Amex CEO Gains Insights From Napoleon

I was reading USA Today yesterday and ran across an interview with American Express CEO Kenneth Chenault. I really enjoyed his response when asked to characterize leaders who do well:

The best definition of leadership to me is summed up in a quote: “The role of the leader is to define reality and give hope” – by Napoleon.

(No need to harass Chenault about his management style, he goes on to say that he does not want to end up like Napoleon).

My take: You may not like what Napoleon did, but it is hard to deny that he was a great leader. His quote really does define the essence of leadership. It nicely captures many of the characteristics that I think are critical for good leaders:

The bottom line: While Napoleon’s quote is a great guidepost for leaders, I don’t condone adopting his practice of resolving conflicts with a coup d’état.

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I'm an experience (XM) management catalyst; helping organizations improve results by engaging the hearts and minds of their employees, customers, and partners. I enjoy researching and speaking about leading-edge XM topics. I lead the Qualtrics XM Institute, which is the world's best job. We're igniting a global community of XM Professionals who are inspired and empowered to radically improve the human experience. To achieve this goal, my team focuses on thought leadership, training, and community building. My work is driven by a set of fundamental beliefs: 1) Everything starts and ends with human beings, so you need to understand how people think, feel, and behave; 2) XM is a discipline that needs to be woven throughout an organization's entire operating fabric; and 3) Building the XM discipline requires a combination of culture, competency, and technology.

5 thoughts on “Amex CEO Gains Insights From Napoleon”

  1. I think there is a slight flip in this Bruce, and its not mere philosophy. The leader, the people in the company, and the customer co-create reality between them. You might extend the metaphor in any number of ways. Objects, object-relationships, lens-of-perception etc. all help create the sense or reality that the company represents, and the the customer experiences. Perhaps one of the most powerful contexts for that Napoleon comment is that leaders (and the top mgt team) define the “lens” through which the world is perceived. Great breakthrough does not come from seeing the world through the same “lens” as your competition.

  2. Paul: Excellent comment. Great leaders do take a lot of input from their surroundings (employees, customers, trends, environment, etc.). This post dealt more with what leaders did with all of this information: create that clear picture of the future that compels the organization to move in a common direction. I like your comment on the “lens.” Great leaders do define the lens by which the world is perceived. But can they succeed in the long-run if that lens does not: deal with the reality of the world, engage employees, provide a clear vision, and maintain a sense of purpose?

  3. Bruce, Paul,
    enjoyed the post and the subsequent comments.
    I believe you’re both right. The leader defines the lens and thereby the manner in which the team should view reality.
    We all live in the same reality but not experience the same reality. Life is to be interpreted. Some leaders would have us interpret life as battle, while others would have us interpret it as a surch for synergy and harmony. They are both talking about the same reality (there is only one), but those 2 teams will reach their goal in totally different ways. If the journery is at least as important as the goal, then the manner in which we approach, and thus the reality as defined by leadership, is crutial in how excited we aer to get up in the morning and go to work.
    By the way, coup de etat is a viable option, we did it in the 1776, hope it never happens again.
    Thanks for the opportunity to share.
    Rudy Vidal

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