"Which footprint do we want to leave/live as leaders of the next decade?”


Didier Marlier

January 09, 2010

From Disruption to Engagement

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Wikipedia defines Synchronicity as “the experience of two or more events that are causally unrelated, occurring together in a meaningful manner”. It was the famous psychoanalyst Carl G. Jung who coined this term in the 1920’s.

Two apparently unrelated events took place in my life around the turn of the year:

Gerd Leonhard sent me the link to the Harvard Business Review blog of a brilliant and provocative man: Umair Haque, Director of the Havas Media Lab (http://blogs.harvardbusiness.org/haque/). In his last post of 2009, Umair wrote the “Builders’ Manifesto” on the day of the Copenhagen Climate Conference fiasco. In his paper, he claims that we won’t need “maintenance leaders” anymore (the word is mine) but rather “builders”. From his point of view, leaders who throw their energy in the battle for saving the unsavable, leaders who try to engage their people into tightening their belts to maintain, at best, the status quo, are on the wrong path and do more harm than good.

Umair has got a point: Is it wise to invest considerable energy and financial means in saving dinosaurs, which have proven their inability to cope with change, leave alone simply listening to what their customers were telling them? Yes, jobs are at stake and in the panic storm of 2008/2009, nobody knew how wise it would be to let other Lehman Brothers fall apart in the financial, industrial and services sectors. But…

How much resource will we dedicate to maintain under life assistance companies which, unless they opt for humble and radical change of paradigm and mindset (and, from what we see, there is nothing less certain), are condemned in the short/medium term? Shouldn’t we rather invest into the promising young plants of the future?

The article then questions some famous leaders such as Barack Obama, Ben Bernanke or  Bill Gates: are they innovative, value creating builders or is most of their energy geared towards maintaining a crumbling model?

I found the Maintenance vs. Builder leadership a worthwhile concept at the time of kicking a new decade accompanied with so many threats (Climate & environment, aging of the population and the weight of their pension system, the cost of health, the increasing divide and incomprehension between people and nations, poverty, misery and social inequality) as well as promising opportunities (Open Network Economy, the maturation of Brazilian, Russian, Indian, Chinese and many other economies, the fast growth of the social networking phenomenon diminishing barriers of intolerance, progress in green technology and economy, micro-credit etc…). Do we want to be remembered as leaders “looking to the future in their driving-mirror” or will we be celebrated as visionary builders?

While I was reflecting on that choice, came to me the very sad story of a personal friend: a flamboyant, sometimes borderline arrogant and successful businessman, he now fell into a deep and painful depression, despite of his persistent successes. While discussing these sad circumstances, the words of Robert Stevenson (author of Robinson Crusoe) resonated in my head: “To be who you are and to become who you are capable of becoming is the only end in life”.

In 2010, I intend to dedicate my energy and passion to support the “building leaders” who will courageously challenge the status-quo, refuse to be victims of circumstances and rather than “fix it”, will have the determination to re-create what shouldn’t be maintained.

I wish you all a determined and courageous journey during this 2010 year!


  1. Rosanna Cella

    Ciao Didier, I reply with a phrase that I repeat to myself when everything seems to be unclear….:
    “God, Give me the courage to change the things which should be changed, the grace to accept with serenity the things that cannot be changed and the wisdom to distinguish the one from the other.”
    Having said this, I simply would like to say that I read with great interest and as much as I support the idea of the “building leaders” I am one of those who think that it is much easier to “build” than maintaining with the aim to keep evolving. Maintenance doesn’t necessarily mean something stable/stuck. Maintenance can be a work done to ensure the good ground is kept in order to keep growing good stuff from it. It requires a continous selection to get rid of the bad seeds and being good at identifying and keep the good stuff. This is tough.
    So, I love the idea of the “building leadership” and I would like to share the thought that maybe it is not a “either/or” type of thing, but in some case we may need to use the “and” so to opt sometimes for maintenance…not everything is to be changed… We are not at December 21, 2012 yet 🙂
    Happy new year!
    Rosanna Cella

  2. Juan M. Gallego

    Hola Didier,

    This blog is very interesting! Of course, we all want to be building leaders! I don´t think that you would get to many people that would choose to be classified as Maintenance leaders, even though those type of leaders may have some very specific uses such as maximizing the life of “cash cow businesses” such as Ice making in the late 19th Century before refrigeration reached main street.

    I think that the biggest concern here is how the different leaders perceived the changes that need to happen for them to do the bulding that would be expected from them by stockholders, investors and employees.

    I am especifically thinking here on another Harvard Business Case on the steps that Canon took when they were faced with the digital photography era… of course, hind sight is 20/20 but I would question that their failed initial steps were probably taking as building steps…

    Basically, I think that the interpretation of change and the direction to take when one reaches a cross-road, will finally define a leader as Maintenance (I love that term btw) or building leaders. To fully focus on developing Building leaders would be therefore, from my point of view, extremely difficult as only the final results will judged if the decisions taking were truly resistive to change or promoted change.

    Of course, that´s just my opinion.

    Feliz Año Nuevo 2010!

    Juan Mª

  3. Michael

    This reminded me strongly of the simple question that was, for me, the most pertinent and powerful part of Thomas Friedman’s ‘The World is Flat’. He asked “Do you spend more time with your memories of the past or with your dreams for the future?” Those who dwell on (or obsess about) what they used to have or be seem destined for disatisfaction or disappointment. Conversely, paying attention to possibilities and a having positive intent for the future can be highly liberating. I have revisited that thought over and over again since I read it, and have seen contrasting examples of attention to memories or dreams in people, teams, organisations, newspapers, nations, politics, causes and religions. Sadly, there are myriad examples where charismatic leaders have mobilized people around a collective ‘rose-tinted’ ideal of the past, apportioned blame to some present nemesis and stimulated destructive behaviour. I, for one, am spending this new decade paying even more attention to my dreams.

    Happy New Decade,


  4. Ivo Knottnerus

    Hi Didier,

    Thanks for your first posting of 2010, and I also wish you a very good 2010 for you and your loved ones. Let it be an inspiring year!

    I fully agree with your statement of ‘building leaders’ and I enjoyed your posting. It immediately triggered a memory in me that I see around me often. I am not sure whether you or any of the readers have the same, however I find that we are currently living in a world where people are too much trying to hold on to what they have got. Instead of going with the flow or universe or stars, or however you want to call it, I see people around me hanging on to the achievements from the past and not moving forward. Fighting against new things, or decisions, always arguing that ‘what we had in the past was better’, without giving the new or unexplored a chance.

    Indeed, I agree with you, should we save companies that are still under the same management as before the crisis or who enjoyed abundant government support but are still paying the same bonuses as before. I hope we have all learned from the recent events in the world as leaders, and that we can recognize that maintaining what we had ‘before’ will only set us back, not bring the world forward or build a new world.

    Have a great week ahead!

  5. Didier Marlier

    Dear all,
    Thank you very much for very meaningful comments. I just read this morning an interesting column from Gideon Rachman of the Financial Times (http://www.ft.com/cms/s/0/a8486284-fee9-11de-a677-00144feab49a.html?nclick_check=1) called bankruptcy could be good for America, suggesting and providing many historical examples when rebuilding courageously from scratch was what helped a country and establishment out of its lethargy. Have a great week Didier

  6. Gerald Bricker

    The challenge of leadership is to get results through the people and the resources under our control that matche the Vision and Mission of the organization. If “maintenance” is required to do this then so be it. If the long term Vision requires “building” then that must be the way to go.

    There is no question that most businesses are seeking to grow and maintain a loyal customer base (Peter Drucker). Therefore, the mission of most business leaders will become “building”. Business today is so dynamic that there truly is only one constant and that is “change.” The challenge for the leader is keeping people and organizations moving ahead and managing change.

    Jack Welch said: “(As CEO) your constituencies are your people, your customers and your products.” Your people develop new products and win new customers. So, enabling and challenging them becomes one of the critical activies of the leader. Building anything without them is very difficult.


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