Cultivating Leaders in a Lemming World (Part I of II)

Which do you suppose is a more successful model for effectively driving change?

(a)The CIO as the sole visionary doing his/her best to evangelize the vision of how things could be

(b)The CIO as a builder of leaders—each of whom then carry “the word” on how life could be to the four corners of the company

Of course, based on the title of this piece, it’s fairly easy to see on which side of the question I land. But, in all seriousness, the CIO who trains and empowers his/her staff—to be the kind of visionary leaders that exemplify the best qualities of the CIO—will ultimately realize greater success not only in terms of staff productivity, but in the productivity of the business units with which the staff members work to effectively apply technology to meet business needs.

With this in mind—rather than talking about how to employ integration and technology to liberate human resources for more valuable work—I’d like to focus on maximizing the effectiveness of those humans once some portion of their time has been liberated—courtesy of technology. Furthermore, rather than focusing on what sorts of tasks we might have those people perform to maximize their worth, I’d like to highlight a few strategies for turning people into leaders…leaders who constantly seek to deliver their optimal worth to the company.


Of course, any discussion on creating leaders begs the definition of the term “leader”. John Porter said that “A leader’s job is to help people have vision of their potential.” Warren Bennis insisted that a leader must have “the capacity to translate vision into reality.” Walter Lippmann observed that “The final test of a leader is that he leaves behind him—in other men—the conviction and the will to carry on.” While the noted management guru, Peter Drucker, maintains that the leader is responsible for “lifting a person's vision to higher sights, the raising of a person's performance to a higher standard, the building of a personality beyond its normal limitations.”

There is, of course, no shortage of ideas about what a leader is. However, I think it’s safe to say that few would argue with the statement that a leader is, at least, someone who can internalize a vision, convey a clear understanding of that vision, and inspire others to be leaders in support of that vision. A leader is also one who motivates others to be leaders with visions of their own. Contrary to the image of the lone leader with a band of dutiful followers at his or her heels, I believe strongly that one of the most important responsibilities of any leader is to create leaders in everyone he or she touches. According to David Gergen, “A leader's role is to raise people's aspirations for what they can become and to release their energies so they will try to get there.” Or as Ralph Nader put it, “The function of leadership is to produce more leaders, not more followers.”


But doesn’t the act of continuously inspiring more and more leaders create a management control issue…too many chiefs and not enough Indians? To think so is to misunderstand the true meaning of being a leader. A leader is not necessarily the person in control. In fact, leaders can often be much more effective if someone else handles the often less creative and less inspired mundanity of herding the cats (i.e., being in charge). Instead, a leader is someone who “leads the charge” in some small way in pursuit of achieving the vision—or some portion thereof.

It’s not the size of the army that validates the leader. In fact, a great leader need not have any “followers” at all to qualify as a leader. It’s the pro-active ownership of responsibility for achieving the quest—however great or small—that signals the qualities of a leader. A leader is not necessarily leading others as much as he or she is able and willing to take the lead in addressing a situation that yields the greater good for someone or something—a.k.a. the vision. John Erskine pointed out that “In the simplest terms, a leader is one who knows where he wants to go, gets up, and goes.”


This, of course, begs the question “Is every person capable of being a leader?” I firmly believe “Yes” at various levels and in different ways. An effective leader need not be limited to someone who heads a great nation, massive corporation, or society. As Anthony J. D'Angelo said “You don't have to hold a position in order to be a leader.” Donald McGannon observed that “Leadership is action, not position.” In this sense, the most lowly peon performing the most basic tasks can display leadership qualities if he or she is proactively owning responsibility for achieving—or contributing to the achievement of—some vision. The secret sauce in the recipe for leadership is much less what one knows or how much power one has than it is one’s willingness to become a leader and pursue the vision.

Assuming, then, that a person is willing to become a leader, can one learn to be a leader? Again, I say, “Yes”. The American writer and educator, Warren Bennis, warned that "The most dangerous leadership myth is that leaders are born—that there is a genetic factor to leadership. This myth asserts that people simply either have certain charismatic qualities or not. That's nonsense; in fact, the opposite is true. Leaders are made rather than born." But, their leadership qualities must be properly cultivated. They must be identified, nurtured, and amplified. So then, how do we cultivate leaders amidst everyday situations?


As much as anything, a leader has a vision. Whether that vision is his or her own or someone else’s does not matter. What matters is that the leader’s sights are set on achieving—or helping to achieve—a quest. Theodore Hesburgh observed that “The very essence of leadership is [that] you have a vision. It's got to be a vision you articulate clearly and forcefully on every occasion.” Now, don’t confuse this quest with a task to be done. “Betty, I need you to gather the following information and create a report on last quarter’s distribution center performance by geographic area. That’s your quest.”

The quest should be the ultimate result to be achieved—the reason the tasks are being performed. In our example, the manager has erroneously concluded that the quest is the creation of the report and that the end result is the report itself. Eau contraire. The report is not the vision. The vision is: what will be done with the report, who will use it, the decisions that the report will help them to better make, and—most importantly—the ultimate impact that such better decisions will have on the company. Perhaps the following story will help to illustrate the difference.

Three stone cutters reported to work on their first day at a new job. The foreman took two of the workers aside and told them “I want you to go and cut stones this high by this wide by this deep. And, I want you to lay them in this configuration up to this height. Now, go to work.” And, they did.

The foreman took the third worker aside and said, “What we’re building here is a new cathedral. Here’s a drawing of what it will look like when we’re all finished. We expect it to be one of the most magnificent structures of its kind anywhere in this part of the world. We expect that for hundreds of years, people from all over the globe will come to see this impressive architectural achievement. And you will be cutting the stones that will form the foundation on which this cathedral will rest for centuries to come. Now, I want you to go and cut stones this high by this wide by this deep. And, I want you to lay them in this configuration up to this height. Now, go to work.”

The question is, “Which worker will give you the best work, the stone cutter or the cathedral builder?” A critical ingredient for cultivating leaders is to create cathedral builders rather than stone cutters. According to American retail giant Sam Walton, “Outstanding leaders go out of their way to boost the self-esteem of their personnel. If people believe in themselves, it's amazing what they can accomplish." Plant the seed of the vision in which the soon-to-be leader is about to become a part. Help them understand its significance. Show them where their contribution fits into the realization of that vision. And cultivate that seed by encouraging the budding leader to look for ways that his or her contribution might better achieve the master goal. In so doing, you’ll unleash the awesome power of human inspiration, creativity, and motivation.

[In Part 2, we’ll look at how to: inspire would-be leaders to higher levels of performance, orchestrate success for the vision, and celebrate that success in a way that will further energize those leaders for even greater accomplishments.]

About the Author

John Stelzer is Director of Industry Development for Sterling Commerce. Since 1984, he has been providing education and consulting on electronic commerce—to date, educating more than 27,000 professionals from over 16,000 companies. For more information on electronic commerce in the retail industry or data synchronization specifically, John can be reached at 614.793.7046 or

More by John Stelzer

About Sterling Commerce

Sterling Commerce is one of the world’s largest providers of business integration solutions. For more than 25 years, thousands of companies have depended on Sterling Commerce expertise to optimize collaborative relationships through the integration of applications, external partners, suppliers and customers. With more than 25,000 customers worldwide, Sterling Commerce is the dominant business integration solutions provider in retail, consumer packaged goods, manufacturing, financial services and telecommunications.