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Five leadership lessons from 'Invictus'

John Baldoni
John Baldoni is a leadership consultant, coach, and speaker. He writes the "Leadership at Work" column for HarvardBusiness.org, and his most recent book is Lead Your Boss: The Subtle Art of Managing Up.

Can a failing organization succeed if it embraces a new vision?

That is a question Clint Eastwood explores in his newest film, Invictus, which tells the story of the South African rugby team's quest for the World Cup. A new vision of post-apartheid South Africa intersects in the personas of Nelson Mandela (Morgan Freeman) and Francois Pienaar (Matt Damon) who, as president and rugby-team captain, work together for the team and, ultimately, to create a new form of nationhood founded on reconciliation and redemption.

Bringing a vision to fruition is not for the faint of heart. As Mandela explains to Pienaar in their first meeting, a leader's job is to get followers to believe they are capable of doing more than they think possible. Encouraging people to believe in themselves so that the organization can achieve is a noble quest requires a leader who can not only see over the horizon but make what is over the horizon tangible. Experts call this transformational leadership.

Getting followers to buy into the transformative process is a leadership challenge and getting people to believe in themselves and the organization is at the heart of the process. To drive this kind of change successfully, the leader needs do five things.

One, make change real. Organizations abound with vision statements; many are even printed on posters or wallet cards. The challenge is to provide an insight into this vision. Give people a taste of what the future can hold by communicating to their individual aspirations. You excite them about future possibilities, and you make it real through vivid images that conjure up the better tomorrow.

Two, identify behaviors.
Organizations do not change; people do. Therefore, if you want an organization to strive to be best in class, or a world-class employer of choice, you must talk about the behaviors necessary to achieve such an aim. Identifying those behaviors and holding people accountable through performance measures and even compensation sends a signal that change is real.

Three, do the unexpected. When people disagree, listen to them. Marginalizing them without listening to their ideas or concerns plays into their resistance. Seeking rapprochement is always desired, but not always possible. Find ways to reach across the divide to find common ground. But in the end, do not let those who say "no" hold back the entire organization.

Four, hold fast to the vision. Few organizations readily embrace change; they need to be pushed and prodded as well as coddled. You can drive change while recognizing that some people will take longer to get on board. Patience with those not yet on board becomes a virtue -- yet never an excuse for not continuing to the initiative. And so it takes a tough leader to stay on the change message in face of resistance.

Five, live your values.
Visions do not become real by taking about them. They become real through hard work. The vision will only come to pass if people do what is asked of them. But if the leader expects anyone to follow, he or she must be the first to act. That is, the leader must be seen doing what the company needs doing, including behaving as he or she asks others to behave.

Not every leader is capable of transformational leadership. And that is not a bad thing. In fact too much transformation can be chaotic. A leader's job ultimately is to do what the organization needs him or her to do. Most often that means keeping the organization productive and people engaged. Those are monumental challenges in themselves.

Mandela's genius was not to punish those who had punished him but to seek reconciliation. For Mandela rugby, a sport favored by the whites, became an instrument with which he could, with Pienaar's support, rally a nation to begin to see a better version of itself -- a people united for a single cause, the World Cup victory.

Of course, South Africa is a nation that is still very much a work in progress and its current generation of leadership falls very much short of Mandela's aims. But it should be noted that the nation did avoid the bloodshed that racked the majority of African nations moving from white-minority to black-majority rule.

When transformation is required, the leader must not only believe in the vision but also communicate that vision in tangible terms so that others see the same possibilities and, more importantly, are willing to act upon them for the benefit of all.

By John Baldoni  |  December 16, 2009; 10:14 AM ET  | Category:  Communication skills Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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