ACDC Leadership

January 03, 2011 4 min read

We’ve always been pretty damn proud of ourselves for our ability to organize big groups of people to complete a shared task. It is partly what separates us from the animal kingdom. The outputs of our most ambitious big projects have come to be known as the Wonders of the World. Rome ruled the Western World because of its ability to control large armies. Britain dominated the seas and maintained imperial holdings all over the globe due to their ability to coordinate large numbers of people. 

It should be of little surprise then, that business organizations have become such a source of human pride. The capitalist system gives both wealth and power to those best able to funnel the activities of thousands of people to create and support desirable products and services. The story of successful organizations is really the story of successful leaders. 

Good Leaders and the Great Goods

There is an argument that the measure of leadership greatness in most organizations is Life itself. Many of our corporation or government leaders are lauded more for the number of years they spend in power than for their actual output. Often senators get introduced as “the three term senator from the great state of ….” more than they get introduced as “the senator who pushed through civil rights legislation or fiscal reform or ….”

Of course, there is an understanding that if these leaders are not running an organization pretty well, they will be replaced. Therefore, longevity is a proxy for success in other ways, I suppose. But for most of the greatest leaders throughout history, the Good they are remembered for was more than just their “time served.”

Abe Lincoln is not known for having been less than a five-year president, he’s also known for having held the country together; FDR was president for a long time, but he stared down a couple of pretty major obstacles during his time: a recession and Hitler. Steve Jobs will probably not be known for his long tenure (in two separate terms) at Apple, but rather as the founder and creative force behind the Macintosh, iTunes, the iPod, the iPhone and the iPad. Joe Forehand won’t be known for his five years as a CEO nearly as much as he’ll be known as the guy who took Accenture public, changing its name from Andersen Consulting — and therefore distancing the company from its parent company, Arthur Andersen which stopped operating only one year after Forehand’s company made a clean split.  In terms of the Eight Great Goods, Lincoln held the Society together, FDR focused on Life and Stability, Steve Jobs is about Joy, and Forehand created an Individuality for his company that allowed it to thrive.

It is pretty easy to attach a Great Goods label to any good organizational strategy. But it is still incumbent on the leader to create and nurture that direction. 

ACDC Leadership

Good leaders all have a few common things that they want their people to do well: focus, alignment, decisiveness, and flexibility. Those four characteristics go a long way toward making an organization good and the only way for that organization to get to good — let alone beyond that, to great — is with a leader or leadership group that can make these four things happen. My mnemonic for the skills to do this is: ACDC Leadership (Attention, Culture, Decision, and Change). 

But I must pause for a moment to address your concerns about the use of the acronym ACDC. I don’t know which of the common meanings of ACDC flew into your mind first when you read this, but all of the most popular meanings might apply pretty nicely to great leadership as well.

AC/DC: energy. Alternating current and direct current: the two basic forms of transmission of electrical energy. Being a great leader requires plentiful and appropriate energy to power the organization.  

AC/DC: standards. One of the first great commercial standards battles was over electrical standards. Thomas Edison installed direct current electrical systems in city centers around the US and worked tirelessly to protect his patents for this system. But the alternating current system supported by George Westinghouse and Nikola Tesla proved to be better for long distance transmission and — theoretically, at least — safer. Interestingly, the installation of alternating current generation equipment at Niagra Falls in 1896 was a major turning point in the standards battle. Eventually the entire US converted to AC; however, the last direct current transmission in America ­­— one run by Con-Edison in New York City — was not terminated until 2007. Like the AC/DC standards battle, good leaders must supply the standards for their organizations and, in the case of conflicting standards, make hard choices about which should be used.

AC/DC: the rock band. This music group, from Australia, started in the early 1970s and has sold 200 million albums since. They are rock stars; if you are going to be a great leader, you need to sell yourself like a rock star — in a functional rock band.

AC/DC: flexibility. AC/DC usually means that a device can use both forms of current and switch easily back and forth between the two. As a leader you need to be flexible enough to still be effective no matter what environment you are in.

AC/DC: bisexuality.AC/DC became a euphemism for bisexuality in the 1960s. I’m not suggesting that good leaders need to be bisexual — although there is nothing wrong with that — but I think great leaders are able to be a bit ambiguous at times … allowing their follower to feel like they are always on “their team.”

(If I didn’t cover your favorite definition of ACDC here, please let me know)

With the standard meanings of “ACDC” all explained in terms of leadership … whew! … I’ll look at each of these key elements of leadership (Attention, Culture, Decision-making, and Change) in term of the Eight Great Goods in my upcoming entries here.  Stay tuned!