Dealmakers Posing as Leaders

It’s interesting to note how in the business world the leader of yesterday has morphed into the dealmaker of today. More interesting still is how the distinction between the two seems to have been lost. Perhaps “lost” isn’t the right word. The drama, glamor and enormous profits associated with dealmakers, many of whom are in what previously would have been thought of as leadership roles, seems to have eclipsed the idea and value of mere leadership. “They must be leaders. Look at the deals they’re making and the empires they’re creating.” This was the reasoning that allowed Mitt Romney, a quintessential dealmaker, to pose as a leader and subsequently, to present himself as a Presidential contender (despite there never having been a successful business person who then became a successful U.S. President). It’s not necessarily that dealmakers have no aptitude for the day-to-day work of leadership. It’s just not likely to be of importance to them. imposter

Many top executives, tasked with taking their organizations forward, display little or no interest in leading once they find themselves in leadership positions. Their versions of leadership are dependent on activities such as mergers and acquisitions, in other words, exterior means by which to grow the organization. While these may be important in the overall strategy of an organization, mergers and acquisitions alone are an inadequate substitute for day-to-day leadership if the organization is to have a long-term future. Depending solely on these exterior paths for growth ignores the less dramatic, but vitally important internal growth of the organization.

In It For The Long-Term

A primary difference in orientation between leaders and dealmakers has to do with the element of time. Leaders are more likely to have a long-term sense of time when they think about the health and well-being of their organization and its people. Though aware and respectful of the need for short-term results, leaders don’t lose sight of long-term objectives, and the long-term well-being of the organization and the people who make it a living thing. In addition, leaders are aware of their legacies within the organizations they’ve led. Dealmakers are likely to view legacy as a collection of deals.

This points to another key difference: successful leaders are more likely to be team players, with a strong sense of commitment to their organizations and to the people they lead. Though often highly competitive, successful leaders don’t regard every situation as an opportunity to exert their will over others and emerge as the one and only winner. Dealmakers tend to be solo players. Because their primary commitment is to the deals they create and the profit and glory they stand to realize, organizations and people slip from conscious consideration into the category of expendable commodities. Winning is everything to the dealmaker.

Who’s responsible for the shift from leader to dealmaker? It’s not primarily the executives put in leadership positions. In their defense, they may not even position themselves as actual leaders in the sense of being interested in or competent with the day-to-day work of leading. Their interest, and consequently, their attractiveness to those in charge of the selection process that places them at the tops of corporations, is in the end game, i.e., the profits they and other major shareholders will realize in the shortest time frame possible. Little or no emphasis and attention are paid to the long-term health of the organizations they run.

People & Profits

Though leading and dealmaking don’t have to be mutually exclusive of one another, typically, that’s what happens: the focus more often than not becomes either leading profits, or leading people and organizations. If the focus of the executive in charge bypasses the growth of the organization and the people who comprise it, and goes directly to monies earned and realized by those at the top, whatever profit is generated will likely be at the long-term expense of the organization and its people. If focus is placed first on the growth and well-being of the organization and its people, whatever deals are pursued stand a better chance of being a good fit for the organization and its people, and the profits over time may equal those of the former scenario. These profits will be distributed more widely, in terms of the number of people who receive them, the good to the community, and the time frame over which the company remains profitable, and continues to exist.

True leaders don’t regard people and organizations as expendable. For dealmakers, everything is expendable, except the thrill of the deal, and the profits and status to be realized at the closing of the deal. Is there a future in this? Only the bleakest possible version of a future, where wealth becomes even more concentrated in the hands of the few.

What stands in the way of our seeing more true leadership? Two things come to mind. The first is the popular assumption that more is always better, and more right now is best of all. Unfortunately, this assumption, unchallenged and unquestioned by those who buy into it, is a future-killer. It kills a possible beneficial long-term future for many in exchange for an unspeakably opulent immediate future for the few. Those who kill the future for others haven’t asked themselves the question posed by David Loy: “Why is more always better when it’s never enough?” A friend of mine in the employ of a Rockefeller of the older generation once asked his employer, “Mr. Rockefeller, just how much money do you need?” His answer, delivered with a smile, but in dead earnest: “Just a little more.”

Inner/Outer Focus

The other obstacle to the long-term, good-for-the-many-model may be less obvious and has to do with various levels of ambition among people. Though based on my personal experience of coaching what are by now hundreds of executives in high position, and so anecdotal, I’m convinced of its inherent truth. People with levels of ambition strong enough to attain high position tend to be more outwardly focused; that is, they tend to be more focused on the world around them than on what’s happening inside themselves. Their focus is more likely to be on outward expressions of growth at the expense of inner expressions of their own growth and the growth of the people they lead. It’s this imbalance, caused by little or no self-reflection, that makes acceptable the enormous, short-term gain for the few at the expense of long-term well-being of the many. I don’t have an answer to this problem, except to say that the inner/outer focus of people seems to be put into place early in life, or late in life, after people have left the workforce. It’s seldom that this focus shifts during a person’s key earning years. When it does, it’s often a result of some near-catastrophe or life-altering event. Finding ways to nourish and encourage a rich inner life in childhood, is instrumental in helping develop a healthy sense of place in and obligation to the world.

Though there are some dealmakers who also happen to be committed, successful leaders, one of the two orientations tends to predominate. There’s nothing wrong with being a dealmaker. The problem arises when the opportunity to lead is ignored in favor of making deals. Based again on my own work over the last eighteen years, the executives who are happiest both during their working lives, and when their working lives come to an end are those whose focus has been on growing people and organizations. The dealmakers, though often wealthy beyond imagining, seem to enjoy little sense of accomplishment. Perhaps they’re still waiting for the next deal which, sadly for them, won’t be coming along.