Success, Viability, and Effective Leadership

Judith M. Bardwick, Ph.D.


The very first task of potential leaders is to increase positive feelings and decrease negative emotions: fear and anxiety must be converted to facts and active problem solving; alienation and powerlessness must become inclusion; mistrust and cynicism need to transmute into trust; and depression and futility need to become hope for the future.

This process of creating positive perceptions and actual changes is the necessary condition for leaders to be heard but it may not be sufficient to get a massive buy-in. These are deep changes and the leadership, the organization, and its members have to be actively involved in creating them. Just telling people that it’s a new day will increase derision and cynicism.

The question is, how can we re-establish trust in our leaders, confidence in our people, and an optimistic view of the future?

The great majority of people in an organization and in the country need to share a sense of urgency about creating positive changes as their only route to success and every real success must be made visible. The greatest affirmation is achieving success just as the greatest motivator is the opportunity to achieve future success. 

·    We know that transparency of processes of decision making and of leader’s intentions and actions are crucial for creating trust.

·    The organization and its leaders must have and demonstrate the strength of their integrity and commitment to the welfare of the organization or the nation and its welfare.

·    Every person and every organization needs to be able to achieve respect and recognition. 

Achieving these core transformations is the required first step toward success, viability, and effective leadership. There are no shortcuts; all of these conditions must be earned; they are never a given.

As the subject of leadership is always terribly important, the expert literature on the subject is huge and the lists of personality variables, actions and conditions are endless. I’m a very firm believer in short lists; I simply don’t believe we can effectively focus on more than three goals at one time. So I have created a short list of the three processes I think will take us to trust, optimism and confidence.

A short list of three is not simple minded; it takes thought, judgment and discipline to concentrate only on what really matters. The byways of interesting but irrelevant are always seductive options as they take us away from the hard work of facing past mistakes and future unknowns. That’s why the list is kept really short; it’s easier to be aware when you’ve wandered away from what’s core into the entertainment of what’s superficial.

That kind of change doesn’t just happen. Organizations must make it happen. Relieving the pressure for promotion and the negative emotions that result from early structural plateauing requires that organizations face up to that issue specifically. This involves an educational program, a new compensation system and a broader definition of success in the organization’s culture. The executives must lead this transition – they have to articulate the new values, transform their reward structure and, most importantly, create opportunities for different kinds of “winning.”

People are debilitated when they cling to ambitions which are unachievable. They need to find satisfaction, a sense of succeeding, a sense of importance, and a sense of learning and winning as they move laterally and sometimes even lower to different kinds of tasks and new challenges. Those who know more and produce more, those who have broader experience and perspective, will have to be acknowledged and rewarded just as those who move higher are.

This is a changed emphasis from rewarding those who manage the people who do the actual work to rewarding those who achieve higher skills and greater accomplishments in the actual business of the institution. It is an important and positive shift in culture.

While it’s realistically difficult to achieve fundamental changes in complex institutions, in a sense all of this is very simple. The message to organizations is this: You have to increase the number of categories of contributing, or the types of career paths, which people can experience as successful. You cannot restrict esteem to the fewer and fewer who will be climbing up the management ladder. You need to have the majority of your people feeling like winners.

Today we are in a transition period where the old values of who is a winner coexist with the new reality. It is predictable that during the transition phase the old concepts will be more powerful than the new values. But those changes in values will occur once people experience themselves as successful in new ways. It will take time and it will take work because changing our concept of success involves very basic psychological change.


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