By Peng T. Ong and Andrew P. Rowan
Here’s a question for you: what is the purpose of leadership? You’re probably thinking of something like this: the purpose of leadership is to clearly articulate what the mission is and then to help the organization work toward that stated mission. Or maybe you had a completely different answer in mind. Considering that leadership is what moves society and groups of people, it’s surprising that we don’t have a “go to” definition that we all agree upon.
Yet, some aspects of leadership are built-in; a large part is learning and philosophizing what you are trying to achieve and communicating it. However, not all types of leadership have the same fundamental aims. If we were to take on interpretation of the Confucian approach to leadership, then the teacher always knows more than the student. Thus, over millenia you end up with limited knowledge—it shrinks because the flow only goes one way. Viral Leadership, a term we are introducing in this article, is the opposite of that model; the philosophy carries on to the next generation. In other words, it's more important to empower people instead of being acknowledged as a leader or authority.
Currently, we don’t take Viral Leadership as a given; it’s certainly not a given in most of our societies. Strangely, we usually don’t communicate the underlying goal of leadership anywhere in leadership development courses: your purpose is to create more leaders—not just to lead. So, it is not a built-in assumption in society; effectively, as a leader your responsibility is to create more leaders. Entrepreneurship is one of the most common expressions of leadership but it is often underappreciated. For example, how many entrepreneurs believe their role is to create leaders within their companies? Many think it’s their role to hire leaders, i.e., “if people are not able to lead, we will find a leader outside.” However, the best-performing companies—especially in market capitalization terms—have a lot of leaders coming from the inside, including the founder CEO archetype.
The importance of leadership in this context is to maximize the virtuous cycle of leaders creating more leaders—and to identify what kind of leaders we want to create for our society, for our respective communities, and for our businesses. Specifically, the idea of Viral Leadership is not just for an organization to go after its mission or movement to, i.e., pursue its purpose. At a high level, Viral Leadership should be a redundant use of words—leadership should be inherently viral. Another way to put this is: “if I am leading, then I am building other people who could/should replace me.”
At a broader level, a country/society has lots of different sub-missions and needs lots of leaders to get things done. To maximize the potential value creation—from an economic point of view—you need to have a lot more people become founders and stay founders in the company creation process. On a micro level, you need to practice Viral Leadership within your enterprise or startup.
Becoming an entrepreneur is one of the most accessible journeys to embark upon. However, if you want to be a successful entrepreneur, then you need to create more entrepreneurial people in your company. Of course, there’s risk: you may lose them; they may start their own companies. In some cases, you want that to happen and ideally have an internal fund or other resources ready to support them.
In any mission-driven organization or movement, at some point the original leaders move on, so how does the mission keep going? First, there needs to be mission or purpose that the members of the organization or mission feel is important—otherwise, there is no reason for the organization to exist. Once such a purpose is in place and acknowledged by the followers, the only element that gives a mission sustainability is that leadership is viral. This philosophy needs to be communicated to the next generation as it's the only way to achieve at scale, i.e., the sooner you get the next generation up and running, the more likely the mission is to be sustained.
Furthermore, a Viral Leader has a much better chance to be financially and spiritually successful. The spiritual realm is often not an area talked about in entrepreneurship so we don't mean religious but rather beyond material/physical things. Another way of thinking about this is: you cannot be fulfilled spiritually if you have no purpose. We all have more or less 100 years on this planet then we die. Through a purely economic lens, you can survive, i.e., eat, obtain shelter, etc. but without deciding on a purpose, your life doesn’t go beyond fulfilling physiological needs.
Hopefully, you think your life is worth more than searching for food and shelter. If you agree, then your life has to go deeper than that, i.e., into a spiritual realm attained via critical thinking, deep reflection, and introspection beyond your daily existence. To start your journey, here’s another question for you: what is entrepreneurship but leadership on a new mission?
Peng T. Ong is Managing Partner at Monk's Hill Ventures, a technology venture fund based in Southeast Asia that he co-founded. Andrew P. Rowan is an American entrepreneur and author of Startup Vietnam: Innovation and Entrepreneurship in the Socialist Republic.