Issue 4.8 | February 2014

In this Article: you may have the right vision for your future, but you may have the wrong assumptions about what it will take to get there.

by Jonathan Wilson

Few speakers who take over an hour to deliver seventeen points in a keynote are able to hold six hundred leaders in thrall. Michael Cassidy can. I saw it happen, in 1996, and I too was gripped by the gravitas and insight of this seasoned global leader.  Most of all, I was inspired by Michael’s tremendous influence on other leaders: with his team he had spent decades in some of the most distorted and broken socio-political environments of the world and made a profound difference by influencing, for the better, the choices made by the major political, business and community leaders of those times, particularly in Africa, the Middle East and Europe. Michael drew us with him into the filth of prisons of Rwanda where, in the aftermath of the 1994 genocide, he stood with convicts who had murdered hundreds in dreadful slaughter; before a head of state who threatened to cut short Michael’s life unless he did what he was told; and into urgent negotiations with Nelson Mandela, F.W. de Klerk and others working against the odds for the ending of Apartheid.

This lit a very bright light bulb in my mind, the keen realization that there is a way to affect the course of significant leaders that doesn’t require participating in the often broken and partisan mechanisms of national government or international diplomacy. Upon hearing Michael, I knew without a doubt that I was called to work with leaders. This was not my ego at work. It was the crystal clear realization that there needed to be more people behaving like Michael if the world was going to change for the better. This became for me a great vision, but a vision that led me down some painful roads, because it was intertwined with a false assumption.

The Road to Leading Leaders

Unexpectedly, I met Michael in person a week or two later, and the result of that encounter immediately altered the course on which I had, up to that point, set my life.  For even less expected was his invitation to me to come and work with him in South Africa. Although my early years in South Africa were not easy, the assumption I unwittingly bore within me continued to be cultivated. Steadily and, for my age, fairly rapidly, I was promoted to more and more senior levels of leadership. During those years I was given responsibility for several high-stakes initiatives.  By the age of thirty-three I was brought into the international management team alongside Michael as a sort of executive vice president, with oversight of our leadership development work in eleven countries (although I dubbed the months leading up to that appointment “the year of my crucifixion”, which is a story for another time and place). And so grew, unchallenged, the assumption that, if I were to fulfill my vision to impact leaders, it would be in the same manner as Michael; as a senior leader of a large and reputable organization, circulating among the movers and shakers of my day.

The End of the Road

To my surprise and that of friends who held the same views about my leadership, three years later this assumption came to an abrupt and violent demise. Not long after being appointed CEO of a small Canadian organization with a global spread, my rise in leadership was stopped dead in its tracks, and I was unceremoniously ejected from my new post. I had to re-evaluate my assumptions about my vision. Spectators assumed I would quickly find a new executive position. Being financially deprived, I was sorely tempted by the few leadership carrots with decent packages that were dangled before me.  Instead, I chose a very different, and what felt like a downward, path in pursuit of influencing leaders. In 2007 I started Soul Systems, a consulting firm that supports leaders in building flourishing companies that generate substantial and lasting value for customers. In 2008, the Great Recession hit. In the following months, three large and very interesting contracts came enticingly into view, then rapidly receded, as existing and potential clients reacted in panic to the crisis.

Same Vision, New Roadmap

It was during this roller-coaster start-up ride that the false assumption finally unravelled. No client had to hire me unless the perceived value of my services overwhelmed their sense of crisis in the markets. I began to recognize the tremendous value of having no formal authority in the lives of those I sought to influence. Being a servant only, and a disposable one at that, I posed little threat to those leaders that, all along, I had desired to help.  This perceived lack of power made it more, not less, possible to come alongside leaders who have significant responsibilities.

Over the years Soul Systems has grown, and my colleagues and I have had the tremendous privilege of supporting leaders through significant change processes which have impacted the lives of tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of individuals. Leaders of large organizations serve as extremely valuable examples to their peers elsewhere, but it is, unavoidably, a remote form of influence. In contrast, my colleagues and I are permitted to walk intimately with leaders as they navigate various minefields in their quest to build better organizations delivering greater value.

My earlier leadership career has indeed proved invaluable for my work with leaders, but not in the way I assumed it would. Whatever the nature and function of your leadership, you have a vision, and you have assumptions about how to get to that vision. Both need to be tested. Time will give you that opportunity, but I encourage you to assess your assumptions before they take you too far down the wrong road.

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