Best leaders know what they stand for

Ever notice that some leaders and some organizations seem to be able to move forward in any environment, while others seem stalled? There's a reason for this, says executive leadership coach John M. McKee.

Why do some leaders, even those with very little education, like Sam Walton of Wal-Mart, make more effective bosses than others who have studied the theories of management for years?

These questions, and similar ones, have intrigued pundits for ages. Today, across the world, there are entire colleges devoted to creating the best leaders in areas of all nature, including commerce, the military, and science.

And yet, we still haven't really figured out the answer to the question.

Each year, new books are written on how to be a great leader. Because of the high demand, consultants and coaches speak on the subject globally -- on a daily basis. Is there a science that can be taught to make the finest leaders, or is it, to a large extent at least, all about one's "makeup"?

I think a lot of the answers can be found in a book written by Roy M. Spence Jr. in 2009. This month, on October 25, it will be republished in paperback form.

With, I think, one of the longest titles ever for a leadership book, It's Not What You Sell, It's What You Stand For: Why Every Extraordinary Business Is Driven by Purpose, it may sound like another lightweight tome from another guy who's more interested in selling his book than providing ideas and answers. It's not.

Spence has worked with a lot of very well-known organizations, including BMW and Southwest Airlines, and leaders. He's worked with the Clinton Global Initiative. He has great ideas and backs them up with facts and history throughout the book.

A key message of the book is this: Even though many leaders may "know" what should be done, in practice they don't "walk the talk." I strongly agree with the premise. I believe this failure to apply one's learning has a lot to do with why there are so many ineffective leaders at all levels in most organizations.

Years ago I had the opportunity to spend an entire day with the then-Chairman of General Motors, John Smale. We started over breakfast and rode together between meetings across the city. One of my objectives was to understand why and how the former CEO of Proctor and Gamble had moved into an industry in duress.

Smale told me about his values and the importance of having a purpose. It was clear from what he said that he believed no individual or organization would ever reach their potential without a clear understanding of their own purpose in life and the purpose of the organization they led.

I embraced that message and regard it as one of the cornerstones of success. Ask yourself:

  • Do you know what you stand for?
  • Do you know what your organization stands for?

Regardless of how hard you work or how many hours you spend on the job, if you are unclear about your own purpose -- what you stand for -- you will not achieve the greatness you deserve. Additionally, you're more likely to have a lot of imbalance in your personal life as a consequence.

If your team is not clear about the purpose of your organization, they will not deliver their best performance. The best and most effective teams are not usually the ones who work the hardest or spend the most on new products and services. They are the ones who are united and working together toward the same end.

Where do you stand?


Leadership Coach


John M. McKee is the founder and CEO of, an international consulting and coaching practice with subscribers in 43 countries. One of the founding senior executives of DIRECTV, his hands-on experience includes leading billion d...

sissy sue
sissy sue

I work with someone who is not a manager. And yet, when there are issues to be faced, she's always the one to pick up the standard, while the rest of us tip-toe by it. She's not afraid to take on responsibility, even when she is not the one responsible. She always goes the extra distance is there to shoulder the work, even when it really is not hers to perform. She always asks the right questions and steers the project forward. She's motivating and appreciative, and she is the dependable person to whom people turn when they have questions. She really deserves to get on, but she doesn't get the credit she deserves in this organization. Maybe it's because she doesn't play politics and isn't interested in shining the spotlight on herself by telling the boss how wonderful she is. She just goes the extra distance and motivates people to get things done. I have met very few natural-born leaders in my life, but she is one of them.


I think that most people confuse managing with leading. Grace Hopper said it best, you manage things and you lead people. People are not carbon copies of each other, everyone is unique in their interests, abilities and temperment. Most management techniques tend to lump everyone as if they were replaceable parts. The article states that a leader knows what he stands for and he also knows what his company stands for. I read an article long ago by George Mcgregor-Burns that said that a leader leads his people to a higher level of need. Based on Maslow's heirarchy of needs, if the company is in survival mode then the leader should lead the company to become more secure. If the company is ready for the top need of actualization and the leader can lead the company there then you will see a very dynamic company; if this theory is correct. A leader who knows what he stands for should also know where he wants to go and how to motivate people to improve themselves to make the path forward happen.


Leadership is demanding - it's easy to get 'foggy'. Then the mistakes occur, problems happen.

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