• 02 Jul 2014
  • What Do You Think?

Are Today’s Business Heroes Challenging Our Ideas About Leadership?

 
 
SUMMING UP New leadership styles should not cause us to challenge our belief in traditional leadership values, Jim Heskett's readers write.
 
 
by James Heskett

Summing Up


Is There Really a Formula for Great Leadership?

The overall sense of responses to our question for the month is that the leadership stars of today—Jobs, Bezos, Gates, etc.,—should not cause us to change our time-honored ideas about great leadership. Among the notions advanced were that they: (1) are special, (2) are entrepreneurs first and leaders second, (3) or represent a kind of leadership important for only one phase of the longer-term development of a business. Comments did suggest, however, that some ideas about leadership can benefit from a reexamination.

Tema Frank addressed a couple of these points when she said, "The fact that we can name so few leaders as readily as the ones cited in the article is because they are exceptions. There is no question that brilliant, strongly mission-driven founders can inspire people to follow them, despite personality flaws." Once the excitement fades, a different type of leadership is essential. Bill Eickhoff would compare Jobs, Bezos, etc. to Ford, Edison, etc. "No one ever raves about their so-called 'leadership' style. These men were outliers. Their style is not duplicable."

Kim Forbes set forth an interesting hypothesis in commenting that "We will always be able to identify examples of leaders that 'buck' the now orthodox definition of the balanced, emotionally intelligent, people-focused leader… the likes of Gates and Jobs may have highly effective leaders below them and they are the true heroes of these large successful corporations, in spite of their dysfunctional 'leadership'."

Today's leadership heroes, however, stimulated debate about just what constitutes leadership. It is an important discussion, as several pointed out. Paul Stavrand put it this way: "We need to be concerned about the outcomes of business practices and products on our global society, and evaluate leaders accordingly." Yadeed Lobo commented that "the mark of a great leader is the impression they leave on any employee." G. P. Rao added that the lack of humility and leadership appear to be inconsistent, if not contradictory. "In the ultimate analysis, however everything boils down to perception of the team members or subordinates or followers of the leader concerned."

The importance of maintaining an open mind on the subject of leadership was stressed by several. Ronnie Kavuma commented that, "I think that there is a place for both kinds of leaders and/or their schools of thought in the modern high tech and versatile business environment." David Wittenberg said that an "effective leader must be true to himself. Personalities differ, so leadership styles differ. It is a common fallacy that there is only one style that leads to leadership success." Pradip Shroff added: "The simple fact is that leadership is an art and science of blending various styles based on the situation." Yan Song summed up this point by commenting that, "Stereotyping leadership might be the greater danger here. Evolution neither begins nor ends with current crops of leaders. In all practical situations, one needs a mixture of different leadership styles to induce human energy … " Jerry Houser advised us to consider that "understanding leadership means understanding the emotions of leaders and followers. Brain science is making me question much of the literature I've read on leadership."

These comments call for the question: Is there really a formula for great leadership? What do you think?

Original Article

Just as I began to conclude that I understood leadership pretty well, I've begun to wonder. Let's start with the leadership associated with large organizations with relatively long histories.

In recent years, we have been educated by concepts such as MBWA (management by walking around, introduced by Tom Peters and Robert Waterman), Level 5 Leadership (described by Jim Collins as centered around personal humility and professional will), servant leadership (defined by Robert Greenleaf in terms of service to others as a leader's most important role), and authentic leadership (characterized by Bill George as comprising leaders who understand their purpose, are true to a set of solid values, lead with their heart, establish connected relationships, and demonstrate self-discipline), among others. These philosophies, based on a lot of anecdotal evidence, describe the kind of people we'd want to work for. They are associated with large, well-established organizations that I studied and admired in graduate school, the kind that Collins and Jerry Porras wrote about as being "built to last."

Then I read biographies of today's business heroes. They portray people who are not short on vision. But are these people who meet the standards for great leadership described above? For example, both Steve Jobs and Jeff Bezos are said to have challenged people to do their best work, but in somewhat demeaning ways. They, along with Bill Gates, threw public tantrums. Whether it is a consequence or not, there appears to be a trail of former executives of Apple, Amazon, and Microsoft. (I specifically referred to heroes in my question, because potential heroines like Sheryl Sandberg and Marissa Mayer have just recently risen to high levels in the high-tech world.)

Maybe venture capitalists have the answer. They have followed a long-standing practice of cashing out founders and entrepreneurs at the time of a first or second round of outside funding. The idea is (or was?) that at that stage of development, an organization needs professional leadership of the kind that Peters, Waterman, Collins, Greenleaf, George, and others describe.

Maybe Jobs, Bezos, Gates, and others are the exceptions that didn't get cashed out. They survived the venture capitalist's "purge" by growing their companies in ways that allowed them to retain ownership and control. Or they made their genius indispensable to the success of their companies (in the eyes of funders). When asked the standard "cash out" question by venture capitalists, "Would you rather be rich or be king?," they must have answered, "Both," and made it work.

Should we attribute a few examples of the Jobs-Bezos school of leadership to the diversity within any small group of leaders, or to the world of high-tech startups? Regardless, they cast long shadows in that they appear to be the inspiration for a new generation of entrepreneurs who are founders of companies getting very big very fast with neither formal leadership training nor thought of cashing out.

Are founders and entrepreneurs a separate breed? Should they be excused from a discussion of great leadership? Or are the most successful among their ranks a harbinger of the future of management in a fast-moving, high tech competitive world that increasingly rewards innovation, transient competitive advantage, and the kinds of leadership that produce them? Are today's business heroes challenging our ideas about leadership? What do you think?

For Additional Reading:

Jim Collins, "Level 5 Leadership: The Triumph of Humility and Fierce Resolve," Harvard Business Review, January 2001, pp. 67-76.

James C. Collins and Jerry I. Porras, Built to Last: Successful Habits of Visionary Companies (New York: HarperBusiness, 1994).

Bill George, Authentic Leadership: Rediscovering the Secrets to Creating Lasting Value (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2003).

Robert Greenleaf, Servant Leadership (Mahwah, N. J.: The Paulist Press, 1977)

Walter Isaacson, Steve Jobs (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2011).

Thomas J. Peters and Robert H. Waterman, Jr., In Search of Excellence: Lessons from America's Best-Run Companies (New York: Harper & Row, 1982).

Brad Stone, the everything store: Jeff Bezos and the Age of Amazon (New York; Little, Brown & Company, 2013).

Note: There is no reference to a biography of Bill Gates. While several are available, I don't believe the definitive biography for him as a business leader has yet been written.