Leadership: Finding Your North Star

Leadership seems to be such a popular topic covered at industry association and company meetings and seminars, as well as the focus of study by countless consultancy and academic agencies. Thirty years ago, I do not remember there being such a concentrated focus on it. Clearly, it has become a more important aspect of what organizations do to compete and succeed.

I believe that to succeed you have to improve continuously. You can safely assume that your competitors are trying to improve every day in some way. Maybe it’s in providing better customer service, becoming more efficient, attracting better talent, etc. Whatever it is, the good competition, the real competition, is working at improving. There is no standing still. If you are not working at improving, by definition you are falling behind. 

So back to leadership … I think the U.S. economy became complacent in the 60s and 70s and fell behind the Japanese and European manufacturers who were motivated to succeed and who endeavored to move ahead. Leadership models started to form around certain traits of people who were considered to be leaders, and some of those models were pretty bad (e.g. “Chainsaw” Al Dunlap). But other models, those that inspired followers, not fearers, became objects of study and analysis (Drucker, Welch, Iacocca, etc.).

At a recent BEMA (Bakery Equipment Manufacturers and Allieds) conference, a presentation on leadership examined the styles of various leaders, ranging from Napoleon to Eleanor Roosevelt to Jeff Bezos. The underlying commonality between all these leaders was a singular mindset of how they led. Mother Teresa’s was about discipline in compassion, Napoleon’s was about power, and Jeff Bezos’ was about the balance of persistence and flexibility.

Quotes were posted from various leaders and we were asked to identify which quote we identified with the most. Then, a survey was taken to see which quote and leader resonated the most with the audience. There was no real winner or consensus of opinion, although no one voted for Napoleon’s quote on power and how much he liked to use it for the sake of using it.

The point was that there was no real singular element to leadership, other than the ability to translate a core belief into action. That core belief is so central to the individual that it becomes their “North Star” that everyone can use to navigate the organization though calm or turbulent seas.

As a leader, what is the essence of your North Star? Can your team find it and when they see it, can they use it to navigate with confidence and security? What is the risk in rejecting that North Star and is it understood?


“From the first person I hired, I was not the smartest person in the room. If you’re a leader … if you’re a leader and want to be the smartest person in the room, you’ve got a real problem.”

Jack Welch

Never tell people how to do things. Tell them what to do and they will surprise you with their ingenuity.

George S. Patton

“Surround yourself with the best people you can find, delegate authority, and don't interfere as long as the policy you've decided upon is being carried out.”

Ronald Reagan