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Money! Power! Fame! (And Other Ways to Fail)

One of the silliest ideas I’ve heard in this very silly political season is the just-floated trial balloon of an independent 2012 presidential ticket featuring New York City Mayor (and mega-billionaire) Michael Bloomberg and talk-show host Joe Scarborough, who served all of three terms as a member of Congress from Florida before resigning to spen

Michael Bloomberg

One of the silliest ideas I’ve heard in this very silly political season is the just-floated trial balloon of an independent 2012 presidential ticket featuring New York City Mayor (and mega-billionaire) Michael Bloomberg and talk-show host Joe Scarborough, who served all of three terms as a member of Congress from Florida before resigning to spend more time with his family and reinvent himself as “Morning Joe.”

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Why do I think this is a silly idea? After all, a Bloomberg-Scarborough ticket would have plenty of money, power, and fame–the coins of the realm that so attract the fascination of our media and business cultures. But what strikes me about the world we live in today–in business as well as in politics–is that these three much-celebrated resources are almost always overvalued as tools for leading change and making an impact. The surest way to fail is to rely for your success on money, power, and fame.

A recent (and classic) case in point is the disastrous campaign for governor of California waged by Meg Whitman, the former eBay CEO, who spent more than $140 million of her own fortune to get roughly 3 million votes–close to $50 a vote! She had all the money a candidate could dream of, but she couldn’t muster the wherewithal to even come close to her opponent. (I loved it when one cost-conscious political consultant told CNN, “Heck, I could have lost that election for $80 million!”)

Bloomberg himself offers a cautionary tale. The Mayor got a third term back in 2009 after spending $108 million of his own fortune–a staggering $185 per vote!–yet wound up winning just 50.7% of the ballots, against an underfunded and charisma-challenged opponent. It was hardly a rousing triumph of money and incumbent power, and certainly no way to lay the foundation for a presidential campaign.

Now think about high-profile failures in the business world. Robert Nardelli, famous as one of Jack Welch’s top change agents at General Electric, moved with great fanfare to The Home Depot, where he wielded power with a flair for the dramatic and presided over a six-tear term that generated more in the way of controversy than it did shareholder returns. Ousted by the board, he took his act to Chrysler, as CEO during the company’s ownership by Cerberus, the private-equity giant, where he presided over its bankruptcy. Nardelli’s money, power, and fame in the business world were of little value in his efforts to transform two big and important brands. Indeed, he is featured on CNBC.com as one of the “Worst American CEOs of All Time.”

So if money, power, and fame aren’t all they’re cracked up to be, what are the resources that allow leaders to make real change and have an enduring impact? I’d nominate purpose, passion, and humility. The most effective leaders I’ve gotten to know, whether they are in public life or corporate life, are the ones who conjure up a genuine sense of mission among their colleagues–leaders who stand for something more than themselves.

Arkadi Kuhlmann, the founder and chairman of ING Direct, and one of my CEO heroes, recently put it this way: “Leadership is about service, and you can’t lead if you can’t follow. And so you’ve got to create a mission. It is never about you. It is always about the mission. And people will follow you if you’re prepared to get a mission done, something with a goal that is a little bit beyond the reach of all of us. That’s what leadership’s about.”

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Leadership is also about humility–or, to use a word I use a lot, humbition. What’s humbition? It’s a term I first heard from a savvy change agent (and self-described “possibilitarian”) named Jane Harper, a 30-year veteran of IBM who devoted her career to transforming how this once-famously top-down organization approached innovation, collaboration, and leadership.

Humbition, Harper explains, is the blend of humility and ambition that drives the most successful businesspeople–an antidote to the hubris that infects (and undoes) so many executives and entrepreneurs. The smartest business leaders, she argues, are smart enough to admit that they cannot take all the credit for their success. More likely than not, what they’ve achieved is some combination of good fortune, great colleagueship, and the random collision of smart people and bright ideas.

In a manifesto of sorts that urged IBMers to embrace a new leadership mindset, Harper and a group of her colleagues offered a compelling description of what it takes to succeed in a complex, fast-moving, hard-to-figure-out world. Their strongly worded advice to aspiring leaders inside IBM should be read as words of wisdom for leaders at every level of all kinds of organizations.

“Humbition is one part humility and one part ambition,” they wrote. “We notice that by far the lion’s share of world-changing luminaries are humble people. They focus on the work, not themselves. They seek success–they are ambitious–but they are humbled when it arrives. They know that much of that success was luck, timing, and a thousand factors out of their personal control. They feel lucky, not all-powerful. Oddly, the ones operating under a delusion that they are all-powerful are the ones who have yet to reach their potential…[So] be ambitious. Be a leader. But do not belittle others in your pursuit of your ambitions. Raise them up instead. The biggest leader is the one washing the feet of the others.”

Those are true words of wisdom for an era when wisdom is in dangerously short supply. As you get ready to lead, don’t worry if you’re lacking in money, power, or fame. Just be sure you’ve got plenty of purpose, passion, and humility.

Reprinted from Harvard Business Review

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William C. Taylor is cofounder of Fast Company magazine and coauthor of Mavericks at Work. His next book is Practically Radical. Follow him at twitter.com/practicallyrad.

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About the author

I'm a cofounder and founding editor of Fast Company, coauthor of the 2006 book Mavericks at Work, and author of the forthcoming (January 2011) book Practically Radical.

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