Leading from behind: Supporting purposeful leaders

Instructions for managing business as usual are nice to have, but guidance from purposeful leaders is critical to thriving in crisis says Dr Wesley Payne McClendon.

Late in the day just before close of regular business, Eric Sanders (an EA) took a call from the CFO of a large multinational company. The CFO was calling to follow up with Susan Lewis, Managing Director of the firm, on an outstanding due diligence issue. In Susan’s absence, the CFO wanted Eric to confirm financial and personnel details as part of a potential merger. The details were apparently in pre-deal documentation, so passing them along wouldn’t represent a conflict. At least that’s what Eric concluded as he read the information aloud and then forwarded Susan’s recent emails that contained the details as requested.

Eric had been Susan’s executive assistant for nearly five years, served as a dedicated confidant and handler of all things. As an EA, Eric was Susan’s eyes and ears on the ground, communicating information up to the executive and out to the business. Eric managed an immaculate executive office and was the most efficient, if not boyishly protective, gatekeeper in the business.

While Susan was away on a much-needed two-week family holiday, Eric had been given extensive instructions about how to manage several key accounts and pending transactions. As he had done previously ahead of her family holidays, Eric had taken copious notes at his one-on-one with Susan before she left. He had also developed and distributed a coversheet of instructions to senior executives on the Executive Leadership Team in Susan’s holiday absence.

But Eric’s decision to give merger details over the phone and send Susan’s emails with financial and personnel information while she was away caused a firestorm. Within days, the merger deal was withdrawn by the CFO and Eric was laid to blame. When Susan returned to the office from her family holiday, she reconvened by phone with the multinational company CFO. Susan was told that the merger deal was “no longer commercially viable.” After months of pre-deal work and anticipation, the announcement that the merger had fallen through caught everyone by surprise.

On the surface and behind closed doors, it appeared the merger fell through due to unintended or unflattering information that had been obtained during the course of the transaction. On the contrary, that wasn’t at all the determining factor. The merger was indeed no longer viable given market conditions and strategic priorities. But at the same time, the transaction exposed a lack of core understanding between an executive assistant and senior executive that extended beyond administration.

The missing piece was an understanding of ethical patterns of behaviours, values, and practices of purpose that guide EA decisions in both business as usual and crisis alike. During their tenure together, Susan had neither shared nor talked about her underlying purpose: the ethical principles and values that guided and motivated her, and gave her work and relationships meaning. At a critical decision point, Eric had only administrative instructions to manage his way through a principled response.


Defining purposeful leaders

A purposeful leader is defined as having the capability to share common aspirations, build inspired teams, and insert truth, and ethical and principled values into the fabric of supporting others. Even some of the most well-intentioned leaders manage to get through life and work without purpose. The absence of purpose, however, comes at a significant cost not only to the organisation, but also to the people they support and in turn, the people that support them. Purposeful leaders are exemplars of company goals, culture, and values. They inspire high performance standards, principled decision-making and a commitment to personal growth and development.

The guidance and direction offered by leaders with purpose is so compelling that those around them strive to do the same. In everything they do at home, work, or crisis, purposeful leaders endeavour to contribute meaningfully to life, people, and society, and aspire to make a valued difference in the world.

Executive Assistants are uniquely positioned not only to support a senior executive’s purpose, but also to shape a realistic understanding of the environment around them. EAs sit at the intersection of information, people, and decisions in real time. More than most, EAs receive, distil, and communicate a significant volume of key messages to senior executives, and help translate ethical principles and values into senior leader action. Good executive assistants help purposeful leaders move men and women on a chessboard. Great EAs lead from behind and share the aspirations of purposeful leaders that compel men and women on a chessboard to move themselves.


Here’s how EAs can lead from behind and support purposeful leaders

1 – Be an objective truth teller

It can be difficult to communicate objective truth without judgement, subjectivity, or influence. This is especially true when it’s much easier to allow emotion, perception, and even imagination to colour the practice of conveying information in black and white. Either by proximity, association, or both, EAs are burdened as the repository of knowledge and information requiring constant filtering and translation through to the senior executives they support. Leading from behind and supporting purposeful leaders necessitates communicating a balance of truth, authenticity, and context. The most important element of objective truth telling is the ability to step back, be a neutral intermediary, and get behind a purposeful leader as the disseminator of truth.

2 – Live purposefully at work and home

It’s one thing to have a work persona and a completely different one at home. Separating work, home, and life remains a rallying cry in pursuit of an elusive work- life balance. While it’s realistic to separate time into bite-sized compartments, it’s far more challenging to separate who you are across multiple facets of a purposeful life. Leading from behind and supporting purposeful leaders implies that you too aspire to live a purposeful life. A purposeful life doesn’t end at the close of business. EAs, as senior executives’ most trusted ally and quiet counsel, must live a full purposeful life in order to support the purposeful life of another. One can’t exist without the other.

3 – Be a purposeful leader

The effectiveness of purposeful leaders is measured on two levels: the impact that he or she has on the lives of others, and the extent to which those impacted are inspired to become purposeful leaders themselves. If nothing else, purposeful leaders are infectious; the transferability of principles, values, and ethics are wildly contagious.

When an EA is confronted with ethical questions that require principled judgement, the decisions they make are often viewed through the lens of all senior executives. It’s as if acceptable decisions made by EAs are directly related to executives, while decisions considered to be less than ideal are thought to be their own. The dilemma for EAs isn’t ‘how’ to support a purposeful leader. The ‘how’ will be obvious if not inspired by working alongside him or her. The conundrum is to consider if you aren’t working with a purposeful leader, why not develop into a purposeful leader yourself? A purposeful leader doesn’t have to work from inside a big office; an EA can aspire to make a difference in the world from anywhere.


Dr Wesley Payne McClendon is Executive Director, McClendon Research Group, Inc. Lead consulting, coaching, and research initiatives with government agencies and private sector businesses. The company specialises in a range of areas, such as talent and change management, strategic HR, organisation and leadership development, and business transformation.