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CEO Blog: When You're Leading - It's Not About You

Gary Burnison |CEO of Korn/Ferry International
Friday, 11 Nov 2011 | 10:37 AM ET

Consider it one of the many paradoxes of leadership: It starts with the leader, but it’s never about the leader.

Image Source | Getty Images

Although leaders in business, politics, and other arenas shoulder tremendous responsibility, the focus can never be on them. They are stewards--servants, really--of a greater whole known as the community, the nation, the organization. That doesn’t make the job any easier, of course; in fact, it makes it all the more complex.

From the Arab Spring to the Euro zone debt crisis, leaders have been given a stark reminder that it’s not about them. In the extreme, political strongman Muammar Qaddafi was toppled from power after four decades of a brutal regime. Far more peaceful has been the transfer of leadership in Greece after the prime minister agreed to step down to make way for a new government--the latest in the events in that country which is receiving EU assistance and must adopt an austerity plan to counter its burgeoning debt. In the corporate world, there are many examples of CEOs who agree to step down because the growth or turnaround plan they implemented just isn’t delivering the expected results.

Regardless of the background events, what remains clear is the essential nature of leadership: It is above and beyond and individual leader. In particular, difficult times call for strong leadership, one that communicates the problem and the solution, while forging an emotional connection with people that carries the message “we’re all in this together.” It sounds so much simpler than it is in practice, but the fundamental truth remains: It starts with the leader, but it’s not about the leader. A leader can’t be afraid to sacrifice popularity in order to do the right thing, no matter how difficult it is.

When times are good, the leader gets too much credit, and when things go off course the leader gets too much blame. It’s a fact of life--and leadership. When the chips are down, problems find their way to the leader’s doorstep and desk, demanding attention. A leader doesn’t have the luxury of not knowing what to do, even if he doesn’t personally have all the answers. He must know where to go to find them--and quickly.

One of the biggest challenges for a new leader is to realize that when he speaks, it’s no longer for himself; he speaks for the organization. There is no such thing as a casual remark made in front of others. That’s why communication must be clear, consistent, and constant. If there is a problem, leaders must let people know about: what it is, how it started, and what the impact is going to be. Gaps in people’s knowledge are vacuums waiting to be filled with speculation. But knowing the problem isn’t enough; leaders must also inform people that there is a real solution. If a leader wants people to embrace corrective action or a new initiative with confidence and optimism, that’s what she needs to project.

Most of all, every corporate CEO and political head of state must acknowledge that leadership is really stewardship. You’re in charge for a specific period of time, during which you do your best to strengthen and improve the organization (or nation). Just as you took over from someone else, so another will follow you. To lead is to be part of a continuum. For example, the world lost a great innovator with the death of Steve Jobs last month, but Apple goes on without him, which serves to remind us that no leader is bigger than his organization, stakeholders, or the people whom he represents.

It’s not about you. It never was, and never will be.

Gary Burnison is CEO of Korn/Ferry International , the world’s largest executive recruiting firm and a leading talent management company. He is also the author of "No Fear of Failure: Real Stories of How Leaders Deal with Risk and Change."

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