The Art & Science of Business: How Good Leadership Makes or Breaks You

Johnson says she was a bully, until something inspired a change in leadership approach.

Johnson says she was a bully, until something inspired a change in leadership approach.

Last month a colleague of mine, Indigo Johnson, was featured in Inc. magazine as the CEO of one of their Top 500 fastest growing companies. As you might expect, Indigo is a strategic, forward-thinking, dynamic leader. What you might not expect (but what Indigo would be quick to tell you) is that until recently she was also a bit of a bully.

Indigo runs a human resources company, Careers in Transition. And even though she advised other companies on how to manage their personnel, she struggled to maintain her own. As she told puts it:

Coming from the Marine Corps, I always felt that you had to be hard charging and no nonsense to get results. But many of my employees withered under the pressure. I didn’t give them a chance to grow. I fired them.[As told to Inc. magazine]

Indigo knew she was good at vetting people. So if she was picking the right people, why weren’t they excelling under her leadership?

A year and a half ago, Indigo joined a cohort of executives in our doctoral program in values-driven leadership and as part of the first months of classwork had to take a hard look at her leadership style. She realized she was hiring the right people, but not giving them the space to make mistakes and grow. She wasn’t using their strengths; she was harping on their weaknesses.

Inspired, Indigo made some strategic changes and began to adapt a more nurturing style of leadership. She worked to move people into the right positions, focus on skill development, and include more people in strategic planning. The results speak for themselves: Careers in Transition has a three-year growth rate of 1500%, landing them on Inc.’s Top 500 list for the first time this year.

Here’s the moral of the story:

Positive leadership leads to positive results. And it’s never more important than in small and mid-size businesses that rely on loyal customers and employees to keep the doors open and the vision growing.

As an academic researcher and a consultant to companies all over the world, I know this instinctively. I’ve witnessed it, anecdotally, hundreds of times. I suspect you have too. But what we lack is credible, evidence-based research to prove that your leadership, values, and corporate culture, can have a direct impact on your business success. We need to make the business case for a strong, values-driven culture.

The Small Giants Community and the Center for Values-Driven Leadership are doing this through the Return on Values initiative. We’re working to connect your business instincts with proven research so you and others can lead better, grow your business, and make an impact in your industry and community.

We’re approaching this initiative with two assumptions:

1)      Sometimes, business is a science.  Metrics can be managed, there are templates to follow. That’s why this research study starts with a quantitative survey of some 5000 small and mid-size company leaders that examines the link between culture and profit. We know it’s there, and we also know there are key levers that lead to success. It’s a science – change this, and you can expect that.

2)      And other times, business is an art. What works in Company A won’t fly at Company B. Cookie cutter approaches can be predicted to fail. Leading your company takes a unique approach to your circumstances that can’t be driven solely by amalgamated data. That’s why Phase 2 of the Return on Values initiative involves in-depth case studies with as many as 30 of the most successful, values-driven companies. Through these case studies we’ll hear the personal stories of leaders who are masters at the art of values-driven business. These studies will create guideposts for you as you lead your own company.

We’re also starting the Return on Values initiative with robust knowledge of the researchers and business leaders who have asked similar questions before. Dr. Kim Cameron, of the University of Michigan’s Center for Positive Organizational Scholarship, is joining us on this project. Kim’s research into positive leadership, or the ways in which leaders enable positively deviant performance, is one example of prior research that helps inform our initiative. Kim has found that positive leaders:

  1. Foster a positive work climate. Specifically, positive leaders focus on creating environments that welcome compassion, forgiveness, and expressions of gratitude. Such expressions help transform people, which in turn helps transform the organization.
  2. Foster positive relationships among members. Kim and his colleagues found that creating positive mentoring relationships, and helping people find the right fit on the right team, went a long way toward achieving extraordinary performance.
  3. Foster positive communication. When given information about their best-self, their strengths, and their unique contributions, team members are able to capitalize on these strengths to the benefit of the organization.
  4. Associate the work being done with positive meaning. When people experience a sense of calling in their work, performance is elevated and individual well-being is enhanced. Leaders can help people see how their contribution is meaningful and supported.

You can start applying Kim’s insights today. In the meantime, we’re moving forward aggressively with the Return on Values initiative. Our 5000-subject survey and our deep dive case studies launch this fall. Stay tuned for more details – we are eager to share the stories.

Jim Ludema

Principle Investigator | Return on Values
Director | Center for Values-Driven Leadership | Benedictine University 

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