Lead the Way

The Leadership Connection

Given the excesses wrought by some of these supposed saviors, executives, small-business organizations and management experts are rethinking the nature of superior leadership. This downturn "actually is the best time to rediscover what makes a great leader," says Subir Chowdhury, author of The Power of Six Sigma (Dearborn Trade), a bestselling book on leadership development. "Because the whole exonomy is weak, there is less short-term pressure on companies to perform, so companies can take time to reassess which aspects of leadership are more important to them." Indeed, many of America's most entrepreneurial companies, such as Microsoft, were started during recessions. Leaders had time to identify their core beliefs without having tons of cash thrown at them, a development that can cloud leaders' thinking.

Management experts are now examining leadership qualities other than charisma. "It is time to focus more on what I call, 'connective leaders,' leaders who do not demand that everyone adheres to their vision but can tolerate a diverse range of viewpoints," says Jean Lipman-Blumen, professor of organizational behavior at the Peter F. Drucker Graduate School of Management in Claremont, California.

"We are increasingly being confronted with a globalized environment where you have to work with a wider range of people and opinions," Lipman-Blumen explains. "Leaders who can connect to a broad group of folks will be the most successful."

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According to Collins, such connective leaders are more likely to be self-effacing, empathetic corporate insiders. Many have risen through their organizations over long periods of time, marinating themselves in company culture and developing long-term relationships with employees. Unsurprisingly, says Kay Koplovitz, founder of USA Networks, a small business in New York City that blossomed into a major cable channel, "if you went through America's biggest companies and the most profitable small businesses, you would see most develop their leadership from within."

Though self-effacing chiefs may not seek the limelight, they are hardly shrinking violets. Collins argues that most of these connective leaders possess significant reserves of will, and they use this grit to make tough decisions. He notes several examples of this quiet/tough duality, including Abraham Lincoln, who was a shy but not a weak man--he unleashed the Union Army to hold the country together. Collins also cites Darwin E. Smith, former chief executive of paper products company Kimberly-Clark. Though reserved, Smith made crucial decisions, choosing to close down the company's profitable paper mills and focus more on Kimberly-Clark's consumer business. Though unpopular at first, this choice paid off, as paper milling became less profitable and Kimberly-Clark grew to dominate the consumer sector. And Smith's reserved style allowed him to shine the spotlight away from himself and on his employees during these changes, earning their enduring respect.

Often, these leaders forged their grit and decision-making capability during what management guru Warren Bennis calls "crucible experiences," pivotal events that crystallize leaders' thinking and unleashing their abilities, making them realize they can rally people behine them. "Everyone has a crucible experience sometime in life, but only great leaders learn from them, rather than just having the experience and moving on," say Chowdhury. Often, these crucible experiences involve loss or suffering, the kind of event that helps leaders relate to employees. Collins notes that Ulysses S. Grant's own battles with alcoholism helped him understand some of his soldiers' personal failings, making him a fairer and more understanding leader. What's more, Grant's own problems and his willingness to acknowledge his weaknesses made him human to his soldiers.

Business schools are beginning to consider crucible experiences so important in shaping effective leaders that they are helping students face crucibles even before they graduate. Michael Useem, director of the Wharton Center for Leadership and Change, has begun taking MBA students on Himalayan treks, where the future entrepreneurs have the opportunity to push themselves to their physical and mental limits, making their senses more receptive to mini-crucible experiences. "Trekking near Everest and having to make decisions that could be life-or-death really drives home leadership concepts that can be hard to appreciate in class," says Useem.

These quieter, more connective leaders also may be more tolerant of failure, another factor crucial to successful leadership that's only now beginning to be discussed. "A great leader encourages his or her employees to innovate and to fail repeatedly so they will ultimately discover great things," says James Belasco, executive director of the Financial Times Knowledge Dialogue, an international panel of leadership experts. "He or she does that by readily admitting their own failures and talking about them openly."

Lipman-Blumen agrees: "In America, we love leaders who say 'I take responsibility for a failure; now let's move on.' but it's worthless to just move on." Instead, Lipman-Blumen says, successful leaders "talk about the failure and allow everyone to see they've made a mistake, and [they] learn from it."

Some of America's most successful executives have followed her advice. L.D. DeSimone, former CEO of 3M, the diversified technology company, frequently told employees that he had at first nixed the development of Thinsulate, which turned out to be one of 3M's bestselling products, an admission that made his staff more willing to try and fail. "The best leaders learn how to get to the top without going over the cliff," says Useem. "They learn how to fail without imploding, and when inaction, which is not valued highly enough in business culture, might be better than quick action."

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This article was originally published in the March 2003 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: Lead the Way.

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