by Warren G. Bennis and Robert J. Thomas

Book Excerpt: Geeks & Geezers: How Era, Values, and Defining Moments Shape Leaders

Dec 01, 200210 mins
IT Leadership

We talk about crucibles and the critical role they play in shaping leaders. All our leaders, our youngest and our oldest, the geeks and the geezers, brought to their crucibles?or major challenges?four essential skills or competencies. These are the attributes that allow leaders to grow from their challenges, instead of being destroyed by them. In every case, the quality most responsible for their successful navigation of these formative experiences was their adaptive capacity?an almost magical ability to transcend adversity, with all its attendant stresses, and to emerge stronger than before. Every one of our leaders had three other essential qualities as well: the ability to engage others in shared meaning, a distinctive and compelling voice, and a sense of integrity (including a strong set of values).

The terrorist attacks on the United States in 2001 seemed to call forth just that sort of greatness. Snatched out of harm’s way immediately after the assaults on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, President George W. Bush did not get off to a distinguished start. “Where is the president?” people wondered, and understandably so. But in a matter of days a president with an uncertain mandate and a less-than-memorable oratorical style had found his voice. On Sept. 20, Bush gave a half-hour speech to Congress and the nation that approached greatness.

The fact that we repeatedly see our leadership model at work in the world bolsters our confidence in its validity. The president’s speech showed all four essential competencies of leadership: the adaptive capacity that allowed President Bush to turn even his usual verbal awkwardness into a strength, a newly found and compelling voice that allowed him to engage an entire nation and its allies through shared meaning and common purpose, and moral conviction gave his condemnation of the attacks the force of something more than political expediency.

How Not to Lead

Bad leadership can be every bit as instructive as good. We have talked about the four competencies of leadership. You can sometimes best see those qualities in their absence. Another reason for discussing bad leadership?failed leadership is a kinder term?is that there is so much of it.

Take M. Douglas Ivester of Coca-Cola. Inheriting the chairmanship on the sudden death of its esteemed, longtime CEO, Roberto Goizueta, Ivester lasted just 28 months. His grasp of context was woeful. Unlike his ethnically sensitive predecessor, Ivester failed to empathize with minority employees, so much so that he demoted the highest-ranked African-American even as the company was losing a $200 million class-action suit brought by black employees. This in Atlanta, a city with a powerful African-American majority.

This lack of emotional intelligence was not Ivester’s only flaw. He also failed to grasp the importance of his presiding over the European negotiations for Orangina and responding promptly and personally to the discovery of adulterated Coke in France. Worst of all, he didn’t have the ego strength to acknowledge his interpersonal weakness and name a second in command with a defter touch, as his board repeatedly urged him to do. Without damning his predecessor by name, Douglas Daft, Coca-Cola’s next CEO, noted that Ivester ignored an invaluable source of information within the company?the loyal contrarians who disagreed with him. Ivester discouraged dissent, even though, as Daft correctly observed, “You need a network to prevent the danger that people will stop telling you things.” Daft added, “I don’t just want to hear good news.”

Compaq’s former CEO Eckhard Pfeiffer shared many of Ivester’s faults. He had an A-list of executive yes-men and a B-list of astute observers willing to speak truth to power?and he ignored the latter right out of a job. Pfeiffer refused the good counsel of those on his staff who realized Gateway and Dell were leaving Compaq in the dust by using the Internet to tailor their products to individual consumers and provide them with customer service in a keystroke. Pfeiffer not only failed to notice that other companies were gaining on his, he also failed to seize the opportunities created by the Internet as others had done. He became isolated, unable or unwilling to reach out to all but a handful of colleagues, and cut off from customers and their needs.

Creating Shared Meaning

Understanding context is rarely easy, and sometimes even talented leaders are destined to fail. Procter & Gamble has had a reputation for retaining CEOs more patiently than is the current norm in a world where CEO honeymoons tend to be painfully short. Former CEO Durk Jager was a man of considerable vision who saw the need to modernize the tradition-bound consumer-goods giant. Shortly after he took over in 1999, Jager announced a sweeping restructuring that he called Organization 2005. Jager planned nothing less than a cultural revolution for the huge company. Its four regional business units would be replaced by seven global ones. Much of his plan hinged on getting the entire company, once notorious for its reliance on laboriously vetted one-page memos, wired for instant electronic communication. Fifty-four official change agents, all computer-savvy, were sent out to revolutionize its offices and plants throughout the world.

The result was Jager’s precipitous and very public fall. Jager’s was a classic fumble. He moved before he was able to get the rest of the company behind his innovative plan for change?before, in the language of our model, he had engaged others by creating shared meaning. Whether the plan was a good one or not, Jager never managed to communicate the urgency and superiority of his new vision for the company. His decision to eliminate 15,000 of the corporation’s 110,000 jobs undoubtedly contributed to employee resistance. Employees were further alienated when they discovered that the company had tapped the phones of three staffers suspected of revealing insider information.

Having a vision and being able to sell it is an essential task of leadership. Our geezers have become adept at galvanizing whatever organization they lead. They are able and obsessive communicators. Bob Crandall, former CEO of American Airlines, told us: “You simply cannot lead if you cannot tell the other guy what it is you want and expect.” And, he added: “If you can’t rouse the crowd, you cannot lead effectively.” Business visionary Dee Hock, who founded Visa International, observed: “When you induce behavior, that’s essential to leadership.” Just as writers must find their voice, so too must leaders find an individual and persuasive voice, an authentic version of themselves that engages and recruits others. As longtime Girl Scouts of America CEO Frances Hesselbein observed, “You lead by voice.”

Stripped to its essentials, leadership involves just three things?a leader, followers and a common goal. Despite the relative inexperience of our geeks, many already know that their first and, in many ways, most important task is articulating their vision and making it their followers’ own. cofounder Young Shin says of his colleagues: “A lot of leading these people…is having them buy into the vision.” Dan Cunningham, founder and CEO, or Chief Chokolada, of Dan’s Chocolates, uses the term revolutionizing to describe the process whereby he recruits employees to his vision. Teach for America’s Wendy Kopp believes “the essence of leadership is mobilizing people to achieve great things.”

Effective leaders don’t just impose their vision on others, they recruit others to a shared vision. Especially in our digital age?when power tends to coalesce around ideas, not position?leadership is a partnership, not a sinecure.

Voice and Character

Leadership is always about character, a formidable and protean word with 26 definitions in the American Heritage Dictionary (Fourth Edition). Our favorite comes from William James, who famously wrote, “I have often thought that the best way to define a man’s character would be to seek out the particular mental or moral attitude in which, when it came upon him, he felt himself most deeply and intensely active and alive. At such moments, there is a voice inside which speaks and says, ’This is the real me.’”

We suspect that the religious practices of our leaders are largely irrelevant to those who follow them. The trust that Sidney Harman’s factory workers [at Harman International] put in him was not because of his religious beliefs, but because of his obvious personal integrity, the respect he showed them and his willingness to put his money into projects like piano lessons that enhanced their quality of life. Former Haverford College President Jack Coleman is admired, not because he is a member of the Society of Friends, but because of his willingness to walk in other people’s shoes by working as a trash collector.

A number of our leaders credited family members with their moral educations. Nonviolence activist Lorig Charkoudian told us that her grandparents were survivors of the Armenian genocide. “That shaped my view of the world and decisions about what I needed to do in the world,” she explains. “There was a lot of hatred [in the world] and there was a lot of pain, and all that had to be responded to.” Dan Cunningham’s moral inspiration was the steadfast refusal of his physician father to accept rewards from drug companies for prescribing their products. Cunningham recalls that his father always focused on what was best for his patients. “It was clear that money was not the motivating factor behind his work,” Cunningham says. The lesson conveyed by both his parents: “The idea is basically what you can do for others and the community, and that’s where your first thought should be,” he says.

The Integrity Tripod

The integrity of leaders is composed of three elements: ambition, competence and moral compass. Think of those three as legs of a tripod that have to be kept in balance. By ambition, we mean the desire to achieve something, whether for personal gain or the good of the community or both. Competence includes expertise and mastery of specific skills. Moral compass comprises virtues that acknowledge the individual’s membership in the large human community as well as the capacity to distinguish between good and evil. In decent leaders, instead of merely successful ones, all three elements are in balance, forming a kind of tripod. But when any single element dominates the leader’s behavior and the tripod becomes too wobbly, she is at risk of lacking integrity. Take ambition. Without it, there is no vision or engine for change. Think of Enron’s ethically challenged leadership, accompanied by its Arthur Andersen “auditors.” Let’s not mince words. Ambition, absent a moral compass, is naked destructiveness.

If competence becomes mere virtuosity, it too can become monstrous. Many of the technocrats of e-business are examples of individuals whose leadership is undermined by their overreliance on technology and their failure to develop all the important skills unrelated to their beloved machines. At their worst, they become number-crunching, green-eye-shaded statistical Vulcans.

At the outset, we referred to the Big Four qualities of leadership: adaptive capacity, engaging others through shared meaning, a distinctive voice and integrity. None of those four is especially new or unfamiliar to a reader versed in the literature on leadership. To a greater or lesser extent, they’ve been part of the leadership canon, but always singly. They’ve never been considered as a quartet of interrelated factors based on a theory of human development. This is the most thrilling discovery we made as we studied our geeks and geezers: The factors that allow an individual to lead for a lifetime are indeed identical to the qualities of adult learning discussed in the previous chapter on crucibles. Moreover, they are the same factors that make a person a healthy, fully integrated human being. [Editor’s note: For management guru Jim Collins’s take on leadership, see Page 104.]