In astronomical terms, we all know that the nearest star to Earth is the sun, which serves as the source of most of the energy on the planet. A nova is a sudden brightening of a star, and a supernova a stellar explosion more energetic than a nova. The extremely luminous supernovae can cause a burst of radiation that often briefly outshines an entire galaxy before fading over weeks or months. During this short interval, a supernova can radiate as much energy as the sun will emit over its entire life span. An explosion from a supernova drives a shock wave into surrounding interstellar medium, which can trigger the formation of new stars. Rare in number, no supernova has been observed in the Milky Way since 1604.
Like their celestial counterparts, human stars create energy in the organization, often causing explosions of ideas that send shock waves throughout the industry. The human supernovae also influence the formation of other luminaries. To position your company for growth in a global economy and to create the agility to respond to future unforeseen turbulence, you need to create the atmospheric conditions that will allow the stars to shine, the novas to influence, and the supernovae to explode. But traditional approaches won’t work. Instead, you’ll need a new way of thinking about how to draw the best from these brightest, which will require your thinking of your legacy in new ways—ways that will foster trust, evoke excellence, and drive the business.
Conventional views of leadership are somewhat superficial—a list of expectations, characteristics, traits, and values that sets us up for disappointment and proves unrealistic. We too often expect our leaders to provide a bigger-than-life parental figure who rescues us from our messy selves, a hero who can set things right when we can’t. Stars don’t have these fantasies and wouldn’t welcome this sort of leadership, even if it were humanly possible. Stars want exemplary leaders, ones who inspire, guide, and encourage; but they neither want nor demand the human equivalent of a Border Collie since they don’t consider themselves sheep-like.
In years past, young men entered the same profession of their fathers, and they remained there until retirement. People developed a sense of community and identity with their peers and coworkers. The company’s leader acted as a kind of mayor as much as he did the sheep dog. Words like “visionary” and “innovator” didn’t usually apply. The word “leader” had more to do with status and power than responsibility or accountability. Times have changed, but our needs haven’t.
Research tells us that the needs for inclusion, affection, and control shape us throughout our lives. Traditionally, the combined contributions of the family, church, the community, and the organization satisfied our needs. Now, with dispersed teams, virtual workplaces, divided families, and decreased church attendance, satisfaction of basic human needs falls overmuch to the organization. Additionally, when people work long hours—as stars tend to do—they have fewer hours for leisure and life balance. Consequently, they rely more on those at work to fulfill their basic needs. That’s one of the reasons organizational culture has become more significant.
Among other things, culture defines a coherent value system for those in the organization. As author and leadership theorist John Gardner put it, “The community teaches. If it is healthy and coherent, the community imparts a coherent value system. If it is fragmented or sterile or degenerate, lessons are taught anyway—but not lessons that heal and strengthen. It is community and culture that hold the individual in a framework of values; when the framework disintegrates, individual value systems disintegrate.” When culture fades, individuals often experience a loss of meaning, a sense of powerlessness. They lose the conviction that they can influence the events of their lives or community.
Too often highly accomplished people, left without moorings by the disintegration of group norms and torn from any context of shared obligations, have gotten drunk on self—or they have left to find a community of people who will augment and elevate their best work. Leaders who aspire to lead exceptional organizations do better. They heed Gardner’s advice. They help their companies create a culture that holds individual stars in a framework of values—chief among these values being a dedication to excellence.