Leadership Is Not An End In Itself

Posted 06.06.2011

As is often the case,  The New York Times’ Corner Office feature offered an interesting interview with a business leader last week. The subject this time was Bing Gordon, a partner with the Silicon Valley venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins. Gordon said something about leadership that might sound counter intuitive:

“Early on, I learned that I’m better with influence than power. .. I like having influence. I like being with interesting people and helping them become better and being part of the flow of ideas. And that’s a little bit uncomfortable, as a boss.  It doesn’t make sense to people that the boss, who is kind of a figurehead and maybe a confidence-giving parent figure, just wants to be an experienced helper. As a person of authority, I’m kind of teacher-consultant more than wielder of power.”

So much of what we read about leadership is about the exercise of power. A lot of people are drawn to leadership because they want power. Things often end badly for those who equate leadership with power. For those who equate the two, leadership and the accumulation of power essentially become ends in themselves. As Lord Acton wrote in the 19th century, “Power corrupts. Absolute power corrupts absolutely.” You don’t need to work very hard to find examples of what Lord Acton observed.  (For example, you could read this recent article in the Washington Post on the rise and fall of former Prince George’s county executive Jack Johnson.)

Bing Gordon’s perspective on leadership reminds me of a conversation I had with an executive recently.

Since he’s leading his company through some exciting and challenging changes, I suggested talking with some of his colleagues to get their perspectives on the strengths he’s bringing to the table as a communicator and the shaper of his company’s story.  He was uncomfortable with the idea and told me so. “This might sound strange, he said, but I’m not that interested in being seen as a leader. My motivation is that we succeed as a company. It’s not being seen as the leader type.”

My response was that he was exactly right and that’s why it would be a good idea to check the perspectives of his colleagues. My executive friend is focused on what I think most leaders should be focused on – getting results and supporting the group in doing the work that leads to results. If he can fine tune his communication and storytelling skills, he’s going to be in a better position to help his team get better results. It’s not about communication for the sake of communication or storytelling for the sake of storytelling. Those skills are a means to an end.  

Leadership, for that matter, is not an end in itself. Leadership is a means to an end. In my humble opinion, that end should be mobilizing and supporting people to do work that matters.

What do you think? What’s the point of leadership? What do you do as a leader to remember that your leadership is a means to an end and not an end in itself?