The Multiple Faces of Leadership

The meaning of modern leadership.
Apr 2, 2015 3:30 PM ET

Janus, the ancient Roman god of beginnings, transitions and endings, had a distinct advantage. He had two faces – one gazing forward, into the future. The other, looking back, at the past.

And while Janus might be an allegorical character, Janus-like vision is an imperative for today’s leaders. That’s because the vision that is so critical to effective leadership is about seeing not in one direction, but in all of them.

When it comes to leadership, everything – growth, innovation, excellence – starts with a vision. But the route to realizing that vision – for us personally and for our organizations – is never perfect, and almost never direct. It’s filled with crossroads and multiple options.

Most people – and companies – aren’t even aware they’re at a crossroads until they choose one direction over the other. But leaders must always assume they’re where multiple decisions and options intersect. Because – as leaders – we face many more crossroads than straight stretches of road.

Sometimes, you’ll have to go left. Sometimes you’ll have to take the long way around. What’s important is that leaders know where they’re going and keep moving to get there.

It’s kind of like basketball: The teams that advance along the road to the NCAA Final Four, hoping to make it here to Indianapolis, all move forward, but not necessarily in a straight line. But they always know exactly where they are on the court. And they always know exactly where the goal is.

Business is a lot like that. You reach your goals by moving ahead, while always knowing where you are.

How do you do that? Vision makes that possible. Because leadership is not only about what’s next. It’s also about what’s now as well as what was. It’s operating in multiple dimensions – past, present and future – while trying to find the right balance among all three.

Not focusing on “next” because you’re mired down in “now” can mean going nowhere.

But we can also use the present to anticipate the future – so we can try to bend it in a desired direction. In other words, committing to the future before it happens.

Once you see your role that way, the present takes on a whole new significance. It’s about vantage point – your vantage point – which, as a leader, is a unique one.

Learning Through Experience

I’ve learned this through experience – a lot of years, in a lot of different positions throughout our company. I started as a package handler. Today, I manage 320,000 people across the U.S. I’m older, smarter and my perspective is a lot different than it was when I was sorting packages.

For a time, as the Americas Region Manager, I also had responsibility for 57 countries. I’m glad I started where I did, and I’m glad I had that international experience. All those stops, starts and crossroads have given me a unique way of seeing things.

Few people see the organization from my perspective. But everyone in our U.S. operation needs me to see the organization from theirs.

I’ve held practically every job that I’m now responsible for overseeing. So I understand the day-to-day, on-the-job challenges. It’s now my job to help anticipate and solve some of the same problems that once confounded my teams and me.

Having managed from coast to coast, I know that what matters most in Oakland, for example, may not be all that important in Dallas or here in Indianapolis. Laws and regulations are different and they create different dynamics for leaders.

Having been at UPS for all these years, I know where we are and how we got here. That’s valuable information for figuring out how we get to where we want to be next.

As a leader, I also have to be a visionary with my head on swivel. That’s especially true at a company like UPS, because we move products and goods for just about every industry you can think of. From retail, healthcare and high-tech to automotive, government and aerospace. Small, independent businesses to the largest global enterprises.

All that diversity gives us a finger on the pulse of domestic and global economies. Our actions to help solve our customers’ problems demand a precise combination of skills.

Many a leader with a great vision has failed at managing change effectively and productively. What’s left is the reality they envisioned. But maybe not the reality they got. Some leaders inspire change. Some leaders manage it. The best – a rare breed, indeed – do both.

If you have a vision for future change, you must make it actionable in the present. How? By using your distinctive visionary skills. You can do it by influencing stakeholders and marshaling support, from the top down. All the while keeping projects and people moving forward, from the bottom up.

Seeing forward and back isn’t seeing far enough. Don’t forget about sideways and up and down.

One thing’s for sure: If Janus were real and reining today, especially if he were running a business like yours or mine, two faces would hardly be enough

This post first appeared on Longitudes blog.