocative activations related to the purpose within the organisation to inspire employees to embody the purpose: activations with clear results. (Interested in learning more? Read this article on purpose in action.) Dare to make bold decisions based on your purpose—both by initiating new initiatives aligned with the purpose and by discontinuing initiatives that deviate from it. Establish for yourself that purpose is not linked to specific generations like Gen X, Millennials or Generation Z but applies to every individual. Purpose is part of the human lifecycle. (Curious to learn more? Read this article on whether millennials are truly purpose-driven.)

Ambition

Ambition without action results in empty promises, damaging trust in and the reputation of your organisation. An audacious goal or great plans, without clear action, progress measurement, and adjustment, is meaningless. Plans linger untouched, and become an annual ceremonial routine during the business planning process.

Define one clear audacious goal, translate it effectively throughout the organisation, make necessary decisions, stick to the course, and inspire others to join as a leader. Ensure the audacious goal is as specific as possible with an intended timeframe. Engage in dialogue with the organisation and employees so they understand the audacious goal, see its connection to the purpose, and feel the energy and focus to collectively achieve this audacious goal. Involving your employees provides meaning and clarity, giving them insight and ownership in contributing to it.

”An audacious goal or great plans, without clear action, progress measurement, and adjustment, is meaningless.”

3.  Link the individual visions to the organisations vision

The magic happens when you connect your personal vision to the organisation’s vision. That’s when concrete focus emerges, and you wholeheartedly pursue the result. A personal vision involves knowing what you stand for, your strengths, ambition, and purpose. When you link the inner drive of employees and leaders to the organisation’s vision, it unleashes so much energy! From various client journeys, I observe two effects that ultimately strengthen the organisation:

  • Leaders re-engage with the organisation, fostering a surge of passion and motivation to grow within the company; OR
  • Leaders realise a lack of connection with the organisational vision, prompting them to explore opportunities outside the organisation.

Both outcomes are beneficial for an organisation as they contribute to the agility of both the employee and the organisation. The generated focus and passion among employees often lead to significant results for the organisation.

4. Leadership as a strategic theme rather than an HR role

Lastly, I have two tips for HR professionals to strategically develop leadership within organisations. My question to you would be: Why are you reading this blog? Is it because you find leadership an interesting theme and read a lot about it? Or because you know very little about it? Leaders often attend courses or training sessions on topics they already know a lot about. However, leaders should ideally participate in seminars or training sessions on themes where they can still develop. Additionally, I’ve noticed that in large organisations, external coaches from the HR department coach the top 20, even though this group is so strategic that internal HR professionals have more insight and can make a greater impact on the development for their top 20. As an HR professional, you can add even more value by:

  • Creating more connection with the organisation by delving into the strategic challenges of the CEO – Seek a deeper understanding of themes that impact the business and occupy the CEO, but where you as an HR professional may have less knowledge. Possible examples include trends in the external environment, disruptors, strategy, (new) business models, IT, finance, and KPIs. By understanding these strategic challenges, you can align the HR strategy accordingly. This way, both strategies are integrated into the organisation, fostering more mutual understanding.

 

  • Taking a stance from a strategic perspective and daring to challenge – Don’t just think in processes but consider the leader from the entire system of the organisation and the entire business. From a holistic view of the entire business, it’s crucial to take a stance from a strategic perspective and challenge the top 20 based on your expertise. What is the impact of the choices made by the top 20 on people and, consequently, on the business? Here, too, it’s crucial for HR to provide countervailing power by challenging the top 20. Both in terms of the complementarity of individuals in the teams and in challenging each other as professionals and the impact on the business. Draw the connection between the observed behaviour, its impact on others, and its future impact on business results. By consistently reflecting on these aspects, you can complement the CEO’s perspective.

Countervailing power is essential both in ambition/purpose-driven leaders and organisations and among professionals (HR/the business) involved in leadership development because good leaders don’t surround themselves with yes-men.