Should We "Defund" Leadership?

General Magic was a 1990 spin-off from Apple that few people have ever even heard of.  The company was led by Marc Porat, who had a vision of what the future smartphone would be like at a time there was no world wide web or digital phone. The Pixar 2018 documentary on the company tells the tale of a group of passionate, driven people who worked around the clock, sleeping under their desks to bring to market revolutionary technology tools. It is a compelling story. And, their ending is a sad story of corporate betrayal and unfortunate timing.

But all that was to get you to watch the movie. The scene I want to spotlight is one in which Apple CEO John Scully sent over a man charged with managing the General Magic engineering group. At a candid team meeting, someone asked his role, "I have been sent by corporate to be your manager." One of the General Magic engineers immediately responded, "Thanks, but we don't need a manager. We get overall leadership from Marc, which is all we need. A manager will just get in our way." 

It got me rethinking the true role of leadership. 

Let's assume you hired highly qualified employees (what other kinds should you hire?) who are passionate about their roles. You ensure they receive the training, tools, and resources they need and authority commensurate with their proficiency. Now, what else do you provide to justify your position as their boss, supervisor, or leader? What do leaders do if everyone is doing their best at what they are supposed to be doing?

Here are six roles to consider:

Keep the Flame Burnin

People need a constant they can count on, especially in times of massive change. That constant must be compelling, relevant, and the foundation for everything. The flame of commitment and duty comes from a clear and convincing picture of what a unit or organization is striving to be, not just do. A vision is the emotional image and spirit-stirring of cathedral-building when the task might merely be bricklaying. The key to keeping the flame burning is to give every employee a match! 

Keep Your Humility

General Magic leader, Marc Porat, said of their allegiance to their vision, "There was no questioning of 'could I be wrong?' None. Because that's what you need to break out of earth's gravity. You need an enormous amount of momentum, and that momentum comes from suppressing introspection about the possibility of failure." However, such myopia and arrogance led them to misread the marketplace's readiness for an iPhone-like device. It was like building a television in the 1800s. Even if it was perfect, there was no programming to make it valuable.

Keep in Touch

Two constituents should be the target of "keeping in touch"—your associates and your marketplace. Keeping in touch with associates means maintaining an emotional connection that is about a partnership, not power. Keeping in touch with those you serve externally means staying attentive to the context of your vision. General Magic failed because they myopically focused on the super cool invention they were creating and misread the timing of the Internet, the very water in which their ingenious fish would need to swim.

Keep Out of the Way

I use this phrase, not as an invitation to use hands-off abandonment, but instead as a caution to never use any more leadership than is needed. If we hired smart people, gave them solid preparation and clear assignments, they shouldn't need a parent to watch over them. It is the foundation of trust-building empowerment. Empowerment does not translate to unlimited license but rather responsible freedom. Effective leaders give servers the freedom to solve customer problems and answer questions on the spot within flexible guidelines. 

Keep Relationships Egalitarian

Egalitarian relationships are ego-less. The focus shifts from "all about me" to "all about us." It is a perpetrator of interpersonal strength, knowing we are many not "on your own."  Great partnering needs broad guidelines that provide "solution spaces" in which to operate. It takes the knowledge that mistakes won't be fatal; that missteps in the pursuit of partnering with customers will be viewed as learning experiences, not handled with punitive measures.  

Keep Your Promises

Service leadership is about realness, not about roleness. The stereotypical leader gets caught up with looking, sounding, and "acting" executive, and employees get a message of "plastic power"—an approach that may engender compliance but never commitment.   Great leaders know humility bolsters trust. They are unimpressed with the trappings of supremacy and more interested in communicating an authentic spirit and an egalitarian style.

The most prevalent example of a community rethinking leadership is in the calls to defund the police--community organizers are not asking for law enforcement to be eliminated, they are simply asking that the role of a local officer of the law is reevaluated. In much the same way, we need to rethink the ways the person charged with leadership can make the best contribution to those they serve.

Chip R. Bell is a renowned keynote speaker and the author of several award-winning, best-selling books. Global Gurus in 2020 ranked him for the sixth year in a row in the top three keynote speakers in the world on customer service. His newest book is Inside Your Customer's Imagination, which was just released. He can be reached at

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