The Nature of Leadership: Reptiles, Mammals, And the Challenge of Becoming a Great Leader
B. Joseph White and Yaron Prywes
Excerpt from The Nature of Leadership
From Chapter 1: Become a Leader, a Better Leader, a Great Leader
I write this book for you, current and future leaders everywhere. My message is that whatever your starting point, you can become a leader, a better leader, and maybe even a great leader.
But there are requirements and conditions. No major achievement comes without effort and at least a little bit of luck. You need to do your part, and that's what this book is about: helping you position and develop yourself to have a shot at being a great leader.
Leadership matters. We need people like you, our best and brightest, to aspire to great leadership. The world's future, as played out every day in tens of thousands of workplaces and millions of individual decisions and personal interactions, depends on who leads. The directions leaders set, the results they achieve, and the values and tone with which they imbue their organizations have a profound effect on the quality of our world and our individual lives.
In leading, as in performing music or acting, there is no substitute for learning by doing. But a mental map of the leadership terrain, and a few pointers from an experienced expert about how to traverse the terrain successfully, can help. This book will be that map for you. I hope it will contribute significantly to your growth, development, effectiveness, and success.
I can be your guide because I've taken the leadership journey. For me, it continues today in my position as president of the University of Illinois. The university has campuses in Chicago, Urbana-Champaign, and Springfield. It has 28,000 faculty and staff, 70,000 students, half a million alumni, and an annual budget of nearly $4 billion. Since becoming university president on January 31, 2005, I've reflected deeply on what I have learned about leadership as I strive to make a great institution even better in the years ahead. This is a challenge because the University of Illinois has a distinguished history academically (our faculty and alumni have been awarded twenty-one Nobel Prizes), culturally, and athletically.
Fortunately, I have a lot of experience on which to draw. Over the last thirty years I have studied and practiced leadership as a professor, dean, corporate executive, and director or trustee of major public and private companies and health care organizations. I have also had the opportunity to be up close with some of world's most famous leaders, including Steve Jobs, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Herb Kelleher of Southwest Airlines, former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, and many more. Now I want to share with you the leadership lessons I have learned.
I write this book not only for current and aspiring leaders. I also write it for those of you responsible for spotting, hiring, developing, evaluating, and occasionally firing leaders. You are the directors, trustees, and senior managers of companies and other organizations. You are human resources executives charged with management development. You are the voters in presidential, gubernatorial, and mayoral elections. You play a crucial role in deciding who in the world gets to be in charge, to whom we entrust our organizations and institutions, and upon whom we bestow the great privileges and serious responsibilities of leadership.
GREAT LEADERSHIP: NECESSARY AND SUFFICIENT CONDITIONS
For years, people have asked me, "What does it take to lead successfully?" My short answer has always been: "Just do three things. First, set high aspirations for your organization. Second, recruit great people. And third, bring tremendous energy and enthusiasm to work every day."
It's a good answer, but it's incomplete. This book is intended to be a much better answer to the question.
Leadership is a high calling and it can be very fulfilling. Leadership, as I have experienced it, is also fast-paced and fun, and I want this book to be the same. That's why I decided to organize it around something that puts a smile on my face: animals.
I'll introduce you to the Reptile side of leadership and to the Mammal side. The Reptile and Mammal metaphors can help us visualize the enormous variety of challenges that leaders face, and how to deal with them effectively.
Leadership involves the head and the heart. It is both analytical and interpersonal. Having the range and repertoire to be cold-blooded, rational, and decisive at times, and at other times warm-blooded, nurturing, and participative, and knowing when to be which, is a huge personal challenge. It's right up there with running marathons or learning to play the violin well. Or more accurately, running marathons and playing the violin well.
To be a good leader, you have to be as tough as nails (this is what I call Reptilian excellence) and warm as toast (what I call Mammalian excellence). Achieving both kinds of excellence is a necessary but not sufficient condition of being a great leader.
So what is the sufficient condition? Let's put the answer right up front. To be a great leader, you have to be successful at achieving change—important, consequential change in the results for which you are responsible. Making change successfully is a leader's greatest challenge.
It is not by accident that America's greatest presidents—Washington, Lincoln, and Roosevelt—all led winning wars that produced great and positive change: the birth of a nation, the elimination of slavery, the defeat of tyranny. To be a great leader your results have to be excellent—you have to win—and your results need to produce consequential change.
Thus, we remember Jack Welch, former chairman of General Electric (and a University of Illinois graduate), as a great value creator. We think of Steve Jobs as a tremendous innovator of products we care about, like Macintosh computers and iPods and Pixar animated films. We admire a person like Wendy Kopp, the founder of Teach for America, because she married up the idealistic ambitions of thousands of young college graduates with the desperate need for better education among America's underprivileged children. We look up to Archbishop Desmond Tutu for his leading role, with Nelson Mandela, in achieving a bloodless end to apartheid in South Africa, a magnificent moral and political achievement.
There are also thousands of great leaders we've never heard of. They are the people—heroes in my book—who turn around an underperforming school or classroom or lead a work group in any organization to new heights of performance and pride.
To illustrate, let me tell you about a great leader you may never have heard of who heads an organization of which you probably have heard. His name is Mannie Jackson, and he heads the Harlem Globetrotters.
THE MANNIE JACKSON STORY
I know Mannie Jackson's story because Mannie is a graduate of the University of Illinois. He is one of the most inspiring people I've ever met. He told me his story recently in a long lunch in Phoenix that I'll never forget.
Mannie grew up in the forties and fifties, an African-American in a small town in southern Illinois. His father was an autoworker. Mannie was a good student and a star high school basketball player. On the strength of these qualifications, he came to the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign in the mid-1950s to go to school and play basketball as one of the university's first African-American players. He did well as a student and as an athlete, serving his senior year as co-captain of the Fighting Illini basketball team.
At our lunch, Mannie told me that the University of Illinois was his gateway to the world and a life of high achievement.
After graduation, Mannie Jackson played basketball for a year and a half for the Harlem Globetrotters and its famous owner, Abe Saperstein. Mannie told me that Abe took him under his wing and since, in Mannie's opinion, Saperstein was the greatest promoter who ever lived, Mannie learned a lot about the Globetrotters' business.
Mannie went on to a great thirty-year career at Honeywell, Inc. in Minneapolis. As a senior executive of a major company, he learned about marketing, operations, finance, and general management. Then, in the early 1990s, at just the age when a lot of his peers were retiring to Florida to play golf, Mannie Jackson did something different. He left Honeywell and bought the Harlem Globetrotters, the team for which he had once played. (Is this an only-in-America story or what?)
Eight years later, Mannie wrote about his experience buying, owning, and turning around the Globetrotters in a Harvard Business Review article entitled "Bringing a Dying Brand Back to Life," which is what the Harlem Globetrotters business was when Mannie acquired it. He took a big risk, envisioned how the team could once again be successful, then went about the hard work of making it so. He put together a strategy and plan, recruited the right people to work with him, then worked hard for a decade to execute the plan and turn the organization around. He succeeded . . . big time.
What Mannie Jackson did is what all great leaders do. They spot a need or opportunity or simply develop a passion. They take a risk. They envision what positive, consequential change will look like and what will be needed to achieve it. They put together a plan. They recruit great people to work with them. Then they work hard, hope and pray for a little wind at their backs, celebrate successes when they happen, and overcome adversity when it occurs—as it always does. They measure their success in the change they make and the results they achieve—strong results over a sustained period.
That's great leadership.
HOW TO USE THIS BOOK TO BECOME A GREAT LEADER
Now you know what it means to be a great leader. But you don't yet know the secret of becoming a great leader. That's the purpose of this book: to position and prepare you to have a shot at becoming a great leader.
How do you go from your starting point—whatever it is—to being a winner in the leadership sweepstakes? And how do you use this book to achieve that goal?
There are three important steps:
Remember there is a difference between leadership and management. Leading is not the same as managing, and being a good manager doesn't necessarily guarantee leadership success. Management is fundamentally about order and control. Leadership is fundamentally about achieving goals and making change.
I once served on a board of directors in which we were discussing a member of senior management who was performing well but left us wanting more. He was competent, well-organized, attentive, hardworking, earnest, and in control. So what's to want, you might ask? Another director put it perfectly: "He's a good manager, but can he become a leader?"
Management requires planning, organizing, directing, and controlling. These functions are vital to an organization's well-being since they provide a script, roles, guidance, and feedback to the organizational actors. But these managerial functions by themselves will not ensure superb organizational performance any more than a script, roles, guidance, and feedback will make the difference between a competent high-school-quality rendition of West Side Story and a great Broadway revival of the show.
Leadership, on the other hand, requires native talent, developed abilities, and the ephemeral but critical qualities of vision, inspiration, imagination, innovation, risk-taking, perspective, passion, excitement, and chemistry. Although both leadership and management abilities can be developed, I believe the odds are much better to develop acceptable managerial abilities in budding leaders (or, alternatively, to surround exciting leaders with able managers) than to try and develop deep leadership capability in competent managers.
Nonetheless, given the intertwined nature of leadership and management, and the fact that both types of abilities can be developed to some degree, it is important to carefully assess whether an individual's shortcomings are more in the managerial or leadership realms and what development efforts are likely to shore them up.
Ask yourself, Can I really develop myself to be a great leader? And will I have the chance to serve as one? Let me give you the answers. Odds are they are "Yes, if you really want to," and "Yes."
Let's take the second question first; it's simpler. The world is chronically short of people with extraordinary leadership ability. I know because I've been on the demand side of the equation so often and for so long. From where I sit, demand for excellent leaders is high. While young people understandably worry "Can I get a job?" more senior people such as executives, board members, and search committee members wonder, "Why aren't there more wonderful candidates from which to choose the next CEO (or department chair or head coach)? Why do we have to compromise more than we want to?"
I'll bet you've had this experience yourself. Have you ever looked at the candidates for the world's most powerful job, president of the United States, and thought, "Can't we do better?"
I've learned over the years that there are a lot of smart people. And there are a lot of well-educated people and people with good-looking resumes. But there is a serious shortage of people who are highly effective at the practice of leadership, people who can achieve positive, consequential change by inspiring us and mobilizing us; high-integrity people who make commitments carefully and keep them faithfully; people who are both tough and smart, yet warm and caring. These are the kinds of people to whom we want to entrust our organizations, ourselves, our children, and our futures. There are not enough of them, and this shortage is your opportunity!
As for whether you can develop yourself to be a great leader, I said the answer is "Yes, if you really want to." Here are a few thoughts for you to consider as you make that decision.
There is a critically important, fork-in-the-road career decision you will face a few times in your life that will rule you in or out of the leadership sweepstakes. The decision is whether to be primarily an individual contributor in your work or primarily a leader of others. To become a great leader, the first requirement is to opt, at some time, for leadership work rather than, or in addition to, individual contributor work.
Some people can't wait for this opportunity; they're dying to be in charge. Others wouldn't dream of it; they love their craft and don't want the distractions and hassles of supervision, management, and leadership. (This is the reason that in colleges and universities, newly appointed deans and department heads receive messages of condolence as well as congratulations from their faculty colleagues who have happily opted for the individual contributor path.) But you can't run the leadership race unless you get on the leadership track. And although it is true that people can exercise leadership in any role or from any perch, my focus in this book is on people in formal positions of leadership: supervisors, managers, and executives.
After you've contemplated the option of being a leader and decided to give it a go, you'll find that there are some things for which you have natural talents. Maybe your strengths are setting goals and direction, or recruiting and motivating people, or analyzing and solving problems, or being tough and decisive in difficult situations. You'll become known for the things you're good at and you'll do them a lot. That's good.
But it's also bad. Because there will inevitably be things that fully developed leaders need to do that don't come naturally to you. If, and only if, you learn what those are and learn, as they say in sports, to "play to your weak side," will you have a shot at being a complete leader. And being complete is a precondition to greatness.
Challenge yourself to climb the Leadership Pyramid. In Chapter 3, I present the Leadership Pyramid as a simple way to organize your journey to become a great leader. At the base of the pyramid are the foundation requirements. You don't qualify to become a great leader unless you really want to be in charge and have the requisite ability, strength, and character.
At the next level of the pyramid, you need to master the Reptilian and Mammalian requirements of leadership. At the top of the pyramid is the challenge of making change: being innovative, taking risks, recruiting great people, maintaining perspective, and developing that personal "something extra" that sets great leaders apart from the rest of us.
Leaders are high-achieving people. They love challenges and have rarely seen a hill of any kind that they don't want to climb. It's not coincidence that most leaders love competition of all kinds (why else do successful business people buy professional sports teams?) and are attracted to various kinds of self-improvement, from pursuing athletic endeavors to collecting art to learning to play the piano.
For such people (and I expect you're one), the Leadership Pyramid is a wonderful developmental challenge. You can climb all the way to the top but you'll never completely master it. There is always more to learn. Just when you think you know everything you can about some element of the pyramid—being on top of the numbers or communicating well or developing a "helicopter view"—you'll get some feedback or have an experience that reminds you that you're not quite as good as you thought. You can never, ever get it all right. And of course, throughout your professional life you will face the challenge of applying your leadership abilities to new and changing situations.
HOW TO USE YOUR LIFE TO BECOME A GREAT LEADER
The Leadership Pyramid identifies a full range of talents and abilities you'll need to develop to have a shot at being a great leader. But it won't be enough just to read about them any more than reading about playing the violin or running a marathon will get you ready for a recital or a race. You are going to have to try things out, listen to and observe others, and practice, practice, practice. This is what professional development is all about: going from conceptual understanding to behavioral mastery. How to do it? There's no simple answer, but here are some good ideas.
First, be open to and seek out dead-honest feedback from those who know you best. A few months after I took my first leadership job as an officer at Cummins Engine Company, a fellow came into my office, closed the door, and said, "I've been watching you in meetings. I think you're really uncomfortable with conflict. You're always trying to smooth things over or patch them up, usually prematurely. Get used to conflict and learn how engage it. If you don't, you might as well hang it up." Good insight! Fine advice! I worked at it, and for years now I've been able to sit without flinching in the heaviest conflict situations. In fact, when I think it's worth doing, I even stir up the conflict myself.
Second, find a great organization in which to work and a great person for whom to work. We learn about leading by observing and practicing. Learning from the best all day, every day, is by far the most powerful teacher. I have admired and tried to incorporate into my own approach many qualities I saw in my former bosses, colleagues, and other associates. I've marveled at Madeleine Albright's pioneering achievements, Steve Jobs's creativity and aesthetic sense, Herb Kelleher's laugh and love of people, and Desmond Tutu's charisma and saintliness. Observing these people and their admirable qualities has been instrumental to my own growth as a leader.
By the way, although it is vital to learn from good bosses in good organizations, odds are that like me, you'll also spend a little time in lousy organizations and have a few insufferable bosses. That's okay; you can learn a lot about who you want to be by being crystal clear about who you don't want to be! I hit a low point with one boss when he told me the only way to motivate people is through fear and intimidation, then proceeded to berate me for having lunch with my wife on a workday! (I found I was only motivated to resign.)
You can also learn a lot from visible leadership failures. For example, has any American president ever squandered more natural talent and opportunity than Bill Clinton, who was undone by his lack of integrity and self-discipline? Did leaders learn from George H. W. Bush's loss to Bill Clinton that they shouldn't make important promises ("no new taxes") then not keep them?
Let's not forget that in the business world, 30 percent to 50 percent of CEOs are prematurely ousted.2 Interestingly, researchers have found that the key difference between successful and derailed executives is their ability to learn from experience, including mistakes and failures.3
Finally, you need to learn as much as possible about what I call the leadership game. You need to encounter a variety of situations: having a big lead, being way behind, encountering various kinds of teammates and opponents, playing in different kinds of weather (Is your workplace stormy or sunny?), figuring out how to have both a good game plan and superb execution. Knowing what situation you are in as a leader, and having well-developed insights and instincts about the right way to deal with it, can contribute enormously to your effectiveness.
J. Irwin Miller, who built Cummins Engine Company from a small company in Columbus, Indiana, into the world's largest independent manufacturer of diesel engines, used to say to those of us in senior management, "If the folks on the shop floor don't understand what you're saying, then you don't know what you're talking about!" Irwin was a master of the short, declarative sentence, plain language, and vivid examples. His clarity in communicating is my standard in writing this book.
Let's get started.
© 2007 B. Joseph White. All rights reserved. Published by AMACOM Books
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