Distinctively Different Times Call for Distinctively Different Leaders

The long-held dictum that if you do what is expected of you, you will do well is no longer the sure path to success.

There have been more changes in business orthodoxy in the first 15 years of the 21st century, than occurred during the entire 20th century. When the last century ended, it marked not just a turning of the page, but also a closing of the book.

The world of accepted business mores and the time-honored requirements of success and leadership were hit with the unannounced suddenness and destruction of a 9.2 magnitude earthquake. This tremor of transformation shook the traditional concepts of business and leadership to the core, and the resultant tsunami of change washed away all that had been customary and comfortable. The result is that these new times call for a new type of leader; a leader who not only does what is ethical, but is cheerfully ready to go the extra mile.

Perhaps you think these comments are too dramatic and overstate the situation to the point of biblical hyperbole (Matthew 5:41, “And whosoever shall compel thee to go a mile, go with him twain (two).” Well, consider the following. It’s fair to say that the American economic system (if not the world’s) has been at war with itself since the start of this century. It was not so long ago when – in simpler times – top- and bottom-line growth (no matter how achieved) were the sole goals of business leaders. But over time, the simplicity of that model and the abuses it perpetuated ultimately caused the very fiber of the business world to unravel.

Think about it. In just a little more than a decade we have witnessed the illicit machinations and ultimate destruction of Enron, Tyco, EthicsAdelphia, Lehman Brothers and many others; all the result of slavish – to the point of being unethical – focus on top- and bottom-line growth. It is still hard believe that over a span of just a few years such icons as General Motors, United Airlines, AIG, Merrill Lynch, Bear Stearns, Fanny Mae, Freddy Mac, Citicorp and scores of other established institutions of business suffered the turmoil of restructuring, bankruptcy, dissolution or acquisition; but it happened.

The game is different now; meaning that for individuals to become successful leaders in this new environment, they are going to have to be different, too. The conventional concepts of ethics and leadership skills are not going to be enough to be successful. It will take more than the time-honored perception of being ethical and more than the classic traits of leadership if one is to emerge as a new type of leader who can be successful in these new times. The successful leaders of tomorrow will be those who employ new concepts and altered skill-sets.


The business world is filled with thousands of well-intended, dedicated individuals working diligently to meet the standards of ethics and to apply the accepted techniques of successful leadership. That is good, but it is not enough to stand out and distinguish oneself as a leader in these new times. If you want to be the one to rise above the rest and achieve truly unique levels of success as a leader in this new environment, you first have to come to grips with the understanding that it is no longer enough to simply follow the rules and lead like everyone else. You need to be willing to take a different approach than other hard-working, ethical individuals trying to achieve leadership and business success.

Believe it or not, it is possible – and not all that difficult – to absorb what has been learned in the past regarding ethics and leadership and then take it just one step further. Being willing to go “one step further” is what will distinguish the average leader from the exceptional one.

Traditionally, being ethical means doing the right things that are required to be done. Follow the laws and regulations and don’t lie, cheat or steal. That’s the way it has always been. However, to distinguish oneself as a new type of leader will require doing the right things that are not required to be done. It is a different philosophy of leadership that embodies the notion of simply doing more than what is required to be done and instead focuses on what should and can be done.

A Pregnant Idea?

The idea of “maternity leave” is a simple example of how this new concept of ethics in leadership might work. Most states have laws mandating maternity leave, a period of paid absence from work, to which a woman is legally entitled during the months immediately before and after childbirth.

Failure to comply with these laws certainly would be unethical as it is something required to be done. Compliance with the law is the accepted and ethical way of acting, but what if the mother is given the option to “take as long as she needs” to be with her baby? Even if taken without pay, allowing the mother to take as much time as she needs and keeping the job open for her when she returns is not required, but it is what should be done.

Many will argue that this type of approach will only increase costs and the payoff is not measurable; but they are wrong.

Leadership that is based on doing more than what is required becomes a social influence that encourages followers to reciprocate with increased loyalty and effort for the leader.

It is no coincidence that companies with a culture of leadership that is dedicated to doing more than what is required to do and doing what should be done do better. Many, in fact, are extending the concept of “parental” leave to include maternity, paternity, and even adoption leave. Smart move.

The Price of Merely “Being Ethical”

Another, more complicated, example of this leadership concept would be the current travails of General Motors. Ten years ago GM discovered an important safety defect in cars they were manufacturing. If you trace all the actions of GM management from the time they GMdiscovered the defect to the present, you will find the company complied with everything “they were required to do,” but not one leader stepped up and said, “We have to do more.” GM set about to discover the defect and find a solution; they reported the incidents and actions to the National Travel Safety Bureau, it made refunds to complaining buyers under “lemon laws,” but they went no further. The NTSB dropped the ball and did not order a recall and so GM did not do a recall. GM did what was required, but no more.

In the meantime GM profited from the sale of millions of defective cars that resulted in the deaths of at least 15 people killed and hundreds injured. No leader at GM stood up and said, “Look, we are being ethical by doing what is required to be done, but we need to do more than that.” They were playing by the accepted old rules of leadership and business; and look at the cost to GM is now.

If, 10 years ago, there had been leadership and a culture at GM that set the standard of not just doing what was required to be done, but what should have been done, then GM would have been transparent regarding the problem, recalled the defective cars and stopped making others until the problem was solved. No doubt it would have been time-consuming and expensive, but GM would be better off for it today.

And the Moral of the Story …

Times are different now and the old way of leading and doing business is not enough to assure success. What is needed now is a different attitude and approach from leaders and businesses. The old idea that doing what others are doing and just doing what is required to be done is the wrong thing to do now.

The new world calls for a new type of leader and corporate philosophy if real success is to be achieved and maintained. There is nothing complicated or secret about this new order of leadership. All it calls for is an attitude and a new standard for doing the right thing. Understanding that doing the right things that are required to be done is not enough and that the real standard for successful ethical leadership in the 21st century is doing what should be done.

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