GUT CHECK: Do You Have Courage To Carve Your Own Path?

March 7, 2014 Vince Molinaro

pope francis - blog pic

Few leaders have had a more dynamic first year than Pope Francis. Time named him the 2013 person of the year. Why?

In less than 12 months as the worldwide leader of the Catholic Church, the pope has authored a string of stunning and even dramatic changes. All led him to be recognized.

He has openly challenged the world’s business leaders to reduce income inequality. He has challenged his own followers to show more interest in helping the poor and less on traditional Church “obsessions” like abortion and contraception.

Although he has not abandoned traditional church policies, he has shown deference towards gay priests and same-sex civil unions. The pope has even said that he thinks its okay for mothers to breast-feed in public.

In January of this year the pope showed his new approach to his job was not just talk when he cleaned house at the scandal-plagued Vatican bank. Gone in one fell swoop were a host of advisers who had connected the bank to allegations of money laundering and corruption.

For anyone who understands the rigidity of culture at the Catholic Church, it’s hard to see Pope Francis’ first year as anything less than remarkable. He’s been able to respect his organization, while clearly signaling that he will carve out his own path as Pope.

New incoming leaders frequently face the challenge of determining whether to introduce change once they have been given the reins of power. The question of whether to change, and how much change, is a big one. In my work as a leadership advisor, I’ve seen many approaches.

Introduce no change, and you maintain the status quo. You believe your best option is to lead as others before you have led. Unfortunately, you are quickly seen as an absentee landlord and everyone dismisses you until a “real” leader comes along.

On the other hand if you go too hard and too fast in carving your own path, you risk disengaging your people. You become accused of fixing stuff that isn’t broken. You appear interested in implementing any change, just so that they can put their personal stamp on the organization.

The most successful leaders seem to be those who, like Pope Francis, are able to find that delicate balance in carving their own path – the fine balance between signaling a needed change in direction, while preserving the strengths of the existing organization.

Another leader carving his own path is Apple CEO Tim Cook.

In a new, soon-to-be-released book on Apple in the post Steve Jobs era, author and Wall Street Journal reporter Yukari Kane describes the burden faced by incoming CEO Cook as he tried to replace one of the most powerful and iconic business leaders in the world.

Kane describes how Cook, in his first email to employees, promised he was not going to fundamentally change the culture at Apple. However, he did make two subtle but important changes.

First, he promoted Eddy Cue, a very popular executive who had been very close to Jobs. This, Kane notes, built tremendous goodwill among a large swath of Apple employees.

Cook also started a program to match employee charitable donations dollar for dollar, up to a maximum of $10,000. Previously, Jobs had resisted any corporate initiatives to match philanthropic activities by employees. The creation of a matching donation program was extremely popular at Apple, and signaled that while Cook was not going to fundamentally change Apple, he was not Steve Jobs.

At its core, leadership is ultimately about driving change. You cannot avoid your obligation to fix things that need fixing, and to evolve the business to ensure its future success. The real challenge is doing it with a delicate touch while carving your unique path forward.

This week’s Gut Check question asks: As a new leader do you have the courage to carve your own path?

Follow me @VinceMolinaro

About the Author

Vince Molinaro

Vince Molinaro is the Global Managing Director of Strategic Solutions at Lee Hecht Harrison. He is also the author of The Leadership Contract – a New York Times and USA Today bestseller. Vince has spent more than 20 years as an adviser to boards and senior executives looking to improve leadership in their organizations.

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