so many years ago, banks were peeking out from under regulations
that had blanketed them since the Great Depression. Before the nineties,
banks had prospered if they executed well. Afterward, they excelled
only at the expense of their competitors. The competitors were ferocious—no
longer simply other banks, they included aggressive insurance companies,
stockbrokers, financial planners, credit card firms, finance companies,
leasing companies, credit unions and more.
years ago, I was managing marketing and special projects for a company
that enjoyed wide success training bankers. Our programs had taught
more than a million bankers to make sound loan decisions, serve
customers well, and sell services.
1995, however, bank
customers were taking their business to innovators, not rule-followers.
Our standard sales training wasn’t doing the trick for bankers.
How could we help them become more innovative and customer-focused?
How about leadership? Bingo! A course in frontline leadership would
set us apart and help our customers think out of the box. That’s
how I came to invest two months studying leadership.
daredevil that I am, I set out to identify what top-performing leaders
do. From March through May of 1996, I discussed leadership with
dozens of people and read Drucker,
Bennis, Kouzes & Posner, Schein, Schon, Argyris, Depree, Katzenbach,
Blanchard, Gellerman, Handy, Hamel & Prahalad, Senge, and even
Tom Peters. I concluded that exemplary leaders inspire followers,
leverage the power of people, continuously improve performance,
and feel personally empowered.
leaders thrived on change. They opened people’s eyes to marketplace
realities and converted higher-level objectives into a vision everyone
could understand. They used “localized reengineering” to reinvent
the workplace. They intuitively applied the 80/20 rule and eliminated
the inconsequential. They transformed the way business was done.
struck me that leaders needed not only to work on skills but also
to work on themselves. Leading a team into uncharted territory required
confidence and self-knowledge. Successful leaders knew who they
were, were mindfully aware of what was going on around them, and
exuded confidence that they could get the job done. My marketing
antennae told me this personal empowerment angle would also make
for a popular course.
the time I was doing my research, Harvard Business School’s John
Kotter was championing the concept that leaders and managers
are entirely different breeds. The manager keeps things on track;
the leader breaks through obsolete boundaries. Managers control;
I saw it, the manager’s job
was to keep things within reason. Managers were border guards,
reining in behavior that overshot or undershot accepted standards.
leader’s role was to draw new boundaries—change the
organization, and then to inspire people to get out of their
comfort zone and into the new groove.
leadership is popular in business.
teach you leadership’s 108 skills, 101 Innovative Ways, 30 Marine
Management Principles, 22 Vital Traits, 21 Indispensable Qualities,
21 Irrefutable Laws, 21 Most Powerful Minutes, 18 Workshops, 17
Indisputable Laws, 17 Principles, 15 Secrets, 11 Lessons, 12 Principles,
10 Traits, Ten Keys, Nine Keys, 7 Acts of Courage, Seven Habits,
Six Fail-safe Strategies, Six Strategic Principles, Five Temptations,
Five Giant Steps, Five Decision Styles, Five Practices, Four Disciplines,
Four Practical Revolutions, Three Keys, One Minute, and the Other
You can learn from
such luminaries as Jack
Lincoln, Ernest Shakleton, Sun-Tzu,
Dean Smith, Attila
the Hun, John F. Kennedy, Carl von Clausewitz, George Patton,
Jesus, Theodore Roosevelt, Vince Lombardi, Robert E. Lee, Admiral
Lord Nelson, Ben & Jerry, Shakespeare, Bill Russell, God, Hannibal,
Niccolo Machiavelli, Gandhi, Ronald
Reagan, Elizabeth I, the Founding Fathers, and Heraclitus. (Sun
Tzu leads the pack but perhaps that’s because his work went out
of copyright several thousand years ago.)
Why the current interest in leadership?
For one thing, the boundaries are no longer clear. They shift all
the time. Nothing, but nothing, is rock solid any more.
Consider, six years ago:
Internet was not even a blip on the Fortune 500’s radar. The
Web was for geeks; there were 23,500 sites (today it’s 32,000,000).
Netscape was poised to go public. The Dow was under 5,000. These
things did not exist: Microsoft Internet Explorer, eBay, ADSL,
DVD, 56K modems, ICQ, Google, or eBusiness.
companies were still command-and-control hierarchies. Competitors
were the enemy. Outsourcing was uncommon. Telecommuting was virtually
still made five-year
speed of light was thought to be a constant.
Wide, ever-shifting boundaries
change all the rules. We once rewarded compliance; today we reward
innovation. We once praised obedience; today we praise ad hoc solutions.
Yesterday’s subversive employee is today’s innovator. Leadership—creating
value by hopping outside boundaries—used to be the province of a
well-paid, well-educated few somewhere near the top of the pyramid.
Turbulent times have converted
leadership into a responsibility shared by all members of the organization.
These leaders realize the importance
of the web where everything is connected. Savvy companies share
information far and wide. As Jan Carlzon
says, “Information tells you about your possibilities. A person
who has source information cannot escape taking responsibility.”
In his book, Moments
of Truth, Carlzon explains:
[once] controlled people at work by giving orders and instructions,
telling them down to every detail what they should do out there—although
we never had any real feeling for or information about what the
customer really wanted. The worst of it was that the instructions
really amounted to telling people what they were not allowed to
do; it was just a way of limiting their responsibility.
what you need to do today is open things up so people can take responsibility.
You have to give them the authority they need to make decisions
on the spot. You do that by telling people where you want to get
to as a company, and the strategy you want to use to get there.
Then you give the people the freedom within the limits of your business
strategy to act on behalf of the company.”
have made information both inside and outside the organization abundant,
and this shifts the burden of leadership to everyone’s shoulders.
The world has speeded up. Everything’s
faster. Andy Grove says the Internet is the reason. The flowering
of the knowledge economy is certainly a co-conspirator.
capital has become more valuable than physical assets. Wall
Street funds expectations, not cash earnings. Companies build relationships
with customers instead of selling them things. A firm’s process
know-how is its core strength. The information imbedded in a product
is more valuable than the physical product itself. Intangibles rule.
They are mind-matter. They can combine, reconfigure, deconstruct,
and morph into new forms. A single good idea can eradicate old value
and create new wealth. Intangibles are bits, not atoms. Bits travel
at network speeds. The net girdles the earth. As a result, the entire
world is rocking to a higher beta—more variations, faster cycles,
shakes everyone’s foundation. Stress is rampant. Everyone needs
a Plan C and a Plan D to supplement Plan A and Plan B. A friend
mentioned that since he had small children, he was looking for a
steady job with a big company. These days he might find more security
used to be easy to tell the good guys from the bad. For example,
when I was working for UNIVAC, the
competition was IBM, Burroughs, NCR, Control Data, and Honeywell.
Rarely did I encounter an outlier like Nixdorf or Fujitsu.
you’re in the computer business today, who’s your competition? It
could be a services firm, an ASP, a telephone company, an online
auctioneer, or an upstart you’ve never heard of. Competition could
come from Europe, Asia, or anywhere else on the planet.
worst competitor over the long haul is not even in your business
yet. That’s the nature of disruptive
technologies. Ceaseless innovation plants more seeds of disruption
than ever before, one of which will undercut your core business.
A tricky thing about disruptive technology is that it loads the
dice against established players. Disruption spreads from where
you least expect it. Leaders must challenge conventional wisdom
at every step.
used to be companies you tried to beat. Now you make them your partner;
you seek opportunities together; you share the load because there
are too many options to consider.
years ago, tapping the keys of a computer was secretarial work.
Today computer literacy is a prerequisite to leadership. Not only
must the leader do email and surf the web for news, she must also
the potential of it to shift the playing field. Every business that
is not an e-business is threatened by e-business.
today is unpredictable. The leader confronts an avalanche of information.
It’s difficult to filter the signal from the noise. This favors
the generalist leader who can mentally hop from one field to another-the
specialist is too likely to be blind-sided.
Drucker tells us that the defining characteristic of leaders
is followers. Followers, however, have changed, big time.
democracy swept the political world, it simultaneously dismantled
the autocratic corporation. Today’s workers are out for themselves.
Not selfishly but realistically. Free agents. They recognize that
their careers will last many times longer than their employer. Fast
Company exhorts them to look out for “Brand You.” Tom Peters rants that the
ideal structure is the “unit of one.” The
Cluetrain has stopped to pick up people unabashedly loyal to
themselves before all others. Our market-driven world drives people
to increase their personal marketability.
some decry high turnover, other companies turn the mindset of the
new recruit to their advantage. After all, the companies want innovators,
not followers. They prefer self-starters who will do what’s right
rather than those who wait for instructions. They need people more
concerned with getting the job done than punching the clock.
used to bribe workers who had critically needed talents to stay
on board. High-tech companies have learned that money doesn't necessarily
talk to a young person who drives a Porsche, watches a giant-screen
TV, and owns a nice home. What keeps people on board is the opportunity
to develop, to build valued skills, to achieve certifications, and
to add to their store of intellectual capital.
wise approach is to make
the interests of the worker and the needs of the organization congruent.
Both seek to make the worker a more valuable asset. The leader’s
role is to make this clear and to empower followers to act in their
own enlightened self-interest.
What’s a leader to do? The job seems to be to keep people on the
right path, but keep them from being stuck in ruts.
Seely Brown tells us that, “An organization is a knowledge ecology;
it is fundamentally dynamic and gains robustness through diversity.
But ecologies cannot be designed; they can only be nurtured. The
key to nurturing these ecologies is finding the balance between
spontaneity and structure. People need both the latitude to improvise
and the business processes to apply their knowledge. Thus, creative
leaders must learn to be bold yet profoundly grounded. It's easy
to be conservative and grounded, or to be radical and impulsive.
It's hard to be both grounded and radical (and the literal meaning
of the word—going to the root—suggests exactly the right approach).”
be effective, leaders must shift their focus from static to dynamic,
from physical to virtual, from financial results to financial expectations,
from machines to people, from goods to services, from analytical
to intuitive, and from institutions to individuals.
can we get them there? While I’m generally an advocate of eLearning,
I don’t think it’s the right way to nurture leadership skills. In
my own case, a one-week intensive workshop
at the Center for Creative Leadership taught me more about leadership
than reading thousands of pages of Drucker, Bennis, and Kouzes.
become a great leader, most of us will need to observe a great leader
in action. A personal mentor is invaluable.
ultimate way to transform ordinary folks into leaders is to convince
them to define themselves as leaders. Leaders learn by doing.
Cross is a leader of the highest order: he leads himself around
in circles and pulls people into his learning vortex with grace
and fun. That’s why we love him. You will too. Check out www.jaycross.com.
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