The SmithBucklin president and CEO – and General Session speaker at PCMA’s Education Conference – on why ‘leadership can’t be taught.’
SmithBucklin Corporation President and CEO Henry Givray can trace his interest in leadership - or “aspiring to positions of influence, responsibility, and impact,” as he calls it - all the way back to the sixth grade, when he was captain of the safety patrol. He played bass guitar and led a rock band in high school and college where he booked gigs and “learned to make things happen through influence versus given authority.” And at Cornell University, where he earned both bachelor’s and master’s degrees in engineering, Givray served as president of the Interfraternity Council—“kind of a big deal,” he said, because it represented 45 percent of the male student population. By the age of 27, he had become a manager at a small company in an unrelated industry, and from there, he said, “It was an immediate connection, fascination, and keen interest around the requirements, challenges, and impact of business management. I instantly knew that I wanted to pursue a career in executive management.”
It’s not about the rush of power. According to Givray, occupying the corner office might make you an executive with formal authority, but it doesn’t automatically make you a leader. He says that true leaders earn an invitation to lead others, and then successfully deliver on leadership’s promise by making a meaningful and lasting impact on the lives of people and on the success and long-term vitality of the organizations they serve. His refreshing views on the nature of leadership have been published in BusinessWeek and Crain’s Chicago Business, and in several business books.
PCMA Education Conference attendees will get to experience Givray’s “The Passion of Leadership” in San Antonio on Monday, June 11, when he takes the stage for the morning general session. An interactive session that follows will help participants apply his philosophy to their own roles. He recently spoke to Convene about why his take on leadership is different, and what Education Conference participants can expect from him.
How did you start speaking about leadership?
For as long as I can remember, I’ve had an intense interest and fascination around leadership principles and practice, though perhaps it was more unconscious early on. I have always been in awe of the power and impact of great leaders and the profound difference one person can make. As a dedicated student of leadership, I have studied, observed, thought about, learned, discovered, and practiced various aspects of leadership and management. As a result, I have been developing my own evolving knowledge, ideas, and principles around leadership meaning and effectiveness. My earliest memories and actual notes of my own ideas date back to the early 1980s.Over the years, I’ve used my thoughts and ideas to teach, coach, and set expectations around performance and outcomes. Up until 2006, I did this primarily in the context of my position and role within SmithBucklin and other companies I have worked for the past 30-plus years.
In 2006, I was invited to speak on leadership to a client association’s board of directors. I accepted, knowing that it would require me to organize my ideas and notes in order to deliver a professional, meaningful, and cogent presentation. Since that time, I’ve been invited to speak at dozens of association conferences, corporate meetings, and educational forums. I do about 10 to 12 speaking engagements per year purely by word of mouth and invitation. While I truly enjoy and derive great fulfillment from such activities, I am not seeking to be a paid speaker, book author, or leadership consultant— at least not in the foreseeable future! Instead, my desire to speak and write [about leadership] comes from my passion for the topic as well as my deep commitment to help grow others to become leaders, to the extent that I am invited to do so. As importantly, it’s the reaction from those who hear me or read my ideas and thoughts that motivates me to press forward and to do more of it.
Given the plethora of materials on leadership, what is different about your approach?
I start with the notion that there are no playbooks that guarantee an organization’s long-term success and vitality regardless of inevitable up and down cycles or unpredictable shocks to the general economy or specific industry. But there is one certainty: All of the best strategies, creative ideas, and brilliant game plans cannot succeed or be sustained without strong and effective leadership. In fact, leadership is the uniquely consistent and defining force behind great, enduring organizations. Leadership is recession-proof, and the principles of leadership are timeless. By the way, what was true in the past is true today and will always be—time reveals true leaders and exposes false ones.
The concept of leadership, of course, is elusive. But from my perspective, the core essence of leadership is profoundly uncomplicated, involving three critical actions. One is visualizing, imagining a better future state. It could be something modest - a major improvement in an important process - or it could be transforming a company or even shaping the course of a nation and its people.
The second critical action is getting others to join you on the journey. The third critical action is getting there. Understanding these three actions is pretty easy. But here’s the rub: There are no simple formulas or instruction manuals on how to become a true leader. There are only concepts, principles, and guidelines. That’s why leadership can’t be taught; it must be learned and applied only through a process of personal, active engagement and self-discovery.
The other piece is that leadership is not something that is bestowed upon you. Nor is it something granted to you by virtue of your title, status, money, or power. It is not the same as having authority. In fact, leadership is invited and can only be given willingly by others based on who you are and what you do, and it is revealed by what you inspire and what you enable. So it’s not for me to say I’m a leader. Others may or may not give me permission to lead them. In other words, I have to earn the invitation. And ultimately whether I am in fact a leader will depend on how successful I am in eliciting positive actions, emotions, and behaviors in others without the promise of reward or the threat of punishment, as well as producing tangible outcomes through others. By the way, I have a very strict definition of what inspiration means, and it’s not the same thing as motivation.
Please explain the difference.
Motivation’s source of influence is often a carrot and/or a stick, but inspiration comes from the heart and it flows naturally and willingly. Think about certain human elements such as trust, common purpose, hope, engagement, and shared meaning, among others. Their real and pervasive existence within an organization is an imperative in order to ensure sustainable success.
So you’re saying that there are CEOs of organizations who are successful in terms of bottom-line results, but that doesn’t mean that they’re great leaders.(bold)
You got it. CEOs drive annual quantitative results. CEOs who also are true leaders build great, enduring companies. That does not mean they don’t do the first piece really well. They must and they do. Steve Jobs will go down as one of history’s greatest business people, visionaries, and innovators. The question is, what happens to Apple now without him? If Apple continues to be a great company and it endures over a long period of time, then I would say, “You know what? He’