Monday, September 22, 2014

Without Purpose, Leadership is a Just a Tool

My personal journey in countless leadership roles has been a tumultuous one.  I have had successes and also some failures.  I’ve learned a lot about myself during a 40-year journey.  Some of the lessons were hard to take.

We’re all born with certain talents.  Some of us – including me – had the good fortune to have a family that provided lots of positive feedback or validation for those talents.  Mine were music and math.

School provides us the opportunity to develop skills so we can apply our talents.  If we have a passion for the pursuit of excellence in those areas, they become our singular purpose.  If my musical talent was the equal of Paul McCartney or Lady Gaga, I may have chosen music as my singular pursuit.  But my talent didn’t rise to that level and I gave it up when I was 14 years old.

Math also fell by the wayside. I was an ‘A’ student through my studies at the US Naval Academy.  However, I never pursued the subject beyond that level.  I simply had no passion for it.

With my diploma and my officer’s commission in hand, off I went to a US Navy ship.  There I discovered that I had a talent for leadership. I am not bragging when I say this.  I am certainly not alone in this talent; there are millions who have it and I never rose to a very high level in any organization of note.

The military provides a great opportunity to learn.  You are handed more responsibility at age 22 than any other organization will allow.  You learn to find your strengths and understand where you need help.  You learn to forge trust with your subordinates and your peers.  You develop the sense to ask good questions before deciding your next step.  You learn to perform under pressure and accomplish goals with scarce resources.  You also learn to solve problems when a plan goes awry. 

The military also gives you a sense of purpose.  When I was a midshipman, we often quoted Woodrow Wilson, who used the phrase “make the world safe for democracy” when he asked Congress for a declaration of war.  It may sound trite and you may object to its message.  But, we were young and idealistic.

When I left the military, my focus was on making a living so I could support a family.  Leadership skills were simply what I had to offer the job market.  And, employers were lined up to take advantage of it.  But, I lost a sense of purpose when I was handed my honorable discharge.

Writing in Forbes, Matt Myatt reminds us “purpose is the one thing all great leaders have in common….  Purpose fuels passion and work ethic….  The best leaders recognize a common purpose, shared values, and aligned vision are the hallmarks of any great organization.”

The hard truth is that leadership, in and of itself, is not purpose; it’s a tool like any other.  It’s a useful tool in many business situations and good leaders are rewarded for their skill if they also achieve business and financial results. 

Financial rewards are great!  But, there are many situations in life and even in business that require something else – empathy, for example -- or serenity.

My current work at Vistage, a CEO membership organization, has provided me with a sense of purpose unlike any in my experience.  I work with a small group of business owners who strive to do better and be better. To get better business performance, you must be prepared to go deep.  You need to be pushed out of your comfort zone.  You need to be challenged at a very personal level.

When I started this work, I was prepared for the intellectual challenge but not the emotional challenge. I had to be pushed out of my comfort zone, too.  I had to be challenged at a very personal level to make it work.

There is some magic at work when our group gathers for its monthly meeting.  We challenge each other, for sure.  We also cajole, share, bare our souls and commit to act.  One of our group often says that he “can’t have these conversations anywhere else”.

In this work, I have found purpose.  To connect…  to help…  to give.



  1. Peter Schroth
    Owner, Auburn Bearing & Manufacturing
    John, as I sit here in an office in Shanghai it is great to be reminded that passion is what drives us to make the sacrifices we make. I'll be happy to be home in a few day to formulate my "way forward" plan.

  2. Daniel Herrscher
    Workflow/Labor Utilization Coordinator at San Diego Unified School District

    One of the things I've told people over the years is that being a Naval Officer will very quickly tell you what you're good at, what you're not good at, what you do naturally, what you have to force yourself to do. I also think for most people, trying to learn to do something without at least a little natural inclination is probably not going to be very successful most of the time.

    I'm one of those people that think leadership can't be taught very effectively. I believe you either have a talent for leadership or you don't, and no number of seminars is going to suddenly make you a leader. On the other hand, I think you CAN teach people to MANAGE programs, people, resources, etc., but management isn't leadership. (at least not all the time).

    I enjoyed reading your article. Funny, I also would probably have been a professional musician of some sort also. As it happens I can claim to be one the few USNA grads on the payroll somewhere as "organist" right now.

  3. Ralph Michalske, MBA
    Semiconductor Product Marketing Professional

    Hi John,

    I know exactly where you learned your leadership skills. Marching on Worden Field. First, you were taught how to follow the guy in front of you during P-rades. Later, you moved up to the head of the Company and everyone followed you. You did this several times a day marching to meals in the Midshipman mess hall. After 4 years you became an expert. You could march in your sleep given a drum beat.

    When it came to marching, I always found it easier to follow than lead. Out front was harder, you had to anticipate your next move and get the command out precisely on time. Planning for this was foremost in your mind. If you made a mistake and made a wrong turn, the rest of your company went off in the wrong direction. Yikes!! You may have lead them over the sea wall.

    So, in your case, unlike your buddies from high school, you were drilled in leadership everyday for 4 years. I'm confident that you can lead anyone in business, even in your sleep. All you need is your orders and a drum beat. The rest comes naturally to you.

    1. Very nice of you to say all those things, Ralph. We have a common bond.

    2. Ralph Michalske, MBA
      Semiconductor Product Marketing Professional

      John, I've always enjoyed reading your blogs. You're very fluent in leadership.

  4. Linda Murphy 1st
    Vistage Chair who loves "Turning the Lights On" for CEO's, Chair Economic Development Task Force, Honeoye Lake
    Great job, John! I think you captured the essence of what we do quite well. Best! Linda

  5. Thomas H. Brady 1st
    Founder & Co-Chair Greater Rochester Chapter of Conscious Capitalism
    I'm happy for you. That need for purpose is a powerful force for business to be the best for the world.

  6. Sean Kent
    Development/Management Executive Balfour Beatty Communities

    John, I too enjoyed your piece this week as I do all your blogs. You make some points with which many of we grads can relate. I especially appreciate your message as to your passion as a leader. We all have recognizable skills that benefit companies, the government, teams and committees. When some of us realize that 'leadership' is the passion for which we work, it is pretty cool. I am thankful that I stumbled onto the Naval Academy yard as a clueless country boy from the woods of western PA. Without the teaching and opportunities of which Ralph speaks, I may have never had that same realization that my passion and most exciting challenge was that of leading people.
    As I lead my children (with my wife), I look for the things in their eyes, their hearts and their souls that helped catapult me into understanding how I could bring value to others via leadership. I have trouble seeing it in them now, but I didn't even find it in myself until I was a young professional man in my 20s. I know that each of them have something in themselves for which they have great passion. And I hope that they find it. For now, I will just continue to love and encourage them to look for I continue on with the greatest leadership challenge of any man's life - successfully raising children.

  7. Lonnie Hearne, GISP
    NSF Master Teacher Fellowship Leadership Team at Middle Tennessee State University

    BZ to Sean who accurately describes our most important leadership calling. BTW as a grandfather of five I must say it doesn't end with the last one out the door. After a while they they tend to bring us a new crop of recruits!