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Why Leaders (and Organizations) Must Grow or Die

by | Apr 7, 2015

As I’ve noted before, the rapidly changing business environment is deeply competitive and unforgiving. What is tried-and-true today may be obsolete tomorrow. What is innovative this week may be passé the next. To effectively serve in a leadership capacity, you owe it to all of your stakeholders to use every tool in your arsenal to remain competitive, to thrive in the face of adversity, and to deliver high performance in an enduring and integrity-laden way. You simply must commit to meet the challenges of today’s marketplace. To fulfill that commitment, you need an adaptive leadership approach that is resilient in the face of change. As businesses strive to meet customer needs faster, better, and more completely than their competitors, the landscape unravels before leaders in a Darwinian way. You either adapt and prevail, or you cease to exist, crushed under the heft of sub-par performance. In today’s corporate arena, you grow or die.

Since the demands of the marketplace require agility, and an adaptive approach focused on advancing in a dynamic environment — you must deftly engineer the notion of perpetual growth into your organizational DNA.  You should challenge every member of the company to grow in a fashion that best serves both the person and the organization. This is a best-practice because contributors who nimbly adapt and grow are best suited to juggle the changes encountered in the workplace, the marketplace, and the world at large. In my experience, personal growth ultimately translates into higher performance for the enterprise.

Given the choice of growth or death, growth surely beats the grim alternative.

The best way to ensure meaningful growth at every level of the organization is to make sure there are ample opportunities to learn. Growing requires learning — learning new ways to leverage experience, mastering innovative skills, and voraciously consuming the advice of people with valuable expertise. You really have no choice. Everyone around you, including your competitors, is striving to attain the necessary knowledge to advance and survive; if you do not, you are at risk. Given the choice of growth or death, growth surely beats the grim alternative.

As you’re championing this growth, it’s important that your commitment to individual and organizational learning imperatives be executed in a disciplined way. The rallying call-to-action should be visibly aligned with your strategy and should meaningfully support your goals. For example, if you are a technology company focused on innovation, learning opportunities should foster development in areas that facilitate innovation. If you’re a consulting firm whose goals require operational excellence — then that should be part of the development focus. Of course, some learning opportunities are universally useful and those should not be ignored either. Most organizations can benefit from programs with a broad focus on helping people develop personal insights that will enable them to be better contributors. And leaders will always benefit from management training and leadership development work. But as you’re emphasizing learning, it is critical to infuse the larger organizational learning opportunities with initiatives that support the management and strategic agenda.

There has to be quality alignment between your words and your actions.

Once you’re committed to the dual essentials of learning and growth, and you’ve aligned your initiatives with your strategy — it is not enough to say the words. Be wary of paying the idea lip service and not following through. Gandhi famously said that you have to “be the change” you want to see in the world. To cultivate growth in a meaningful way, it has to start at the top. While it is important to declare your intentions, there has to be quality alignment between your words and your actions. This means “walking the talk” in every moment. There are two crucial components to demonstrating your commitment to creating a culture of learning:

  1. At the individual level.

    A quality learning culture in any organization needs to be led by people who are visibly learning and growing. It is essential that you personally model the behavior. People should be able to perceive your efforts plainly and easily. For example, my office is lined with books from floor to ceiling. It is no accident. I love to read, I hunger to learn, and I enjoy sharing and encouraging that enthusiasm with my friends, family, and colleagues. If we’ve spent any meaningful time together, chances are I’ve handed you a book (or two). In this way, I hope to convey that I am truly invested in learning and personal growth as I endeavor to be the change that I want to see in the world.

  2. At the group level.

    The idea of growth extends beyond the individual and becomes even more imperative when you are pursuing this notion in order to move an entire organization forward. Then, it becomes about creating a community that is distinctly learning and growing together. People should feel like they are part of a culture that is focused on learning and that the environment in which they work palpably encourages growth. To cultivate this community it is most necessary that your leadership standards both celebrate learning and demand it.

Ideally, there should be a push/pull dynamic in play. The principle works like this: Pull – Celebrate learning so that people are inspired to pursue it and want to do it. Push – Make the expectation clear. Leaders must expressly articulate that they expect members of their organization to be ever-developing. When deployed effectively, the dynamic works harmoniously, creating a tandem push & pull in which people are challenged to learn, they increase their ability to contribute, and they are celebrated for doing so. Everybody wins. And everybody gets better.

Celebrate learning so that people are inspired.

This kind of continuous improvement is good business on two levels. A company that embraces learning in a quality way is better positioned to meet the fierce demands for growth while visibly demonstrating that they value their employees. In my experience, the most high-performing leaders know that the key to enduring success begins and ends with people who are learning and growing. It is all about the people. You get the right people ‘on the bus.’ Then, you invest in the growth and development of those ‘right’ people. Give them the tools and energy to do their jobs with distinction and they will do the same for you and your company. And, you will have profoundly improved your potential to thrive and grow in the endlessly dynamic marketplace.

Doug Conant is remarkable—and so is this work.
– Stephen M. R. Covey
Author of The Speed of Trust

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  1. Olita

    While this article hits all the right notes about leadership and there’s nothing wrong with anything it advocates, I really wish leadership consultants would tell the rest of the story. Corporations spend billions of dollars on leadership training and very
    few of these training programs ask leaders to actually change
    themselves internally; rather they train leaders to deploy external strategies that mitigate
    the symptoms of a dysfunctional system. If the metric for success is based solely on monetary returns, for example, it’s easy to re-arrange some leadership deck chairs and get some results. Being the change you want to see in the world starts with self-awareness and leading transformation, whether it’s individual transformation or organizational transformation, demands conscious awareness. The vast majority of C-suite executives and business leaders are some of the least self-aware individuals I’ve ever encountered. Today’s business leaders wield a tremendous amount of influence, economically, politically and culturally. It’s time for us leaders to step up and evolve so that humanity can thrive for another few hundred years.

    • DouglasConant

      @Olita – I greatly appreciate your sentiments. Indeed, it is time for “leaders to step up and evolve so that humanity can thrive.” In fact, that is why we founded ConantLeadership, to help improve the quality of leadership in the 21st century. Leaders must mindfully reflect internally before they can hope to manifest meaningful change externally in their organizations — or in the world. You mention something very important: the need for leaders to be exquisitely self-aware. I agree; In our book TouchPoints we challenge leaders to do some arduous introspective work by answering three leadership “questions of the heart”: 1. Why do I choose to lead? 2. What is my code? 3. How well do I walk the talk? This helps them connect with their purpose, crystallize their value system, and ultimately (and most importantly) demands that they hold themselves accountable to lead with integrity. Training and development initiatives that are focused on leadership should absolutely include a call-to-action for “conscious awareness” as part of their core curriculum. At the Higher Ambition Leadership Institute we focus on developing leaders in the way you suggest — not just to meet quarterly objectives but to discover their true purpose, and then channel that discovery into enduring leadership that will make the world a better place today and tomorrow.


  1. 2 New Books on Our Desk That Can Help You Live and Lead Better - […] and thinkers who can help us improve our craft. An important part of the work of leadership is perpetual learning…

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