Saving Superman

Passion is the next-decade competitive edge. As a leader, you can choose to leverage it, or dole out kryptonite instead. It’s your call.

6 min read




This is the third in a series of articles by Alaina Love that examine the evolution in leadership thinking required for success in the next decade. Read the first two articles here and here.

Max was the corporate equivalent of a superhero.

While he didn’t don a mask and cape everyday, he did successfully establish new divisions of a multinational company in four different emerging-market countries during a frenzied 36-month period. He worked around the clock from his base in Asia, running on adrenaline and catching a few hours of sleep each night on the couch in his office. He often stayed at work into the wee hours so he could manage calls with US headquarters colleagues during their normal business day.

When Max wasn’t in the office he was out in the field working with customers, advising the leadership of the new subsidiaries he’d established, or on a plane trekking from one side of the vast Asian region to the other, making deals from 32,000 feet. Yet, despite the pace and complexity of conducting business in a country that’s not home base, he loved every minute of it.

In the early phase of his experience in Asia, I supported Max as he worked to build high-performing teams around the region. He was a dynamic leader, completely results-driven and a visionary who could read the competitive landscape like a seer reads tea leaves. Max had a great instinct for people and surrounded himself with hard-charging folks with his same intensity. Everyone agreed that when it came to selecting country managers, he had a knack for choosing rock stars.

From a passion perspective, Max was the poster child for the archetype of the Builder, which is characteristically someone hungry for big, audacious goals, fearless when it comes to achieving them and insatiable in appetite for the next new challenge. Builders are also quickly bored when goals are conquered, and somewhat intolerant of people who are unable to readily understand and embrace their ideas. If an archetype could have a mantra, the Builder’s would be, “No excuse is acceptable. No effort is too great.” That was Max in a nutshell.

Fourteen months into his latest assignment, I received a call from his company’s HR vice president. She was beside herself with frustration and in a bit of a panic about what was happening with Max.

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“I just don’t understand it, “ she lamented. “We’ve assigned Max to a large, established market because we want to round out his experience as a leader. We see him as a future company president, or even beyond that, but he needs some large market exposure under his belt.”

When I asked the HR head to tell me more about the assignment, it was clear where company leadership had gone wrong. They were focused more on Max’s skills than they were on his innate passions and purpose. They’d given a Builder an assignment to run a large market that was already doing well. Yes, there were a few changes and improvements that Max might be able to make, but for the most part, it was a mature business.

Just 10 months into his new assignment, Max’s dissatisfaction became evident. He found himself depressed and unable to conjure up much enthusiasm for the work he was doing. The situation didn’t escape the notice of his team, as Max became increasingly distant and unavailable when they needed his input on issues.

“The Max I see today doesn’t even remotely resemble the leader that conquered China for us,” the HR head shared. “I feel like I’m watching Superman after exposure to kryptonite!”

I can’t say that I was surprised by the turn of events with Max. The company made an all-too-common mistake by placing a high-performer in a job outside the zone of his passions. You’ve seen it too, I’ll bet. It’s the great salesperson who slaughters every goal and gets “promoted” to a corporate marketing job far from the customers and the action, or the phenomenal teacher who makes magic happen in the classroom who gets placed in a school administration position. What’s most frustrating is that these situations are completely avoidable if leadership adopts a holistic view of top talent, one that considers both the skills and the passions of employees.

Where talent management is concerned, next-decade leadership thinking recognizes that skills are only a piece of the complex set of factors that drive top performers. The other important factors are individual purpose and the passions that are birthed from it, because those passions drive discretionary effort.

From a competitive perspective, discretionary effort unleashes a level of enthusiasm and productivity that a company can’t afford to pay for, and most of it gets delivered way outside of normal working hours. Passion is what had Max sleeping on the office couch and deal making from an airplane seat. Passion is what helped him conquer markets in unimaginably short timeframes and drove him to achieve goals that others thought were insurmountable.

Passion is the next-decade competitive edge. As a leader, you can choose to leverage it, or dole out kryptonite instead. It’s your call.

Alaina Love is chief operating officer and president of Purpose Linked Consulting and co-author of “The Purpose Linked Organization: How Passionate Leaders Inspire Winning Teams and Great Results” (McGraw-Hill). She is a recovering HR executive, a global speaker and leadership expert, and passionate about everything having to do with, well … passion. Her passion archetypes are Builder, Transformer and Healer. You can learn more about how to grow leaders, build passionate teams and leverage passion to create great customer outcomes here.

When she’s not working with her Fortune 500 client base, Love is busy writing her next book, “Passionality, The Art and Science of Finding Your Passion and Living Your Bliss,” which explores the alignment of personality, purpose and passion, and the science of how it contributes to our well being. Follow Love on Twitter, Facebook, YouTube or her blog.

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