The Real Legacy of Leadership:
Aligning Rhetoric with Reality
Albert A. Vicere
Whether you lead a global organization or a small team,
success depends on instilling in your followers a clear,
shared image of the purpose and aspirations of the orga-
nization. In times of change and uncertainty, people look
to their leaders for inspiration and confidence. Skilled
leaders reflect a sense of purpose and perseverance; those
less skilled reflect a sense of confusion and desperation.
This chapter explores the boundaries between inspiration
and desperation, between organizational effectiveness
and ineffectiveness, between skilled and less skilled lead-
ership. The focus of our exploration is on the critical need
for leaders to ensure that their rhetoric and that of their
organization match the reality of the organization’s oper-
ating environment and culture—that is, that the organiza-
tion actually is what its strategy and mission statements
say it aspires to be. Our discussion will show that when
leaders achieve that objective and align purpose and aspi-
rations with focus and activity, they create the foundation
for a high-performance organization.
Mission and strategy statements may define an organiza-
tion’s direction and aspirations, but the reality of econom-
ic and competitive environments can easily shift a com-
pany’s focus from lofty goals to short-term survival.
© 2001–2009, Vicere Associates, Inc., 11350 Nut Hatch Lane,
Petersburg, PA 16669. All rights reserved.
American Management Association
People and organizations have a choice: either they continue to learn and
evolve as circumstances around them shift, or they fall victim to changing
environmental pressures. Great leaders reflect a sense of focus and purpose
that not only adds meaning to work but also helps make organizations more
dynamic, decisive, and adept at responding to change.
High-performing organizations stay vital by resisting decay. As they mature,
their leaders successfully manage the tension between adaptation—perfect-
ing and improving existing products, services, and processes—and innova-
tion—doing things differently, offering unique products, or changing the
These leaders realize that the healthiest organizational cultures main-
tain a balance between these two perspectives: they continually strive to get
better, yet remain open to new ideas and new ways of thinking. They do this
by ensuring that the organization retains a sense of purpose and meaning
along with a relentless drive for performance.
Scan typical corporate mission statements and you will note that most compa-
nies aspire to be some combination of innovative, customer driven, market
leading, employee focused, performance oriented, and of course, profitable.
Although admirable, most leaders would agree that living up to those traits
consistently over time is incredibly demanding and extremely difficult. That is
not to challenge corporate aspirations, but simply to make an obvious observa-
tion: declaring aspirations is much easier than actually achieving them.
My research, coupled with my years of experience as a consultant, has con-
vinced me that the key to resolving this perplexing challenge is rooted in the
ability of leaders to reconcile the rhetoric of corporate aspirations with the
reality of the corporate operating environment. Organizations need aspira-
tions, and as Jim Collins reminded us in his book
Built to Last: Successful
Habits of Visionary Companies (HarperBusiness, 2004), people seek the
exuberance of being part of an organization with “Big Hairy Audacious
Goals.” But if the organization’s declared purpose and aspirations are out of
synch with its operating environment, if people within the organization expe-
rience a culture that is very different from its stated purpose and aspirations,
the organization is headed for disaster.
Consider an example. Imagine you worked for the Bank (it could be any type
of business) and it had recently created a new strategy and mission statement
134 Part Three Engaging People
American Management Association

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