Perhaps the most surprising thing about Doug Burgum’s appearance at the Convergence user conference was that he was there at all.

Many people expected him to be gone from the position he has held so long, first as president of Great Plains, and then as president of Microsoft Business Solutions. MBS’ losses, coupled with the way Microsoft relegated him to a lesser for at its Worldwide Reseller Conference last year, and the normal expectation of change following a merger, had resellers placing bets on his longevity.

But at Convergence last month, Doug, with his hair in one of its short periods, looked and sounded as he has sounded for most of the last two decades—in charge of the best-known name in mid-market accounting software. It may have been that last year when Microsoft, as it combined the former Great Plains Stampede reseller conference with its Fusion reseller conference, didn’t quite know how to use Burgum. And it used him badly, relegating him to a speaking spot before lunch that was guaranteed to see the hall empty.

The Great Plains conference formula always puzzled outsiders. At most conferences, the president or CEO delivers the strategy, state of the company, or product direction speech, while motivational speakers are brought in to provoke thought. At Stampede, Burgum was the motivational speaker, leaving product and strategy presentations to trusted lieutenants. When Burgum launched into one of his non-traditional speeches at the WWRC, classic VARs—befuddled by his approach--streamed out to the lunch nearby. They weren’t ready for phrases like, “And what is the human condition today?” Or touching on business before moving on to the Wright brothers.

But here he was back at Convergence as THE keynote speaker, although Microsoft has reined in his speaking. Burgum at his best inspires; at his worst-- well, that could be the year he told the Stampede crowd he hadn’t prepared any remarks and spoke off-the-cuff for 90 minutes.

At Convergence, he spent most of his time speaking effectively on product issues, before ending with Foucault and his pendulum. This is from a man whose addresses have covered Lewis and Clark, Captain Cook, and Ernest Shackleton.

Convergence was largely successful because it was still a Great Plains show, one that Microsoft didn’t mangle, and Burgum was a big part of the formula. If nothing else, having Burgum in his center stage role, the guru role he relishes, gave customers and resellers assurance, because after two years of rapid change, periods in which resellers say they often don’t know who they will be dealing with at MBS, Burgum represents continuity, stability, familiarity.

Ultimately, that may be more important than defining product strategy, more important than articulating a clear vision of the future. The thing that really counts is dealing with people you know and trust. The rest often follows more easily than those obsessed with grand plans imagine.

Will we have Burgum around next year? Probably. He says that his friend and boss, Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer, still has confidence in what he is doing. Asked if he plans to hang around longer, Burgum replied, “I’m still having fun.”

And that too may be more important to an organization than all the think tanks and studies and development projects with hundreds of people working away. Passion still counts because passion is the foundation of leadership.

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