By Daniel Gross

n a way, leadership is a lot like hitting a 99-mile-per-hour fastball. It’s comparatively easy to describe the mechanics and tactics relating to the act. But when it comes time for wood to hit leather, all the books and practice don’t really matter. Instinct and natural ability matter more than preparation. A few people can just hit a little white ball with red seams, and the vast majority of us can’t. It’s tempting to conclude the same about leading an organization, a company, a country, or a group of baseball players. The best leaders frequently seem to be born and not made, and many of them followed unorthodox, inimitable paths to leadership.

Larry Bossidy is the rare person who can write about and describe corporate leadership nearly as well as he actually does it. In his highly active retirement, Bossidy, who served as CEO of not one but three different Fortune 500 companies, has written two best-selling books on leading businesses – Execution: The Discipline of Getting Things Done (Crown Business, 2002) and Confronting Reality: Doing What Matters to Get Things Right (Crown Business, 2004).
“The best leaders frequently seem to be born and not made, and many of them followed unorthodox, inimitable paths to leadership.”

Last fall, Bossidy visited NYU Stern as part of our long-running CEO Series to discuss the art and science of running large organizations (p. 2). And as he sees it, leadership is about more than a title, and hiring and firing. “When somebody came to me and said others weren't doing the job, I’d ask what have you done to help this person do the job?” he said. “A manager’s responsibility is not just to hire but it's to coach, it's to develop, it's to try to make people better.”

Bossidy’s point is backed up in large measure by the conclusions of a study by Sandra E. Spataro and Cameron Anderson (“R-E-S-P-E-C-T,” p. 14). They conclude that there’s a lot more to leadership than a title, which represents formal status within organizations. Formal status matters. But informal status – how much respect and prestige a person enjoys by virtue of position, personality, demonstrated skills, and his or her ability to connect with others – is a crucial component of leadership.

One person who certainly enjoys both formal and informal status is Robert Rubin, former Treasury Secretary, former co-chairman of Goldman Sachs, and now chairman of the executive committee at Citigroup. And while we expect leaders to project certainty about their decisions and strategies, Rubin, who has worked with some of the most storied leaders of recent decades, from Sandy Weill to President Clinton, takes the view that multi-dimensional leaders must also embrace uncertainty. (“Uncertain Hours,” p. 8) In a conversation with students, Rubin offered some typically Rubin-esque thoughts on the burgeoning fiscal and trade deficits – it’s likely that “at some point, the markets will begin to look forward at the immense projected deficits, and the markets will begin to react by demanding sharply higher interest rates for providing long-term debt,” he said. We just don’t know when.

In a course he taught at Stern last fall, “Leadership in the Communications Industry” Steven Florio, the former chief executive officer of Condé Nast Publications, showed students a scene from the movie “Patton,” in which the actor George C. Scott rattles his saber at the Soviet Union. “That scene from Patton was about identifying who your competitors are,” Florio said in an interview (“Media Messages,” p. 12) in which he distilled the lessons he taught to – and learned from – his class.

Patton represents a distinctive and old-fashioned mode of leadership, which relies on managing by commanding and using a series of carrots and sticks (in Patton’s case, mostly sticks) to motivate team members. But in today’s less hierarchical and more complicated workplaces, such an approach may seem both outmoded and ineffective. In their article, (“Command and Control,” p. 32) Steven L. Blader and Tom R. Tyler argue that there’s a better way: Appeal to employees’ intrinsic desire to follow rules by convincing them of the organization’s legitimacy. “We predict that employees will be intrinsically motivated to follow their organization’s rules if they feel that those rules develop from a system that is consistent with their own set of moral values,” they write.

oday, leading a company – especially a publicly held one – means dealing with the media. Whether it’s appearing on CNBC to discuss earnings or granting interviews to newspaper reporters, executives must be media savvy – especially in times of crisis. In an article excerpted from his book, Guide to Media Relations (Prentice Hall), Irv Schenkler says that while playing defense is important, there is a way to feed the beast without getting bitten (“Hot Off the Press,” p. 38). “Whenever a company can position its response as a meaningful effort to acknowledge and correct the phenomenon that led to the crisis, media coverage will become more favorable and stakeholder impressions will in the long run not impugn the company’s reputation,” he writes.

A great deal of press in the past year focused on the danger of offshore outsourcing – the practice of corporations moving jobs from America to distant locations where wages are generally lower. Alex Tuzhilin argues that for all the hype surrounding the information-technology inspired productivity revolution in the last two decades, we ain’t seen nothing yet (“Automation’s Next Wave,” p. 26). The next wave of automation will affect not only routine production workers, but also the better-paid and heretofore more secure group – engineers, office and knowledge workers, managers, educators, and other groups of “mind workers.” Tasks that are “high on repetitiveness, stability and structuredness – constitute the primary candidates for automation,” he writes.

There’s one group of mind workers whose jobs are quite secure for the moment: the executives at eBay. The giant auction website has been one of the great corporate success stories of the past decade. Millions of buyers and sellers of everything from old baseball cards to used iPods have come to appreciate eBay. And so too have a growing number of economists, who see the site not as a place to trade souvenirs but as a vast datamine. One of eBay’s unique features is the ability of buyers to rate sellers, and thus potential bidders a highly public and transparent assessment. Luís Cabral and Ali Hortasçu have examined these feedback systems to determine how a seller’s reputation affects sales in a theoretically anonymous marketplace (“Live Auction Heroes,” p. 20). And it turns out that in the newfangled marketplace of eBay, the old-fashioned virtue of customer service still matters.

At Sternbusiness, we’ve long been the beneficiaries of some other old-fashioned virtues: innovative scholarship that challenges conventional wisdom, intelligently crafted writing, and attention-grabbing design. Leaders – and those who aspire to lead – will surely find plenty of useful ideas in this issue.

Daniel Gross is editor of Sternbusiness