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Procurement Perspectives: The distinction between leadership and success

Stephen Bauld
Procurement Perspectives: The distinction between leadership and success

It is a fair question whether leadership in business is distinct from success.

According to a study by Andersen Consulting’s Institute for Strategic Change, the stock price of companies perceived as being well led grew 900 per cent over a 10-year period compared to just 74 per cent growth in companies perceived to lack leadership.

On its face, this statistic seems to document the need for good leadership. However, it begs the question of whether the companies concerned are perceived to be well led only because their stock price steadily and dramatically increases.

Although the social function of a leader is to facilitate the successful accomplishment of some goal, the fact an individual does succeed may be little more than the result of random change.

Every week there is a lottery and nine weeks out of 10, someone wins it; however, the person who wins it does not display leadership by doing so, even though he or she does enjoy great success.

What is true of the lottery is true of much else in life. In every war, there will be a winner and a loser.

The victorious general is just as likely to owe his victory more to the greater productivity of his country, the number and type of equipment of his men, and the simple incompetence of his opponent, than to his own leadership ability.

One can argue at great length, for instance, as to whether Charles de Gaulle was a great leader or simply a person who was lucky enough to fight on the winning side.

Successful leaders learn to treat even serious defeat only as a setback.

Skilled leaders learn both to identify and to correct the causes of failure so that after each failure they emerge better prepared for any future struggle.

Like all aspects of life, failure must be managed. One role of a leader in an organization is to ensure that no loss is capable of becoming catastrophic.

A leader must avoid the temptation to commit everything to a single battle or make total failure or success contingent on the outcome of a single event.

A person fails as a leader when he or she does not learn from past mistakes.

Repeated failures, with little indication that anything is being learned as a result, gives a clear indication that a change in leadership is required.

Furthermore, as losses begin to mount, one question that must be asked by both the leader and the constituency who put a leader into place, is whether those losses are attributable more to the personal characteristics of the leader in question, rather than as a result of weaknesses within the organization, its tactical execution, or overall strategic goals.

The complex relationship between failure, success and leadership is illustrated by considering the career of Ulysses S. Grant – one of the outstanding and most influential military strategist of all time, the saviour of the Union during the Civil War, and the man who served as the 18th president of the United States from 1867 to 1877.

Any man who possesses such qualifications might naturally be expected to have been a great success at everything to which he turned his hand.

In fact, Grant’s early life was anything but successful and he was no stranger to failure during his later years.

After finishing low in his class at West Point, Grant served with some distinction in the Mexican War.

Afterwards, he left the army following a dispute with his commanding officer. He then tried and failed at farming and real estate before taking a job in a leather factory.

It was only with the outbreak of the Civil War that Grant’s leadership skills became evident.

Stephen Bauld is a government procurement expert and can be reached at swbauld@purchasingci.com. Some of his columns may contain excerpts from The Municipal Procurement Handbook published by Butterworths.

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