OWNER'S MANUAL

What's Your Mission?

If you don't know what your mission is, all the charm in the world won't inspire people to follow you.
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Passion and charisma might make you more fun to work for (at least, for a while), but they alone can't make you the kind of leader everyone wants to follow. For that, you need a strategy made of more lasting stuff.

To identify that elusive stuff, Jeff Haden talked with Jim Whitehurst, president and CEO of the $1.1 billion open-source software company Red Hat. Before joining Red Hat, White­hurst was the COO of Delta Airlines as it emerged from bankruptcy.

Most people who are widely considered to be great leaders are also seen as highly charismatic.
Possibly so, but charisma goes only so far, especially if you're leading a big company. As an employee, I can get inspired by a great session with my boss, but that quickly wears off, and a few weeks later, I forget why I'm getting out of bed.

Great leaders lay out a mission. Some are charismatic, others not, but every great leader creates a sense of mission that doesn't rely on force of personality to sustain.

That's easy: Isn't the mission always just to make the company money?
Absolutely. But that's not inspiring. A mission has a larger meaning. Delta was and is an institution, and when it was struggling, we were on a mission to ensure it didn't fail on our watch. At Red Hat, our mission is to provide free content and functionality and information to people who otherwise couldn't afford it.

Every great leader helps all employees feel their job plays an important role in something bigger and more meaningful.

It's hard to extend a sense of mission to all levels, though. When I was an entry-level factory worker, I felt my only mission was to get out the door on time.
At Delta, I felt there had been too much focus on air travel as a commodity. When the entire focus is on cost and price and you are a flight attendant or mechanic, you're basically being told you don't matter. I used Starbucks as an example: a low-cost operation--paper cups, customers bus their own tables, etc.--but a high-class experience, because its employees make it high class.

Even though we weren't serving steaks in coach, by being intensely customer focused, we could still deliver a high-class experience to our passengers.

A lot of business owners feel their sole mission is to enforce employee accountability.
Good leaders do want their employees to feel accountable. Great leaders feel accountable, too, but they feel even more accountable to their employees.

Every year, we hold a huge Red Hat party, and I see our employees and their families and think, Holy crap; I'm responsible for all these people. It's a great reminder that every single decision a leader makes has more than just professional repercussions.

I feel accountable to Red Hat employees, but not just for my performance: I'm accountable for explaining results, for explaining my decisions, for apologizing if things don't go well. I spend way more time explaining decisions and results to our employees than I do to our board.

So, show you're accountable to me and I will feel accountable to you--and a lot more motivated?
Engagement is everything, and that's especially true with knowledge workers. You worked in production, so you know because of the nature of the work an energized and jazzed line employee can be, at most, maybe 20 percent more productive than an average worker. An inspired creative/knowledge employee can be 10 times more productive.

The difference is not incremental; the difference is exponential.

Even though you're steeped in operations, you talk a lot about emotions.
We often say emotional like it's a bad word. Inspiration, enthusiasm, motivation, excitement--those are emotions, too. Why would you want employees to check those emotions at the door?

Use the power of positive emotion. Be authentic. Connect. Provide meaning and context to the company's mission, and make sure all of the employees know the specific role they play in achieving that mission.

Ultimately, your job is to get people to do what you want them to do. When your employees believe in what they're doing, they'll walk through walls for you--and your job is really easy.

Last updated: Apr 12, 2013

JEFF HADEN | Columnist

Jeff Haden learned much of what he knows about business and technology as he worked his way up in the manufacturing industry. Everything else he picks up from ghostwriting books for some of the smartest leaders he knows in business.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.



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