n a way,
leadership is a lot like hitting a 99-mile-per-hour fastball.
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
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.
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