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Take the Lead: What the Experts Tell Us about Leadership

Stepping into a position of leadership requires one to balance multiple priorities and to connect with diverse audiences or stakeholders. It also requires a flexibility of both mindset and action to adjust to a complex environment that is itself subject to change and, in some cases, crisis.

Simply put, leaders should possess a diverse set of skills and the capacity to match those abilities to a wide range of challenges. Style without substance will not do. Inspired vision must find its pragmatic execution. No “one trick pony” will do.

While there is no shortage of leadership models, here are several that resonate with club leaders.

Jack Welch & the Tough Leader

Jack Welch had a long and successful tenure as CEO and Chairman at General Electric, often cited in the media or ranked in polls as among the very best CEOs. His approach to leadership was distilled in his best-selling book, Straight from the Gut, which he wrote in 2001 at the end of his 20-year run at the head of GE.

Welch had a reputation as a strong and forceful leader. He insisted that mangers be subject to rigorous performance evaluations and that these brutally honest ratings would then be the primary basis for promotion or dismissal. And, indeed, those who scored lower would inevitably be fired. This approach was widely referred to as GE’s “rank and yank” system. Many thought it was unnecessarily ruthless or even cruel.

However many missed the larger intention behind Welch’s philosophy. “Business is the ultimate team sport,” Welch reminds us. In fact, Welch would sometimes go so far as to say an organization’s success was more dependent on having the right management team in place than having the right strategy. Thus leadership requires not just assembling a strong team, but continually improving that team. This would often mean bringing new (and potentially better) talent on board and replacing others.

But Welch was not just about shuffling players on the team. He was emphatic about creating the right environment for performance. Candor or honesty was a key ingredient for Welch. He always defended his approach to personnel as one in which people understood fully where they stood and what was expected and what they needed to do. He didn’t want people guessing about their performance.

At the same time, he had a fairly tolerant attitude toward failure. He would support his people that encountered failure, in part because he himself recognized that he had made bad decisions and green-lighted ventures that were, in retrospect, doomed for failure. He knew, too, that nothing of significance gets done in business without the confidence to make bold decisions and the willingness to take risks. But he was clear that people must learn from their mistakes and not repeat them.

Simon Sinek and the Inspired Leader

In one of the most viewed TED talks ever, the consultant Simon Sinek illustrates his philosophy of leadership with three simple interrogatories: why, how and what.

Take any member of a business or organization as an example, he says. Virtually everyone within that organization knows what they make or do. But substantially fewer understand how they do it, that is to say, their differentiating proposition, their value proposition, their “special sauce.” Most rare of all is the individual who knows the why—why the company goes about its particular business. And by why, explains Sinek, he means “What’s your purpose? What’s your cause? What’s your belief? Why does your organization exist? Why do you get out of bed in the morning? And why should anyone care?”

He explains using Apple Computer. First he sets up a straw man. If Apple were like any other company, he says, then they might formulate their selling pitch this way: “We make great computers. They’re beautifully designed, simple to use and user friendly. Want to buy one?”

Instead Apple takes a different approach that results in an altogether different marketing message and appeal:  “Everything we do, we believe in challenging the status quo. We believe in thinking differently. The way we challenge the status quo is by making our products beautifully designed, simple to use and user friendly. We just happen to make great computers. Want to buy one?”

This appeal is completely different and effective. “What it proves to us,” he explains, “is that people don’t buy what you do; people buy why you do it.” Therefore, leaders should not start with what they do or what they sell; leaders start with why. Indeed, that is the title of Sinek’s 2009 bestseller, Start with Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action.

Leaders who work to establish and communicate the organization’s motivating purpose are not only able to provide followers with exceptional energy and focus, but to also attract enabling resources and loyal customers or, in the case of clubs, highly engaged members.

Peter Drucker and the Focused Leader

Peter Drucker is justifiably known as the “founder of modern management.” His academic career spanned approximately 60 years at three different colleges, teaching his final class in 2002 at the age of 92. He authored nearly 40 books and numerous articles as well before his death in 2005.

Drucker was the seminal thinker who established “management by objective” in the modern business vocabulary, and emphasized focused and clear thinking that would support strategic choices and decisive actions. He was confident and bold, often making fearless forecasts and projections about the shifting contours of business organizations and the executive’s evolving role.

He observed that while successful leaders were “all over the map” with respect to personalities, attitudes, values, strengths and weaknesses, they ranged he said, “from nearly reclusive, from easygoing to controlling, from generous to parsimonious.” But he did find important similarities and these he identified as the eight practices that were present in the very best executives.

·         They asked, “What needs to be done?”

·         They asked, “What is right for the enterprise?”

·         They developed action plans.

·         They took responsibility for decisions.

·         They took responsibility for communicating.

·         They were focused on opportunities rather than problems.

·         They ran productive meetings.

·         They thought and said “we” rather than “I…”

Later in life he added on more rule: Listen first, speak last.

Jim Collins and the Humble Leader

Jim Collins, a consultant, manager and instructor at Stanford University, researched what enabled companies to go from “good to great.” Or, as he put it, “why some companies make the leap and others don’t.”

The result of his research project was a best-selling book, Good to Great. Much of Collins’ curiosity focuses on organizational persistence. Most big businesses seem to have a period of innovation and growth—but then seem to be overtaken by competitors or eclipsed by new stars in the business firmament. Today’s most valuable companies, Apple, Google and Amazon, weren’t even around when U.S. Steel, General Motors and RCA were the corporate titans.

What is it, then, that allows organizations to soar into that rarefied atmosphere of excellence and then remain flying so high for so long? Collins’ book suggests that there are no less that seven factors that move firms from good to great and then keep them there.

Like Drucker, Collins emphasizes determination and focus. All of Collins’ “great” firms exhibit what he calls a “culture of discipline.” Like Welch, Collins assigns priority to people over strategy. Or as Collins has it, “Get the right people on the bus, then figure out where to go.” And like Sinek, Collins looks at his great firms and sees the passion of motivation burning brightly. What lights your fire? What could you be best in the world at? These are questions that drive greatness.

When a leader becomes great, they exhibit Level 5 Leadership, according to Collins.

The Level 5 Leader does what other excellent leaders do: Establishes a compelling vision, sets high performance standards, and organizes and facilitates teamwork. But the Level 5 Leader has two additional qualities that Collins describes as fierce resolve coupled with personal humility. This brand of leadership is evident in both good times and bad, with both dramatic achievements and significant setbacks. When enduring organizational reversals, Level 5 Leaders take full responsibility, even blame themselves for such problems, but when the organization succeeds, “the mirror turns into a window,” and the leader freely gives credit to others.

This combination of resolute determination and genuine humility is, Collins believes, quite rare. As individuals achieve and rise to executive positions, egos can similarly inflate and achievements be claimed in a highly personal way. The drive that yields success can overshadow the humility that is an essential element of Level 5. These leaders are often introverted, sometimes shy—and may also be underestimated or passed over in preference for a bigger personality, for style over substance.

The Mystery of Leadership

The various portraits of a leader emphasize different aspects of club leaders. The diversity of opinions suggests that leadership is not easily distilled or taught to others in a straightforward or simple way.

At the same time, being a senior executive in a club is a big job that pulls the individual in many directions and requires the balancing of many priorities.

Members have high expectations. Talent is sometimes scarce and often expensive. Competition is constantly present and often fierce.   

There are a handful of key takeaways from our leadership gurus that are applicable in the club world.

1.      Effective club executives can lead organizational change. For Drucker, this involved creative strategic thinking and the capacity to look beyond today’s vexing problem toward tomorrow’s big opportunity. He also praised those who could organize and focus to get things done.

2.      The best leaders are exceptional communicators, able to inspire those who follow. Sinek’s theme is to start with “why?” Be clear on what motivates you, your employees and your members. Welch’s energy and conviction communicated his message in an effective manner. Club leaders can maximize their opportunities to communicate by breaking out of their offices and maintaining visibility and accessibility.

3.      Successful leaders attract and develop talent.  Both Collins and Welch are emphatic on this point. Leaders ultimately place their big bets on people much more than a new initiative or a bold strategy. This capacity to contribute to the success of others requires a curious mind and a careful ear. Drucker’s maxim was to listen first, and speak last, while Collins’ Level 5 Leader was willing to shoulder the blame, while freely giving credit to others for the big wins. So in conclusion, the best club leaders are those that combine a strategic mindset together with generous of spirit.  A keen mind and a kind heart, now that’s a winning combination and a successful club leader.


Watch this article!

Two of the leadership gurus are available in brief videos:

Simon Sinek’s popular TED talk video is at:

Harvard Business Review’s Explainer gives us a two-minute rundown on Jim Collins’ Level 5 Leader:


Clubs that Start with Why

Here are exceptional clubs where leaders have distinctive approaches to their mission.

The San Diego Yacht Club
This club
maintains a core mission that encompasses all-things sailing and boating. This clear focus has allowed the club to remove barriers that might otherwise prevent novices or those not currently owning boats to set sail. At the same time, some of the world’s best yachtsman and sailors trace their origins and love of the sport to this club.

Capital City Club, Atlanta, Ga.
The Club’s mission
is: “A social organization to promote pleasure, kind feeling and general culture of its members.”  Says GM/COO Matt McKinney, “It’s perfect. We’ve kept it for a hundred thirty-five years-plus.” The club motto is “Carpe diem.” This “why” has expanded the reach of this club to three different locations in the greater Atlanta region—all united in purpose and relevance.

The Union League of Chicago

This club traces its origins back to the Civil War era. Since then it has maintained an impressive record of growth and expanding influence in the region, state and country. This is largely because the club’s mission, which is focused on the members’ engagement in public life. The club—its programs, committees and leaders—are all about a commitment to understanding and advancing public policy issues and community life.


Club Trends Fall 2017