Instead, innovative and emerging research shows that a compelling and other-centered authentic purpose – “the invisible leader” – may be the most powerful influencer of our behaviors, attitudes, and motivation in organizations, work, school, and life.
Here’s how it works.
The Power of the Invisible Leader
The University of Colorado Buffaloes finished the 1988 football season with an eight-and-four record, then lost in the Freedom Bowl. Two years later, the team finished with eleven wins and clinched the National Championship.
Traditional leadership theories don’t explain what happened between 1988 and 1990. The same coach was with the team for more than five years. Players remained at relatively consistent skill levels, and the Buffaloes organization made no major changes.
The “what” of the organization remained essentially the same.
The sea change came in the “why,” the team’s purpose.
A year before CU embarked on the 1990 run that would lead to a National Championship, its star quarterback, a vibrant twenty-year-old named Sal Aunese began showing up to practice in visible pain and distress, sometimes vomiting uncontrollably. The team checked its star quarterback, the future of the program, into the hospital. The diagnosis was inoperable stomach cancer. Already, it had spread throughout Sal’s body. Doctors gave him six months to live.
Sal vowed to fight.
He promised to play football again. He showed up to his team’s practices and even delivered emotional talks to the team when he could. His teammates said that often, when Sal tried to motivate them, he became too emotional to speak. The fact that he was there, devoted as ever, was in itself inspiring.
In the buildup to the Buffaloes’ turning-point 1989 season, Sal vowed that he would live to see every matchup. Before games, the entire team kneeled and pointed up to where Sal was sitting in the stands. They were pointing at their reason for playing, a purpose bigger than all of them, to fight for Sal.
Sadly, Sal died from complications related to his cancer midway through the 1989 season, but his courage and his fight lived on. His impact on the athletes grew more powerful even as Sal was no longer physically present. Over time, as depicted vividly in the ESPN documentary The Gospel According to Mac, players put personal goals and egos aside to create a shared, authentic “why” that would pull them through the next two years, until they won the National Championship.
“The bus sort of drove itself,” said Gary Barnett, a quarterbacks and fullbacks coach for the Buffaloes, in an interview with Boulder’s Daily Camera newspaper.
Sal became more than a person. He grew into an idea, a purpose, a reason, and that purpose bonded the group and ignited what head coach Bill McCartney later called a “rally cry.”
That rally cry was an authentic purpose greater than any one player or any leader, greater than any one coach. In fact, the leader of the Colorado Buffaloes was an invisible force – a cause. And, many analysts argue it was the force that pulled them through the 1989 season and into the 1990 national championship.
This is the power of the invisible leader, an authentic purpose. By reframing our understanding of leadership and learning the skills to cultivate authentic purpose we can build gritty, resilient, and striving lives and organizations.
What is “invisible leadership”?
The term invisible leadership dates to an article written in 1928 by Mary Parker Follett, the famed social worker, philosopher, and management consultant. She called for a redefinition of leadership, from the classic power-over mentality to a power-with mentality.
Follett envisioned a leadership style less about coercion, command, and control, and more about freedom. She implored organizations to create environments where people would be free to think, behave, and choose the best courses of action to accomplish a common purpose. In her paradigm, people are not commanded by a person. Instead, as she said, “…both leaders and followers follow the invisible leader – the common purpose.”
The invisible leader inspires and helps us strive, not because we have to but because we deeply want to. We want to fulfill a purpose so much that no barrier is too big to overcome and a shared authentic purpose becomes more important than ourselves or our organization.
Leadership scholars Gill Hickman and Georgia Sorenson, in their article “Unmasking Leadership,” describe purpose as existing in the space between people and the achievement of their shared dreams. They liken this liminal space to the blue notes in jazz, the in-between notes that make the whole piece come together. Invisible leadership, they propose, exists when the dedication to a common, compelling, and deeply held common reason for existence is a group’s primary motivating force.
Exploring this concept, Hickman and Sorenson surveyed twenty-one high-performing companies and nonprofits. All had a deeply held common destiny or sense of calling that illuminated and aligned people’s values and beliefs and became the key ingredient in the organization’s financial and social success.
That shared purpose was a primary reason that people wanted to work at the organizations and it was the reason they stayed. Hickman and Sorenson’s research showed that at these organizations, purpose proved more powerful than any person’s charisma – a dynamic they call “the charisma of purpose.”
The invisible leader, an authentic purpose, by inspiring striving instead of imposing driving is more powerful than any one person.
Awakening it may be the most important leadership skill of this century.
Zach’s new book, “The Invisible Leader: Transform Your Life, Work and Organization with the Power of Authentic Purpose” will be released in October, 2017.
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