A few years ago, I introduced a concept called the fundamental state of leadership. It suggests that leadership is not holding a position. Rather, it is a state of influence. Most of the time, most of us are comfort-centered, externally directed, self-focused, and externally closed. In this conventional state, we have conventional influence.
Yet, in any situation we can learn to choose to become results-centered, internally directed, other-focused, and externally open. When we make this change, our influence climbs.
I wrote a paper about this in the Harvard Business Review. It had much impact and was selected as one of their “must reads” in self-management. Because it was so selected, many people have now read the paper. Sometimes they comment on it. Recently I received such a comment from a friend named Dan Duckworth. He writes after experiencing what most people would see as a major failure. He offers a surprising view:
I recently closed up shop on a new company we had formed at the University of Michigan to pursue a $500-million opportunity to create a national center for vaccine development and manufacturing. As my team members left one by one, they each repeatedly spoke of “something special” we had built together, of their gratitude to have been part of it, sorrow to lose hold of it, and loss of words to describe it.
Explaining my own journey through these three years can be difficult too. The change I experienced is to some extent evident in the revolution of my role at the University: I went from staffing committee meetings to negotiating and leading one of the most complex ventures U-M has ever contemplated, from knowing nothing of the biodefense industry to leading a company of industry leaders. But anecdotes illustrate only the evidence. I couldn’t begin to explain the phenomenon itself until somebody else described it for me in an article titled “Moments of Greatness: Entering the Fundamental State of Leadership.”
I entered the fundamental state of leadership quite unwittingly. After just six months at U-M, frustrated by incrementalism and my own underemployment, I packed my bags and was halfway out the door when a few buzzwords yanked me back in. The Administration was humming about bioterrorism and vaccines and public-private partnerships. Curious at first, then intrigued, I was soon entranced. Not knowing it at the time, I slipped into the fundamental state and wouldn’t emerge for over three years.
With a long leash from my boss, I dived into discovery and quickly became an internal expert on the opportunity, and not long afterward, my EVP quietly charged me to lead the initiative. With no authority or credibility, I latched onto two mentors, and we began the breathtaking adventure of defining our strategy even as we executed it. Along the way, we convinced the University to invest millions of dollars to develop our ideas and to form a new vaccine company with its own policies, people, and systems—realities inconceivable in the beginning.
After the story of its start, the biodefense project is the story of its thousand deaths and nine hundred and ninety-nine rebirths. A mentor quits at a crucial moment. A primary corporate partner cancels the bid just days before the submission deadline. The new company we formed is hijacked and reabsorbed back into the University. The government rejects our proposed leadership team twice and then suddenly eliminates us from the competition for the first time. All the while, the U-M and Department of Defense bureaucracies unremittingly torture us with process and procedure that bleed us to a faint numerous times. But, strangely, none of these catastrophes break the spell I am under. Where others see the end of the track, I see only hurdles. I just keep problem-solving, just keep breathing life into the project, and the company against all odds and against supposedly better judgment until we nearly win the largest contract in U-M history—nearly. And the spell that binds me suddenly snaps.
As I departed the office-turned-ghost-town that final day, a surprising feeling of success filled me in spite of the evidence of failure that surrounded me. It’s hard to feel failure after nine hundred and ninety-nine victories. It’s hard to feel failure when you build one of the industry’s most prolific management teams, when you achieve near-perfect technical scores, when naysayers are cheerleading on your bandwagon, when you know something magical happened to you and to your teammates. To be sure, losing the bid after three years of toil was terribly disheartening. But the enduring emotion resembles success much more than it does failure.
That paradox came into perspective when I stumbled across an article describing the fundamental state of leadership. It was written by a friend, Robert E. Quinn. As I read it, I could hear Bob narrating my experience. Entering the fundamental state, I realized, was like tapping into a steady stream of my own endorphins, which fueled a relentless three-year campaign. Instead of retreating from difficulty and ambiguity, I craved them. Not only did the work energize me, it magnified me. My mind was sharper, my decisions crisper, and my personality more authentic. I led and people followed, many with a fidelity and industry I could never have asked for.
Experiencing the fundamental state of leadership is a reward of its own. Naturally, I am anxious to return to it—be that in whatever industry, company, and capacity it turns out to be in.
- Have I had a failure that I now see as a victory? What do I learn from it?
- What is the fundamental state of leadership?
- Why is it like tapping into a steady flow of your own endorphins?
- How could we use this passage to create a more positive organization?