In this Article: are you leading from the truth of who you really are or following the passions, interests and economics of those around you?

Issue 1.1 | June 2009

By Jonathan Wilson

Sunlight shone through huge windows dozens of stories above a major downtown street.  I was in one of a thousand boardrooms in one of dozens of tower blocks belonging to one of the largest financial institutions in North America.  One of the executives across the table looked at my business card and said “Soul Systems.  I like that.  Do you mean, as in, the ‘soul’ of a company?”  “Yes, that’s exactly what it means,” I replied.  Suddenly the light dimmed and her face dropped.  “We have no soul,” she said sadly.

This executive’s answer might explain why this particular company is reputed for internal politics and general nastiness.  On the other hand, the spark of light in her face at hearing about the possibility of a company “soul” suggested that things could be otherwise.  But her reaction revealed the hard reality – for those who wish to lead well – that there are enormous systemic forces, internal and external, that pressure an organization to ignore or even lose its soul.

A basic fact about leadership is that it never reveals its quality except under constraint.  The hard reality every leader faces is that none of their great (and genuinely good) ideas about servant leadership, alignment, innovation and change management happens without many unforeseen variables contending with the best of their intentions.  A new CEO finds herself hijacked by the rumour-mongering or stalling tactics of the old guard.  Each new curve ball comes at the Business Development manager’s expanded portfolio faster than he has time to respond.

The same happens with organizations that want to be leaders.  The competition pulls a fast one.  The market goes belly-up.  Customers are trending off on some new path.  The millions-of-dollars deal partner gets bought out and the contract is terminated on some obscure clause no lawyer thought was relevant when no buy-out was on anyone’s radar.  From what basis do we lead when the standard business environment makes it impossible to be on top of the game all the time?

This newsletter is called Leadership by Soul (after our Soul Systems leadership model) because of our conviction that personal and organizational soul is the most solid base from which one can effectively lead into the unknown and the uncertain.  Your soul is the truth about who you really are.  It is the DNA of your company: its abilities, moral concerns and economics combined.  If expressed via the appropriate business models, product platforms and delivery systems, it will bring greater and more lasting value to your customers than if you try to be something you’re not.  No-one can replicate your soul (for an example, see our sub-article below).

Incidentally, the “authentic you” is all that you, as a leader, have to offer your organization.  And the “authentic us” is all your organization has to offer its stakeholders.  The question is, are you a leader — leading from the truth of who you really are — or a follower — being led in some inauthentic direction by the passions, interests and economics of those around you?

From the Soul of an Apple to the Soul of a Palm

An example of a company that has remained rigorously true to its soul is Apple.  They remain firmly committed to technological innovation of the highest order, aesthetic grace, and customer sensitivity.  An example of a company that lost its way is Palm, whose breakthrough PDAs were lost in history to the commoditized smart phone.

Now Palm has issued the touch screen Pre, which outperforms the iPhone in aspects of its functionality.  How did they make this move from stasis to the innovation of a product that is drawing attention?  By getting back to their roots.  Palm’s real magic was how well everything synched on their devices.  The magic of Palm’s Pre is its unique ability to merge multiple data streams from various sources, whether online clouds or off-line hard-drives, into one application (e.g. contacts).  Palm’s website says they are committed to innovating products that are truly “useful”.  They are not yet leading the way by any stretch of the imagination, but if they persist in leading from their soul, they might just get there.

Another soul insight from