Reflections on Leadership




Leadership and Virtue

An ongoing global health crisis, with major implications for how we live and no clear end in sight. Widespread protests and reckoning with police violence and the toxic effects of racism. A political climate in the US of ever increasing polarization. This moment seems characterized by currents of fear, anger and frustration that are calling many of our institutions into question and asking business leaders to run a delicate balance between keeping their companies alive and responding to an employee base and public that increasingly wants them to think beyond next quarter’s financial results. It is at these moments, when we are scared, confused, polarized, angry, when true leaders are both hardest to find and most needed.

In today’s sensemaker, we share reflections on leadership and the cultivation of virtue in the face of confusion and fear. We hope it will serve you in honing your own excellence as a leader, that you may go on to ignite it in others.


In order to become a great leader you must first know yourself. That is the work we do: clarity leading to optimized design, all to unleash potential.

A leader is a person who has a positive vision of a better future. In order to achieve that vision a leader must make it viscerally meaningful for all the people who will contribute to its existence. This requires clarity of self, because the vision flows from within the leader. It is an inspiration, not a calculation. As Ursula Burns, the first black woman to be the CEO of a fortune 500 company (Xerox), said:

“I realized I was more convincing to myself and to the people who were listening when I actually said what I thought, versus what I thought people wanted to hear me say.”

But vision and meaning must lead to action. First a person must make sense of why they should commit to a vision, and then they must act to bring their purpose and talent to the new opportunity. A leader must be followed today in order to create the new tomorrow.

People who are followed, people who truly lead, possess a willingness to cultivate virtue in themselves. As Joe Londsale writes:

“Creating a billion dollar company is hard, but being a truly great leader is even harder. It requires an acrobatic balancing of commitments to stakeholders and employees with broader commitments — civic, patriotic, and global. A true leader must strive towards a grand vision of human progress, but remember that the minor details of her everyday life really matter to those who look up to her as a role model.

Great leaders inspire incredible loyalty in their followers and subordinates. In the 6th century, Confucius counseled, “Let him preside over them with gravity; then they will reverence him…Let him advance the good and teach the incompetent; then they will eagerly seek to be virtuous”. There are not many figures in Silicon Valley who viscerally attract followers in this way. In the tech sector it is common to find lost souls who hop from job to job, self-optimizing as quickly as possible instead of striving together towards common goals. Many would-be leaders, overwhelmed by promises they’ve made and expanding duties, go silent on allies and retrench on responsibilities. They put short-term practicalities ahead of honor and virtue. Without a conscious culture of leadership and peers to hold them responsible, executives under the increasing pressure of difficult jobs often give in to lower impulses unworthy of their own leadership potential.”

Those qualities do not exist through knowledge alone. You can’t teach someone to be great. You must show them. If I am a person without humility today, a teacher describing the virtues of humility will not change my behavior tomorrow. But if I show you the cost of your arrogance, and help you make sense of how your behaviors caused that pain, then you might change. You must see your reality before you can see yourself.

Leaders make sense of an increasingly confusing world and show a path to the discovery of our own greatness. Leaders are more crucial than ever, because we need everyone’s best self solving increasingly intractable but valuable problems. Leaders unleash potential.

When leaders develop they first unleash their own potential. This leads to building and sustaining companies that unleash the potential of the people who create within it. In other words, your leadership unleashes potential.

This requires a willingness to connect our vision to this moment in the face of fear. To look within ourselves for virtue, so we can inspire it in others. As the writer Audre Lord said:

“When I dare to be powerful, to use my strength in the service of my vision, then it becomes less and less important whether I am afraid.”

That is what Talentism is doing, and that is the work we are doing together. We believe there are systemic reasons that people and companies fail to achieve their potential. We believe that the absence of great leaders is a symptom, not a cause. It is a symptom of antiquated thinking about people and business, about the benefits of being “above average” rather than the beauty and necessity of being extraordinary. We exist to shine a light on the old thinking, and propagate a new paradigm that starts with great leadership. It starts with you. 

  • What greater vision do you truly (not aspirationally) believe in?
  • If you don’t have a clear answer, what, when looking at your life, feels truly meaningful?
  • How much of what you are doing today is aligned with that meaning?
  • How many of your behaviors and thoughts are aligned with that meaning?

  • What is one action you can take today to better align what you do and what you think with what you find meaningful? Do it.
  • What is one action you can take today to share that meaning with others? Do it.


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