Leadership in great companies

By John Langhorne / Guest Editorial

What’s it’s like to work for a “great company?”

First and foremost, you know who the CEO is; if it’s a small company, you know the CEO. Either way, you have been in the room with him or her, and you believe they care about you.

You have been in meetings where the leader speaks of her core beliefs, and at an emotional level, you believe she practices them. You might describe them as direct and honest in communicating. It is likely there is a tool that invites you to communicate your concerns about such issues as product quality or customer service, and you will receive a personal response.

When you come to work, your expectations are that you will be treated with respect and the performance bar will be set high. Most of the feedback you receive is positive and makes you feel competent. When you receive negative feedback, it is done promptly, and in a manner that allows you to improve and preserves your personal dignity. You also know that laggards and whiners will not be allowed to spread their misery to you or your co-workers. Your relationships with your co-workers are cordial and you may have a best friend at work.

You have a clear understanding about your job, how it might be changing and how it contributes to accomplishing the work and mission of the organization. You routinely receive coaching, as well as the opportunity for more formal development. Your immediate manager probably spends at least a few minutes one-on-one with you every week, and there are scheduled meetings where key information is shared and you are invited to identify problems and share ideas about how to make things better.

You manager is the best you have ever worked for. He understands people and has very good communication skills. You noticed some time ago that he often manages by asking questions rather than telling. You realize this style encourages you to think seriously about your job, how it impacts others and how the immediate system might be improved.

Aside from being thoughtful, perhaps the best characteristic of your manager is his predictability – no more of that “what mood is he in today?” stress that makes for ugly Monday mornings.

The paragraphs above describe a particular organizational culture. This culture has been shown to be highly productive and a great place to work.

Culture is a shorthand way of describing how a company thinks, enacts and feels. It is the product of a thoughtful, coordinated process by its leaders – particularly the top leader. The organization may be a for-profit business, a unit of government or a nonprofit organization. Developing this culture in large companies (those with more than 2,000 employees) will take many years. Fortunately, the smaller an organization is, the greater the ability of its leaders to develop and operate such a culture.

In his best-selling book, “Good to Great,” author Jim Collins shows (as do many other studies) that the most important characteristic of a high-performance organization is an effective leader at the top. He labels this person a “Level 5” leader and provides an in-depth discussion of how this person looks from the outside. The Level 5 leader has two core characteristics: fierce resolve and humility.

However, there are many studies that suggest different core characteristics of effective leaders, and there seems to be a growing agreement that the single most common characteristic of leaders is that there is no single defining characteristic. Rather, leaders are those, who, through self-awareness and life-long self-management, identify their strongest attributes and then find or develop environments that allow them to optimize these attributes.

Hence, leadership is not a destination but rather a journey.

For most of us this is good news – leaders are not unique. We all can use our insight, knowledge and experience to make “leading a good life” our personal reality.



John Langhorne is owner and principal of Langhorne Associates www.langhorneassociates.com. His most recent book, Beyond IQ: Practical Steps To Find the Best You, is available digitally at Amazon.