Is a CEO’s single most important job to build belief?

By Kim Goodhart

“The world is moved not only by the mighty shoves of heroes, but also by the aggregate of the tiny pushes of each honest worker.” – Helen Keller

It’s not enough to have a great vision. Great leaders need followers. Without them they are a one-man band and limited in what they can achieve. The skill of a great leader is to unite people behind a vision for the future that they will all work to achieve.

In my series of up-close-and-personal chats with New Zealand’s leading CEOs <watch it here>, CEO of Genesis Energy Marc England makes the point, “You win the hearts and minds by presenting a very clear vision that people can understand.

“They don’t have to always agree, but they have to understand it and then you’ve got to make the argument. I think having a consumer driven vision is a lot easier to motivate people around because it is tangible and everyone is a consumer of our product.”

CEO of Southern Cross Health Society Nick Astwick makes a similar point, “I really believe in purpose and vision, but at the end of the day it’s pointless if I’m the only one who does.

“The power comes from having the people aligned around the right thing but actually even better is that their own personal beliefs are completely aligned around the organisation’s beliefs.

“I think one of the biggest roles we have as leaders is to get people brought into the vision.”

Nick goes on to say that getting people behind a vision isn’t something that happens in a slide presentation, or at an annual conference, or in the spirit of ‘you shalt do this…’

“The skill of a leader is to clearly articulate a future and then it’s also their job to have a thousand conversations with people and make the sense of that clear. There’s no point if it’s just me,” says Marc. “It’s the difference between performing and transforming as a business.”

Talking to these CEOs, the sense is that three things needs to happen:

  1. Understanding – People need to understand the vision;
  2. Direction – People need to know where they are going; and
  3. Opportunity – People need to see the opportunity.

Of Genesis, Marc says, “I think what they’re excited about is seeing a clear destination for Genesis”.

But it’s a two-way street.

As the people within an organisation start to get excited about the vision, they also begin to empower their CEO. The more people that start to put energy into the vision, the more momentum it gains.

“What empowers me and motivates me is when I see employees understanding that end destination,” says Marc, and it is this momentum that drives the change initiatives forward.

Both Marc and Nick accept that there will be people who do not get the vision, or who are not excited by it, and as a result a natural procession of attrition takes place as those people go out and seek opportunities that do align with a future they can envisage.

As the process of unification and alignment behind the vision gathers momentum, the people within an organisation – the ‘followers’ – take the lead. New products are created and new initiatives emerge.

This, I believe, is a tipping point. When everyone believes that the seemingly impossible is now possible, belief becomes reality.

In the words of former American Express CEO James Robinson III, “True leadership must have follower-ship. Management styles can vary, but even an autocrat needs people who believe and simply don’t follow from fear”.

Photo by: Greg Rakozy