Process or Vision? The Making of Great Leaders

Vision or ProcessCan great leaders succeed by focusing on process over vision?  Is luck a more important indicator in the success of great companies?  Why is it leaders point to their own talents when things go well, but tend to fault economics, market conditions, regulations or the shortcoming of others for failures?

An article in this week’s Guardian UK takes aim at bankers in the United Kingdom including those at the top of Barclays and RBS.  The article reports that after a public outcry Stephen Hester at RBS waived his large bonus while Bob Diamond at Barclays has declined to say what he’ll do in light of missing RSE (Return on Shareholder Equity) by 13%.  The writer makes the point that in good times, the public were led to believe it was the “sheer genius” top executives and their teams that led to record profits and the resulting bonuses.  In light of poor returns, it’s all about economic conditions and regulatory interference.  Can leaders really have it both ways?

This month’s Associations Now features a Jim Collins interview in which “luck” is discussed and debated as a meaningful variable in the life of great companies.  It is certainly easy to dismiss luck as any sort of meaningful variable in leadership.  Acknowledging luck seems counter-intuitive to many leaders. Yet there is an element of good fortune in every leadership story.  A moment when an important element fortuitously went your way. Can you be a great leader if all your successes are nothing more than lucky breaks?  Probably not.  Acknowledging the opportunities created by a random lucky breaks helps leaders stay humble and sharp.  Collins says there something else about “luck” that cannot be overlooked.

How important is process over vision?  In a review of The Real Romney by Michael Kranish and Scott Helman book reviewer Benjamin Wallace-Wells writing in The Washington Post explores the unique talents and skills on display as Mitt Romney and his team at Bain restructured American industry.  There are some who believe it saved the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake.  It also may have been at the core of the strength of the investment returns created by Bain Capital in the 80′s and 90′s as they restructured countless, struggling companies with striking success. For their firm it solidified Bain as the “go to” consultants for fixing troubled firms and industries.  For investors, it created extraordinary returns.  Yet the question remains, can great leaders succeed by focusing on process over vision?

As Benjamin Franklin is credited with saying, “Well done is better than well said.”  The case for execution is well known to leaders and managers alike.  Yet questions remain.  What are the risks of brilliantly executing the wrong vision or process?  Larry Bossidy and Ram Charan in their breakthrough book, Execution – The Art of Getting Things Done  make the point that leaders who execute look for deviations from desired managerial tolerances—the gap between the desired and the actual outcome in everything—then they move to close the gap and raise the bar still higher across the organization.  Leadership clearly demands the ability to visualize and articulate a possible future for your organization while you continually assure that vision’s implementation.  Does execution create a competitive strength unmatched by vision?  You decide.

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