How Leaders Build Winning Streaks

Confidence is infectious, says HBS professor Rosabeth Moss Kanter, author of Confidence: How Winning Streaks and Losing Streaks Begin and End. In this excerpt, she explains how leaders must bring out the best in others.
by Rosabeth Moss Kanter

Self-confidence is not the real secret of leadership. The more essential ingredient is confidence in other people. Leadership involves motivating others to their finest efforts and channeling those efforts in a coherent direction. Leaders must believe that they can count on other people to come through—like Elsie Bailey's faith as a high school principal that inner-city children can learn, and that her teachers can teach them. If the people in charge rely only on themselves as heroes who can rescue any situation, while focusing on other people's inadequacies, they undermine confidence and reinforce losing streaks. In contrast, when leaders believe in other people, confidence grows, and winning becomes more attainable.

Leaders of organizations in success cycles are a little like rabbits, constantly reproducing. In losing streaks, the rabbits seem barren; there is a leadership deficit. In winning streaks, the number of leaders multiplies along with the momentum of the streak. Winning teams and successful organizations become increasingly less dependent on the person called the commander-in-chief—even though, ironically, the same top managers are more likely to stay in place during winning streaks. As a pattern of success continues, many people at many levels take on leadership roles. Some of them are appointed to positions with leadership titles, some of them are self-appointed; and roles are passed around as the nature of the play changes. Larry Kellner and Debbie McCoy had official responsibility for Continental Airlines' decision to keep flying during the power blackout in August 2003, but that decision was foreordained by the actions of all the other people who claimed leadership on the ground, and knew they did not need to ask permission.

"Leadership is plural," Mike Krzyzewski, Duke's men's basketball coach, liked to repeat. Winning streaks are associated with not just one but many leaders—a nested series of leaders, like the Russian dolls in which each doll opens to reveal another identical but smaller doll inside. Who was the leader of the turnaround of the Anaheim Mighty Ducks in the 2002-2003 season? Was it Paul Pressler as head of Disney Sports, because he got investment funds from Disney CEO Michael Eisner and then hired Bryan Murray? Was it Bryan Murray as the general manager, who spent the money on new facilities and players? Was it Mike Babcock, as head coach? Or was it sub-coaches and player-leaders who made the judgment calls at critical moments? The answer, of course, is all of the above.

Even at the top, leaders often come in pairs, trios, and quartets, operating as a unit in spirit even if one of them has final authority in law. Consider the numerous leaders we have met. Former South African president Nelson Mandela referred constantly to his partners in leadership through the years, Walter Sisulu and Oliver Tambo. Steve Luczo and Bill Watkins guided Seagate's turnaround together. Drs. Mark Smith and Craig Feied came to Washington Hospital Center as a pair. Jeffrey Lurie enticed Joe Banner to join him at the Philadelphia Eagles. Dusty Baker brought a cadre of coaches with him from the San Francisco Giants to the Chicago Cubs.

One person may have the top title and the official authority, but their effectiveness is often a function of the quality of all the other people who stand beside them to exercise leadership. At Continental Airlines, Gordon Bethune gave the speeches and appeared in the Rodney Dangerfield "respect" videos, but he had a strong set of leaders with him: Greg Brenneman, Larry Kellner (soon to succeed Bethune as CEO), Deborah McCoy, and others. Akin Ongor had Saide Kuzeyli, executive vice-president of human resources, as his sidekick-in-chief; she shared the duties of coaching the people of Garanti Bank to victory, along with seven other key officers. At the BBC, Greg Dyke encouraged his whole executive team to become leaders, and it was that large cadre that vowed to continue Dyke's programs after he left.

The reproduction process involves finding and empowering natural leaders, regardless of their titles or levels. Elsie Bailey, the principal of Booker T. Washington High School, formed teacher teams to take on leadership responsibilities for the school, something that was relatively new in public education. The 40 or so BBC leaders to whom I spoke under Dyke's predecessor multiplied into the 400 designated leaders to whom I spoke a few years later. Gerhard Schulmeyer sought the natural leaders to be Siemens-Nixdorf's change agents, and gave them responsibilities that cut across existing hierarchical titles. At Invensys, Rick Haythornthwaite put 90 people on strategy teams to find a new direction for the troubled company, and he anointed 400 ambassadors for change, which included the 300 top executives plus another 100 natural leaders from the ranks without fancy titles. The 1,350 South Koreans I met at the Shinhan Financial Group Summit outside of Seoul in the fall of 2003 were all designated leaders for the merger of the two banks that formed the new group.

And in the largest show of confidence in other people demonstrated by anyone mentioned in this book, Nelson Mandela opened discussion on a new constitution for South Africa to thousands of people in town meetings all over his country. He led the first truly democratic elections, which gave every adult a voice, regardless of race. Democracy is the ultimate act of confidence because it implies a willingness to share power with other people who might have different views or speak in a different voice.

Leaders often come in pairs, trios, and quartets, operating as a unit in spirit even if one of them has final authority in law.

The more leaders reproduce themselves, the more likely it is that they do emerge, paradoxically, with heroic accomplishments. Mandela claimed he was just an ordinary man who had to rise to extraordinary circumstances, and his speeches are filled with praise for others. Gordon Bethune said that he was getting an award because of everyone else's hard work. Ivan Seidenberg could share the CEO role twice in the mergers that produced Verizon because he put the needs of the institution first, over his own ego. The reward for sharing was an even bigger winning company.

Sports certainly produces a very high number of prima donnas and big egos, yet I was struck by how many of the winning teams were led by unpretentious people who boosted others. Larry Coker, who had one of the best records ever for a rookie coach in his first three years as head coach of the Miami Hurricanes, was well known for crediting the players and assistant coaches for victories, for not promoting himself, and for staying "smaller than his program," it was said. The players' confidence in Coker—that he gave them the support they needed to do their jobs—was a big part of the reason he was given the top coaching job.

Losing streaks are associated with autocrats who cling to control even as events spin out of control—one consequence of my principle that "powerlessness corrupts." But in winning streaks, leadership can come from anywhere, and it might not correspond to the official hierarchy of titles, whether chief executive, head coach, manager, or lord-high-anything-else. Dusty Baker was firm on this point: "Your coaches may not be the leaders. They're in charge of their department; that doesn't necessarily make them into leaders. Just because that person's in charge, who says anybody else is going to follow?"

I was struck by how many of the winning [sports] teams were led by unpretentious people who boosted others.

Baker, like Anson Dorrance at North Carolina, Geno Auriemma at Connecticut, Andy Reid at the Philadelphia Eagles, and Billy Beane at the Oakland Athletics, looked for the natural leaders on the field. Beane said that this was necessary because "I don't think the general manager or manager can designate leaders. The clubhouse is Lord of the Flies," referring to the novel about a group of children stranded in the jungle. "Social structures evolve, and the ability to manipulate those from the top is probably limited." For baseball, Baker looked for leaders in the bullpen and on the bench, someone from the infield and someone from the outfield, and counted on them to rally their teammates, making his job easier, he said. Dorrance led seminars on leadership for his women soccer players, ran leadership self-assessments and team ratings, and then let teams choose their own captains.

Leaders find the best people they can, ensure their preparation, put them in the right positions, and give them a game plan. After that, winning is up to the players on the field. It is their leadership that matters. The actions of many leaders seizing the moment create the margin of victory.

When people have confidence in one another, they are willing to lead and be led by the team. They do not have to second-guess, double back, or duplicate other people's work. They catch problems more quickly or take bolder steps because they do not worry about embarrassment or punishment. Energy is freed and focus is possible when people have confidence in one another. When they can count on other people's support, they don't have to fear their attacks or monitor their every move. When people give one another the benefit of the doubt and, better yet, believe in one another, more projects are launched, more innovations get seeded, and more work gets done. That's how Seagate could quadruple productivity, how Continental could click-click-click through operations meetings as quickly as a Connecticut vs. Duke women's basketball game and make money on the Northeast blackout, and how the Miami Hurricanes could recover from fumbles to win that pivotal Florida State game, the one in which the players told the coaches not to worry, the team would take care of it.

Although the charisma of leadership1 tends to be associated with larger-than-life individuals who weave inspirational spells, charisma can become a property of a whole group of people who believe in one another and the power of their teamwork. That's what the BBC executive committee discovered in themselves when their charismatic chief departed. And that's the real magic—to make leadership appear from many unexpected places, just when it is needed.

Leaders Supporting Leadership: The Cornerstones Of Confidence

Leaders can multiply on the field when leaders at the top establish the support structure to make further leadership possible. Leaders construct and reinforce the cornerstones of confidence, as shown so vividly in the turnarounds I have described. The mission statement for leaders has three imperatives, one for each stone: to ensure accountability, cultivate collaboration, and encourage initiative.

Individual and system accountability. Jim Kilts said it best: "A promise made is a promise kept." As we have seen, confidence is enhanced when people are held accountable and accept responsibility for performing to high standards. Confidence requires an honest and thorough assessment of the situation and the courage to accept responsibility for dealing with it, even if that means owning up to past mistakes. Confidence and the high self-esteem associated with it rest on real accomplishments, not self-delusion. Leaders remind people of the yin and yang of obligations and opportunities associated with being a member of their team. Leaders keep the mirror of accountability polished and clear.

The job of leaders in every sector and system level involves:

Fostering straight talk. Open discussion, without obfuscation or cover-ups, enables facts to be squarely faced and promises to be based on reality. "Humiliation-free zones" support objective discussion of strengths and weaknesses without fear of embarrassment. Winning teams are data rich, as we have seen at Gillette and Verizon, in Continental Airlines' daily operations meetings and multiple voicemail updates, or the North Carolina women's soccer team. With many facts on the table and many communication channels open, denial is difficult if not impossible.

Communicating expectations clearly. Constantly repeating the standards to everyone and clearly articulating goals and priorities directs attention both to grand visions and to the details of execution, which ground visions in daily tasks. While holding other people accountable for living up to expectations, leaders also hold themselves accountable for whether people are in a position to meet expectations. That is, leaders should set people up to succeed. "If a guy's a fastball hitter, I'm not going to put him up there against a guy throwing curveballs, because I'd be setting him up to fail," the Chicago Cub's Dusty Baker said. "When bosses want to get rid of someone, they give them assignments that they know they can't handle, and then, like, `Hey man, you didn't do the job.' Well, you can set a guy up to succeed just as well." Art Kehoe of the Miami Hurricanes put it this way: "If we recruited you, and you're going to class, lifting weights, are on time, giving your best, and you're still not good enough to play, then it's our fault, and we'll live with you because you're part of our team. If you're not doing what we ask of you, then we'll figure out a way to rid ourselves of you."

Making information transparent and accessible. Widespread access to abundant performance data helps ensure that people get the information they need to guide their own performance and hold others—and the system—to high standards. Leaders use diverse tools to produce accountability, chosen to fit the particular game: small caucuses or mass meetings; quasi-confessionals or virtual mirrors; videotapes of games or voicemails of daily operational performance; data warehouses or computer tracking of game statistics; quarterly priorities or quarterly report cards; daily exercise logs or yearly performance appraisals. Regardless of the assortment of tools used in specific situations, the same strong principle is at work: People cannot hide information or duck responsibility.

The chance to be part of a winning team is a powerful motivator, and only those who meet all the standards—for character and commitment as well as skills and abilities—should be allowed to play. Sanctions add teeth to accountability. But the work should be a motivating opportunity for success rather than a weapon for punishment. Leaders of successful teams and organizations have high standards and punish infractions, but they rarely use the work itself as a punishment. Bob Ladouceur, head coach of De La Salle, never forced an athlete who broke a rule to spend more time on the practice field or in the weight room; instead, a violator was sidelined. Similarly, people at Continental or Garanti Bank who did not live up to corporate standards after being given a second chance were not given more work, they were removed. At the BBC, Greg Dyke even removed himself, saying, "If you screw up, you've got to go."

About the Author

Rosabeth Moss Kanter is a professor at Harvard Business School.