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The Quick & Dirty: Leadership, Revisited

Henk Campher headshotWords by Henk Campher
Leadership & Transparency
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"To be a thought leader you need two things -- a thought and leadership." I can actually hear clients and teams roll their eyes when I say that. But it pretty much spells out how I see this constant quest we have for leadership. Why do I say this? Because it is easy to say you want something but a completely different thing to actually be that something. You can't lead from the middle. You actually need to lead from the front and have a thought that is worthy of being called leading.

Hold those horses before you applaud the great leadership companies are showing in palm oil. Not being involved in deforestation is not leadership. Stopping deforestation is not leadership. Those are just you not doing something bad. Not killing us or the world we live in. Good on you. Just don't call leadership.

Here is one for you -- I am a leader because I haven't killed anyone. Or vote for me because I haven't been breaking into houses. Or like me because I don't kick puppies. Silly, right? Not doing something bad doesn't make you a leader.

My bull$#!t antenna goes way up when I hear the word leadership or claims of leadership. A good friend of mine used to say that you don't walk into the party and say you are the heart and soul of the party. You either are or you aren't, but you can't talk yourself into being cool. You can't talk yourself into being a leader. Or at least you shouldn't be able to.

Leadership isn't the absence of a negative impact but rather the presence of a positive impact.

You pay minimum wage? Good on you -- you didn't break the law. You don't employ children? Thanks for sticking to the agreement. You don't fund mountaintop mining? Thanks for doing what you should be doing. You don't deny climate change? Yippee.

GRI reporting. Human rights policies. Waste management. Minimum wage. Recycling. Energy and water efficiency. Local citizenship initiatives. Environmental management systems. Compliance policies. Sourcing guidelines. Volunteering. etc. etc. etc. Those aren't leadership. Those are standard practices no matter what the award says or the claim or the article published.

Leadership must be earned. And leadership must be ahead of the trend -- something done not because it's popular, but because an organization wants to take a stand. The first companies against slavery. The first companies paying equal pay for equal work. The first companies to have 100 percent renewable energy. The first companies who spoke out against all climate change deniers and underminers. The first companies to pull out of South Africa because of Apartheid. The first companies who stood up for equality in marriage in the U.S. -- nod to Salesforce for early moves on this front.

Those are leaders. It's easy to say you won't do slavery. Or you won't employ kids. Or you won't work with tobacco. Or you won't work with [FILL IN THE SPACE WITH WHATEVER IS POPULAR TODAY]. Those are reactions to popular demand at a specific time. Leadership is being ahead of the curve. Way ahead of the curve. Way ahead of popular demand.

Last thought on leadership...

You can't be a leader if you were forced into it. Then you just caved into something that was demanded of you. And eventually you did the math and said, "Let's change as the momentum is against us." Leadership moves early, fast and far.

Leadership is a lonely place. It is a place that requires big decisions. It's a place that makes enemies. It is a place that makes you very uncomfortable. It isn't pretty and it isn't always popular. It is a place few will go but many will call home.

Nelson Mandela. Mahatma Gandhi. MLK Jr. Seventh Generation. Patagonia. Tesla. They did things their way before it was popular. They did things that was counter intuitive. They went to dark places where profits weren't guaranteed. They went there because they were leaders. And leader lead.

And it doesn't mean that not being a leader is a bad thing. The absence of a bad impact is a good thing. It is the first principle of being a good solid citizen of this planet - do no harm. It should be applauded because you are one of us. You are on our side. We desperately need more of your type because there aren't enough of you. And that is good. You are a good person. You are a good company. Just not a leader.

So let's be a bit more careful before we throw out the word leadership when it comes to climate change, human rights, sustainability etc. Leaders lead with the presence of a positive impact and not the absence of a negative impact. Leaders are way ahead of the curve and not simply because of pressure applied. Leaders are.

Image credit: Flickr/Wesley Fryer

Henk Campher headshotHenk Campher

A series of quick & dirty opinion pieces by Henk Campher out in the Wild West of San Francisco. Disrupter of purpose. Engineer of big ideas. Slayer of myths. Social media junkie - @angryafrican. He never wears ties. Ever. But always wears an accent with a strategy and opinion in his back pocket. Please note this series will not focus on individual companies and any reference is purely to provide color commentary. He wrote a book once.

Read more stories by Henk Campher