Stick Shift: Leadership

Columns From: 5/1/1999 Automotive Design & Production, , Editor-in-Chief from Gardner Business Media, Inc.

When it comes to authors of business and management books, I suspect that Peter Drucker is more often cited than read; his books generally have a density that is off-putting, even though his ideas tend to be scintillating.

When it comes to authors of business and management books, I suspect that Peter Drucker is more often cited than read; his books generally have a density that is off-putting, even though his ideas tend to be scintillating. But what's a curious manager who is looking for some Druckeresque insight to do? One solution is to pick up a copy of Leader to Leader, which is a compilation of essays and interviews from "Leader to Leader," the journal published by the Drucker Foundation. The book (published by Jossey-Bass; San Francisco; $27.00) is edited by Frances Hesselbein and Paul M. Cohen. One of the advantages of the compilation is that it presumably contains much of the good stuff—the greatest hits, in effect—which might be otherwise tedious to cull from having to page through the entire journal.

This is not The Book of Drucker Lite. Of the 37 pieces in the book, just three are bylined by Peter Drucker. The rest are from an all-star array of people including Warren Bennis, Stephen R. Covey, Ester Dyson, Doris Kearns Goodwin, Gary Hamel, Charles Handy, Herb Kelleher, Peter M. Senge, Noel Tichy, and Margaret Wheatley.

Because there is an assortment of contributors featured in the book, each of whom has his or her own spin on the answer to the question of what needs to be done to achieve organizational effectiveness, you might think that there would be a wide divergence of views. The upshot of that might be conflicts, with one author suggesting that you do A + B and another explaining that anyone who doesn't do A - B is destined for the career dumpster. Interestingly enough, however, there is a thread that runs through the work of many of these observers (perhaps not too curious, given that they were permitted to contribute to the magazine). And straight-forward arithmetical functions give way to something more akin to quantum mechanics.

Fundamentally, the message is this: To be a leader (don't think about your job title), know who you are and what you aim to accomplish. If you don't know who you are, it is unlikely that any of the people with whom you work are likely to want to follow you. If you don't know where you are going, first of all you aren't likely to have followers (at least not for long), and secondly, you won't know whether you've attained success because it won't be on your map.

With regard to the forgetting about one's job title, an important point is found in an essay by Frances Hesselbein, the president and CEO of the Drucker Foundation: "I am often asked by management students and middle managers in the organizations with which I work, `How can we free up the organization and make the changes you talk about if we are not at the top?' I reply, `You can begin where you are, whatever your job. You can bring new insight, new leadership to your team, your group.'"

Too often, I suspect, people think that because they aren't at the top they can't be leaders, that leaders are only found at the peak of org charts or in corner offices. While it is certainly true that people higher up in an organization are likely to have more authority and responsibility, that doesn't necessarily mean that they are going to be effective leaders. They may be managers or bureaucrats. They are not going to inspire people to get things done, and in the present environment, getting things done is critical to the livelihood of all who are involved in the organization's function. John Kotter, Konosuke Matsushita professor of Leadership at the Harvard Business School writes, "Leaders exist at all levels of an organization. At the edge of the enterprises, of course, leaders are accountable for less territory. Their vision may sound more basic; the number of people to motivate may be two. But they perform the same leadership role as their more senior counterparts." James M. Kouze, chair and CEO of TPC/Learning Systems, writes, "leadership isn't a position; it's a process. It's an observable, understandable, learnable set of skills and practices available to everyone, anywhere in the organization."

What I suspect is the most difficult thing to learn is risk taking. Gary Hamel and Jim Scholes, both with the consulting firm Strategos, write, "in the quest to create wealth, we have reached the end of incrementalism. Quality, cost, time-to-market, process improvement—these are important, but we are reaching the point of diminishing returns along many of these improvement trajectories." They argue that "strategy innovation" is the means by which companies can jump the improvement curve, and note, "In an increasingly nonlinear world, only non-linear strategies will create substantial new wealth." Non-linear strategies tend to be things other than straightforward if-then approaches. Peter Senge, author of The Fifth Discipline, writes, "By nature, innovation is a continual learning process. You must experiment, assess, reflect on mission, identify results, experiment some more. Yet from an early age in school, and continuing in work, we have been trained to avoid failure, and thus real learning."

The difference between the leader and everyone else is that the leader is willing to experiment, to risk, to make the discontinuous leap. If Kouze is right, then all of us can learn to be leaders. But to lead we must learn, and we must learn to lead.

If you're not continually learning, then you're destined to follow behind.