Reply to “Making Yourself Indispensable”

Josef Pieper

It seems prudent enough that we should seek to make ourselves “indispensable” in our workplace if we are leaders or aspiring to be. However, this type of prudence is the Modern sense of the word, a sort of fierce Machiavellian self-interest in one’s own good. Such a prudence is erroneous. Although in their article from Harvard Business Review On Point, authors John H. Zenger, Joseph R. Folkman and Scott K. Edinger articulate mellifluously the leadership qualities of outstanding leaders, the article only lightly discusses an essential behavior to “develop others,” which they disappointingly term as a “complementary behavior.”

Develop Others

Leadership is taking the time to specifically mentor, person by person, the next generation of future leaders. Developing others is the most important trait of any leader, making him – you guessed it – dispensable. Dispensable, for the good of those who have to follow him and the organization itself. That is prudence. According to the late professor of the University of Munster in Germany, Josef Pieper, “Only by means of this perfected ability to make good choices are instinctive inclinations toward goodness exalted into the spiritual core of man’s decisions, from which truly human acts arise.”(The Four Cardinal Virtues. p.7) Erroneously, the “prudent” corporate leader might think that what makes him indispensable is his instinctual ability to survive the storms at the top. However, what the proper, prudent leader has done, over the years, is to actively train his subordinates in his multifarious tasks. The truly prudent leader’s survival at the top would not be the result of his dogged self-interested positioning, but rather he would be sustained by the very subordinates he so loyally developed to move up to the next level; from them would come that continued support for his continued leadership.

Become an Expert

We’ve all heard the aphorism, “Jack of all trades, master of none.” What the article’s authors clearly point out is that you have to be extremely good, not just at something, but at some things. The authors say, “What makes leaders indispensable to their organizations…is not being good at many things but being uniquely outstanding at a few.”(p.31) The indispensable leader goes from “good to great” by raising his competency levels in several core leadership categories rather than many. The way one does this is by identifying one’s strengths and then “focus on a competency that matters to the organization and about which they feel some passion…”(p.32) Everyone can get passionate about the good qualities of other people.

It is the role of the leader, the executive, the manager, “to know his self,” his strengths and weaknesses very well. But it is equally important that he also reach out to others helping them identify and develop their own strengths. The biggest take away of the article is that “…Assertiveness is among the behaviors that when paired with honesty and integrity correlate most strongly with high levels of overall leadership effectiveness.””We don’t mean to imply a causal relationship here: Assertiveness doesn’t make someone honest, and integrity doesn’t produce assertiveness.”(p.32) Only the truly prudent leader who seeks to develop others so they can reach their maximum potential will be heard, effective and remembered.

True Prudence Is Necessary for Success

It is wise to be prudent. As Pieper says, “Prudence is needed if man is to carry through his impulses and instincts for right acting, if he is to purify his naturally good predispositions and make them into real virtue, that is, into the truly human mode of “perfected ability.” (p.7) The self-forgetful person is the prudent leader who privately works with many people to build them up, helping them to find their passion in their work and in their life outside of work. As the authors say, “…if a highly principled leader learned to become more assertive, he might be more likely to speak up and act with the courage of his convictions, thus applying his strength more widely or frequently to become a more effective leader.”(p. 30) Assertiveness, yes, but coupled with humility, this is the foundation an emotionally intelligent person needs for success with others. As one great philosopher said, “Prudence is the “measure” of justice, of fortitude, of temperance.” (p.7) The truly prudent leader knows the truth, that he is not indispensable, and the mark of his leadership is revealed by the success of those who succeed him.

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