Leadership Lessons from Bernie Sanders

The current U.S. Democratic and Republican nominee races are, if nothing else, entertaining and unexpected. Yet independent of political platforms, leadership fundamentals can explain much of the phenomena we are witnessing; in particular, the (what the media calls ‘surprising’) success of Bernie Sanders campaign. When examined under the lens of leadership, it was almost predictable.
In a research survey conducted globally and multiple times since 1987, respondents were asked to select seven qualities they “most look for and admire in a leader, someone whose direction they would willingly follow.” The top four, (which never changed throughout repeated surveys) were: Honesty (always scored highest), and in this order, forward-looking, competent, and inspiring. (1) As long as people believed a leader possessed those traits, they would willingly follow that person.
A quick look at Sanders history shows not only strength in each category, but unusual consistency of policy, ideology, and voting record over his 40-year career. Agree with him or not, he cannot be accused of flip-flop tactics, or of acting contrary to his stated beliefs, which lends great credibility to his messaging, and has inspired formerly disconnected and cynical voters back into the fray. With Congress’s favorability rating in the low single digits, it is not surprising that disenfranchised voters would fall in behind a Beltway outsider; so far over 2 million of them, making 6 million small donations averaging $27.00.
Similarly, Stanford lecturer Jim Collins wrote about what he called Level 5 leaders, the most notable characteristics of which are, paradoxically, intense professional will, and deep personal humility. (2) Sanders campaign from the outset announced that there would be no attack ads; that they would take the high road of setting the agenda around really important national issues, and focusing only on them. His approach with all people, including the media, has been respectful and courteous, displaying a humility unusual at that political level. In fact, he has even cautioned Americans that neither he, nor anyone else elected President, will alone be capable of resolving the monumental challenges currently facing the country. He advises that only a collaborative effort, including a revitalized Congress, can deliver solutions. Yet as we see in the debates (which he had to force on the DNC), his humility does not mean he is a pushover. His fierce will to table the crucial issues, stay on message, and engage in vigorous debate to educate the voters, is anything but passive. Intense professional will; deep personal humility.
Result: he has gone from a ‘fringe candidate’ whom the media joked about, to winning seven of the last eight states’ caucuses and primaries. National polls indicate he defeats Trump by far higher margins than would Clinton.
Whether Sanders can win the Presidency or not remains to be seen. What is certain, is that without demonstrating those proven leadership characteristics, his campaign would never have gotten this far.
What might be the implications of this for leaders in the corporate sector? Do the same leadership traits still apply? Deliver superior results? Former TD CEO Ed Clark once observed “It’s incredible how much energy and power is out there on the front lines if they think you are a true believer too.” Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz recently observed of Americans: “Broken promises, void of truth in leadership have led to a fracturing of trust and confidence not only in our elected officials but in our institutions.” They have “cynicism, despair, division, exclusion, fear and yes, indifference.” (3) Indifference? We are all most familiar with the pathetic employee disengagement statistics cited in so many recent surveys. Yet Schultz’s, (possibly a Level 5 leader) latest results at Starbucks include $3.6 billion profit on $19.2 billion revenue. Not too shabby.
Perhaps the Sanders phenomenon could inspire leaders in all organizations to conduct a personal mirror check on those six leadership characteristics:
• Does my own agenda align with that of the organization? Is it perceived that way?
• Have I set a vision for the company that resonates with and includes employees?
• Do I walk my talk?
• Am I perceived as honest? credible? humble?
• Do employees truly believe that I’m sufficiently committed and strong-willed to pull off the vision?
Often, when the answer to these questions is ‘no, or not really’, it’s by default rather than design. These traits are easy to overlook, and sometimes call for painful personal growth. Yet the data show that as we work to master them, employees connect and deliver better performance.
Honesty, forward thinking, competent, inspiring, professional will, and personal humility: these have enabled Bernie Sanders to make a serious leadership run that eight months ago, no one believed possible. Business research directly correlates leadership behaviours with superior performance, further justifying any efforts to improve our leadership capabilities. It’s well worth our looking in the leadership mirror.
Now you may ask “What about Trump?” but that’s a blog for another day.
1. Kouzes, Jim, and Posner, Barry, The Leadership Challenge, Wiley & Sons, 2002
2. Collins, Jim, Good to Great, William Collins, 2001
3. http://www.ozy.com/provocateurs/coffee-schmoffee-can-starbucks-ceo-fix-america/68786?utm_source=pdb&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=04062016&variable=fc95adf184889ca9b9aa26fe1ff12300

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Corporate Transformation and the Physics of Culture

“Everything is energy and that’s all there is to it. Match the frequency of the reality you want and you cannot help but get that reality. It can be no other way. This is not philosophy. This is physics.” Albert Einstein
As a novice student of neuroscience and quantum physics, I’m constantly fascinated by new discoveries that seem to support what sages have maintained for millennia: that there are energy forces that create outcomes, and they are driven by thoughts and emotions: “Faith can move mountains” Mark 11:23; “Love conquers all” Virgil
For centuries, Newtonian science dispelled those notions, (perhaps rightfully so for the times), and focused our attention on only those facts provable by the scientific method. But as technology advanced, people like Einstein circled us back around to the earlier truths.
What does this have to do with corporate transformation, or a leader running a business? A lot. For the last 100 years, most research and attention has been devoted to the fundamentals of management. Statistical models drove marketing, economics, finance and production. Everything else was relegated to that “Soft Stuff” bin; dismissed as emotional fluff that had nothing to do with running a hard-nosed business. And even when trusted gurus like Tom Peters, and (justifiably) revered managers like Lou Gerstner cautioned us that “Wait, this soft stuff matters…a lot!” many still chose, and choose, to ignore it.
But new findings in neuroscience and quantum physics indicate that there are fields of energy that do in fact interact with not only other fields, but with those of individuals as well. Consultant Margaret Wheatley suggests “Many scientists now work with the concept of fields–invisible forces that occupy space and influence behavior. I have played with the notion that organizational vision and values act like fields, unseen but real forces that influence people’s behavior.” Leadership and the New Science, 1999. These fields constitute your organizational culture.
This physics of culture has huge ramifications for any leader struggling to effectively adapt their organization to the constant, rapid change of the world today. As Einstein instructs, you must “match the frequency of the reality you want.” Is your market changing every six months, while your organization is saddled with rigid bureaucracy and clogged decision pipelines? How does a culture of complacency and disengagement ‘match’ your desired reality of high agility, deep resilience, and proactive innovation?
Culture is energy. Walk into a Four Seasons hotel, a Nordstrom’s, or an Apple retail store, a Southwest Airlines counter. You’ll feel that energy. The frequency is high. Those companies are currently thriving. There is a strong match. They’re creating a desired reality.
Any leader striving to succeed must conduct an audit to determine the match between their ‘energy frequency’ (culture) and that of the reality they seek to create. Mission, vision, and strategy matter, and leaders are responsible for creating and implementing all three in genuine and meaningful ways. But that is just the beginning. Corporate transformation requires mastering the physics of culture. Culture drives successful implementation. If your vision calls for innovation yet your culture values and protects the status quo, the energies don’t match. No amount of strategizing, managing and controlling will remedy that imbalance.
Explore your organizational culture. Define it. Test to see if your senior leaders are aligned in their understanding and embracing of it. Then compare it to your stated vision. If the energy frequency doesn’t match that of your desired reality, at least you will now know where to start changing. “It can be no other way.”

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Strong Leadership Leverages Talent

There’s an old adage in business that says “People join companies, and quit bosses.”
In my own experience, this has proven true, and recent research supports the claim.
In a study of 1000 American executives (cited in Forbes magazine) positive psychologist Michelle McQuaid found that (only) “35 percent of Americans are happy at their job. And, 65 percent say a better boss would make them happy. Only 35 percent say a pay raise will do the same thing. A 2009 study published by the Harvard Business Review suggested, “…the majority of people say they trust a stranger more than they trust their boss.””
If we accept the premise that success in today’s hyper-competitive business environment demands the best talent, and that a majority of that talent dislikes and mistrusts their boss, the need for exceptional leadership that attracts and retains star talent becomes painfully obvious.
The brand recognition, product/service reputation, or culture of a company may initially grab the interest of the best talent, but it’s the attitude, style and behavior of their direct superior that determines the quality and pace of their growth, level of motivation and fulfillment, and possibly even their decision to stick around. Every employee’s daily reality is directly influenced by the leadership skills of their boss.
The unfortunate thing is that often a poor relationship between boss and subordinate is not intentional. Hectic pace, market pressures, and financial stress, can easily suck a manager into the vortex of minutiae that disconnects them from direct reports. It’s not necessarily that they don’t want to connect more deeply with employees or show interest in their development; sometimes it’s simply too much distraction and too little time.
Regardless of intent, the primary responsibility for keeping top talent within the fold still lies with leadership (including line managers and supervisors), which means they must take a strategic approach to attracting, challenging, engaging and inspiring employees. The most effective way for leaders to go about this is to create an environment or culture that is supportive, challenging and inclusive.
Here are a few steps leaders can take to create that environment:
1) Start with yourself: make sure you’re clear about whom you want on the team, what you expect of them, what talents each brings, and how to best leverage them.
2) Clarify corporate identity and values for your people, and make sure your actions demonstrate both. Regularly (daily, weekly) schedule specific actions that reinforce those values to employees
3) Create opportunities for employees to develop (as Dan Pink suggests) autonomy, mastery and purpose in their work. Hold firm on accountability, outcomes and deadlines, but let the ‘how’ evolve from their own ideas. Monitor, don’t micromanage.
4) Spend brief time in every meeting connecting the daily tasks to the larger picture. Remind people why everyone comes to work there; what they’re trying to accomplish in the long term. Help employees to feel part of something bigger than their own roles.
5) Recognize and reward their behaviour that supports and ‘lives’ the organization’s values; give timely corrective feedback when it doesn’t.
6) Coach people to think through problems and challenges for themselves, as opposed to instantly giving them the answer.
Employees will often gladly endure adverse circumstances such as stress, tight deadlines, and frustrating changes, as long as the relationship with their direct boss is strong. Trust and the clear communication of company identity, mission and values lets employees feel an integral part of a cause larger than them, and engender a loyalty to the boss as well as to the company. In this way, strong leadership leverages talent.

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Leadership and the Bottom Line

When deciding how to best allocate limited resources to performance improvement systems and activities, leaders tend to err on the side of factual research.
So over the years, as academic and private sector research established the reliability of such concepts as the profit impact of market strategy (PIMS), total quality management (TQM), business process management (BPM), and Six Sigma, real and perceived risk was reduced, and adoption of those practices became more mainstream. Today we’ve reached a point where Boards can even be held accountable by shareholders for ensuring their companies are applying these proven best practices.
We’re now approaching just such a time in the field of leadership development. An existing and fast-growing body of research is proving a causal link between leadership development and shareholder value. There are three connected facts that establish this:
Fact 1: Leadership development drives employee fulfillment
Fact 2: Employee fulfillment drives customer satisfaction
Fact 3: Customer satisfaction drives shareholder value
These three elements are highly interconnected, and employee fulfillment is maximized by a strong, adaptive culture.
A Strong, Adaptive Culture Impacts Profitability
Several landmark studies have demonstrated the power of corporate culture in successful companies. Agility, speed and resilience allow continuous discovery and exploitation of new products and markets. This is known as ‘adaptive capacity’, and stems from a collective clarity and commitment to shared mission, values and vision of the organization. Culture drives sustainable competitive advantage, and in one study, yielded an 8.7 percentage point difference in operating margin over a weaker culture competitor. The difference derived from higher employee and customer retention, and productivity.
The Cost of Fear and Cultural Entropy
All organizations have some level of cultural entropy, (defined as the energy involved in sustaining bureaucracy, internal competition, hierarchy, empire building, image, blame, information hoarding and the like), but research also shows that companies with weak or toxic cultures suffer from fear paralysis, and high cultural entropy. There is a concrete cost to these fear-driven behaviours, usually reflected in higher turnover and employee disengagement, lower productivity, efficiency and commitment, and lost opportunities. In weak culture companies, it is usually a big, yet hidden number.
Strong Leadership Builds Strong, Adaptive Cultures
While research co-relates high performance with strong, adaptive cultures, and excessive costs with weak ones, it also shows that adaptive cultures cannot be achieved without highly developed leaders. Expert Richard Barrett tells us that “ultimately, the culture of an organization is a reflection of the personality of the leader or the personalities of the leadership group.” To transform a culture, one must either change out the leadership, or the leaders must be willing to reflect upon and make changes to their approach.
It is the domain of the leader to:
• Be self-aware; clear about his/her own values, beliefs, strengths, weaknesses, vision for the future
• Clearly understand and communicate the mission, values and vision of the organization (create the culture)
• Align their own and their employees values with those of the organization
• Create an environment of fairness, openness, collaboration, and responsible risk-taking
• Attract, retain, motivate and inspire the best possible talent to engage and deliver on the mission
• Strengthen others resolve during difficult periods by leading by example
• Build trust
Notice no mention of technical proficiency, functional skills, and intellectual superiority. Of course, at higher levels of management, those capabilities are almost pre-requisite, but the important finding of the research is that they alone are insufficient to drive outstanding results. The reason is that today, only pools of bright, highly-engaged, interactive, collaborative people will win the race.
Perhaps the leader could do it him or herself in the past; not any longer.
This is good news. Now we no longer need to speculate on the efficacy of leadership development programs on profitability. The ‘bottom line’ is: leadership development builds the bottom line.
What is the current culture in your organization? How much cultural entropy exists? What steps are you taking to ensure your best leaders are getting the development they will need to step up to the challenges of tomorrow?

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