Leadership: It is Personal

The old-school belief that business and pleasure don't mix is just that—old. In order to retain staff, leaders today must prioritize their employees' passions.
May 01, 2006

Sander A. Flaum
Are large corporations, with massive bureaucracies and thousands of employees, capable of acknowledging employees' personal passions? They don't have a choice. Large numbers of talented people are leaving organizations because the corporate structure is not accommodating personal passion. The good news is that the great companies are starting to do something about it, which denotes a big change in business ideology. Bill Toppeta, president of MetLife International, recently told the Fordham Leadership Forum, at the Fordham Graduate School of Business, "What you need to know as the leader is what motivates your people, not what motivates you."

To bring this philosophy into the corporate structure, Toppeta uses a very revealing yet simple exercise. He hands out a questionnaire to managers and their direct reports. The manager ranks the items on the page in the order of what she believes most stirs her direct reports' passions. The direct report also ranks the items on the list. The lists are compared, and then dialogue ensues. Toppeta tells us that, for the most part, managers do horribly on this exercise. They think they know what their people are passionate about, but they don't. But as these dialogues take place and the central issues are made clear, an amazing thing happens: People get to know each other as people, not simply as functions that help the department make its numbers every quarter. The result? Employees have a voice in where they can best make their personal contributions to the company. The outcome of marrying personal passions to company goals breeds deeper job satisfaction for both employees and managers—and more profits for the company.

Bill Gray, president of Ogilvy & Mather, seconds Toppeta's point of view. At his advertising agency, Gray runs a creative enterprise of 1,600 employees. As creative and strategic people tend to do, they create a smart, stubborn, and take-no-prisoners kind of workforce. Gray's job is to get the best out of these highfliers every day, and he does so by infusing the language of passion in all his dealings. He draws inspiration from a quote attributed to the Emperor Napoleon: "Leaders are dealers in hope."

General Electric's legendary CEO, Jack Welch, gave Gray (the two were golfing companions for years) a piece of advice: Be passionate all the time and know everyone's name, from bottom to top—and show you do, especially to the people who least expect you to know their name. Welch's point, Gray says, was that a leader could use the language of passion to create the soul of a small company in the body of a giant. That is a unique advantage in business.

Welch also taught Gray three E's of leadership: energy, energize, and edge. That's a good definition of a passionate leader from one of America's most passionate of leaders.

Pulling from these lessons learned from Welch, Gray says that he views leadership like a person on a battlefield, actively engaged in war. A leader needs to know his troops, treat them as colleagues, get out in the field, be next to them, and seek to understand how the people on the front lines deal with the challenges they're confronted with. Match your passion to theirs and let them see what you're all about.

Sander A. Flaum is managing partner of Flaum Partners. He can be reached at

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