Speeches: Leadership


     Today I’d like to talk about a subject that's critical to everything we're trying to accomplish at our company...and critical to your own businesses as well: leadership.

     We're all interested in leadership, and with good reason. Leadership brings people together...makes us more than the sum of the parts...and summons us to our greatest -- and, unfortunately sometimes, to our worst -- moments. Our history as a civilized species is largely the story of leadership.

     So it's no wonder there's so much thinking and talking about it.

     How many books on leadership do you think there are in print? Two hundred-fifty? Maybe as many as 500? Would you believe more than 4,100?

    And let's not forget all the audiocassettes and videotapes...or the booming leadership training industry.

    Is leadership really that complicated? If it were, would you and I be able to learn it, much less practice it? Maybe it's like weight loss: we have thousands of books on the subject, but the bottom line, really, is "eat less, exercise more, and you'll be as thin as your heredity allows you to be."

     Let's assume, for the sake of argument, that leadership, at bottom, really is simple, and that if we understand just a few things about it, we'll be better equipped to make our way through those 4,100 books...and polish our own leadership skills.

     If there were just a few keys to understanding leadership, what would they be? I have some suggestions.

     Number One: That was then; this is now. In other words, the nature of -- and the requirements for -- successful leadership vary greatly according to time, place, and circumstances.

     Yes, you need certain personal leadership qualities, and I'll come to them shortly. But before leadership can happen, things must fall into place for you. Events and circumstances have to cooperate with your personal efforts at self-advancement, so that you reach a position where your leadership skills are productive -- where they operate to give you more and more power and influence.

     Consider Harry Truman and Gerald Ford. Circumstances put these two men into very difficult situations, and they stepped up: Truman ended a war; Ford helped a nation to begin to rebuild faith in its leaders.

     But if things had gone a bit differently, could either of them have reached the Presidency through the normal electoral process? Truman -- maybe; Ford -- very doubtful.

     Similarly, circumstances proved George Bush a great wartime President -- but unfortunately, his war lasted only 100 hours. When it was over, his popularity ratings were in the 90+-percent range, but he had no idea where to go from there.

     And Bill Clinton has the "misfortune" to be President in a time of peace and prosperity. How would he have performed in Operation Desert Storm -- or in a crisis like the one Truman faced? We'll probably never know.

     Those are just a few illustrations of my point about circumstances.

     The same reasoning applies to differences in history and geography. A lot of writing on leadership pretends that these differences don't exist and tries to make comparisons across wide stretches of time and space.

     Does the fact that Alexander the Great allowed captive peoples to keep their religion and culture...say anything about how modern business mergers and acquisitions should be carried out?[1] Should merged and acquired companies be allowed to keep their own identity?

     I don't know. I do know that internal rivalry between different parts of a company that have their own identities...is not a good thing. It dragged General Motors down for years.

     And I do know that at Kraft Foods, we've centralized our sales, manufacturing, and technology operations...and it's been an incredible boon to us. Both morale and profits are higher than they've ever been in the short life of our company.

     And how about books like Leadership Secrets of Attila the Hun? Oh, please -- you mean that the same qualities that made for successful leadership in a barbaric tribal society...are the ones that will work today in America? If so, we haven't come very far.

     And to the extent that Attila did some things right and anticipated modern standards of enlightened, ethical leadership...well, good for him! But why pretend that these near-universal principles were his discovery?

     Of course, there is much to be learned from leaders in other times and places. In many cases, they show the kinds of exemplary personal traits that lead to success in our society as well. But we've got to be very careful not to over-apply the lessons of other eras and cultures.

     Let me move on to my Second Key to Understanding Leadership: Business is not basketball.

     That seems pretty obvious. And yet sports and military leaders are forever being cited as examples for business (though for some reason, it's never the other way around).

     I think we overplay the similarities and underplay the differences. I'm as guilty as the next person, probably because sports and wars are so exciting, with lots of action and clear winners and losers, and we like to think that these qualities carry over to business.

     And some do. In all three areas we do find definable teams, specific competitors, identifiable outcomes, a melding of individual and team performance, and measurable wins and other achievements. In all three, we have leaders and followers, challenge and change, opportunity and risk.

     But let's not lose track of some very significant differences. Sports and military leadership are about highly-focused effort, a lot of it physical, with much of the mental part directed toward optimizing and maximizing the physical effort.

     Business leadership today is mostly about knowledge work. It's about stimulating people to manipulate information creatively to produce desired -- though often very indirect -- outcomes.

     Is it really possible that coaches like Woody Hayes or generals like Douglas MacArthur, great as they were, would have had the same success if they'd been business leaders?

     Let's go back to Harry Truman for a minute. What if he'd stayed right here in Missouri? What if he'd remained a haberdasher and never gotten into politics?

     Would he have built a successful clothing empire? Would the skills that made him a great wartime president...have made him a successful businessman?

     Another key difference: sports and military leadership are directed at people who are mostly just a few years out of their teens. The oldest of them are at the age when business people really start to mature.

     And sports leaders have the added challenge of managing people who have been handed the kind of fame and money that's unheard of in most of the business world...and who perform in a public and media spotlight that most business people never have to deal with. How would your employees like it if they had to work in that kind of environment -- if their salaries and personal performance reviews were posted for all to see?

     And one more difference -- subtle, but it's there: in sports and war, it is over when it's over. There are games, playoffs, seasons, final standings, then a clean slate. In the military, battles are over; wars end.

     That's a luxury we don't have in business. Sure, we measure ourselves quarterly and annually, but those are arbitrary milestones in a contest that, for all practical purposes, is never over.

     So again I ask: how many of the techniques and principles carry over from one venue to the other? Some, but far from all.

     Here's my third Key to Understanding Leadership: Not all personal leadership qualities are the same.

     The most common format for discussions of the personal aspects of leadership...is by far the laundry list.

     The list may have different names -- "15 Success Traits," "Seven Characteristics that Define a Leader," "Qualities of Successful CEOs," and so on, but it's always the same premise: "these are the qualities that we find in successful leaders (at least, the ones we managed to study or interview)."

     A list seems very clear-cut and straightforward: here are the qualities, and the more of them you have, the more leaderly you will be. But there's a problem with the list format: it makes all the items seem equivalent.

     They are not. Even within the same list, there are different kinds of qualities, and you can't acquire them all in the same way.

     Let me demonstrate that point with a list from Warren Bennis -- psychologist, sociologist, USC professor, and author of two dozen books on leadership.

     I like this list, I agree with it, and I've made copies of the article it came from.[2] I want to show you how it actually contains several different kinds of skills.

     First, we have...

  • business literacy: a real feeling for the business; and...
  • conceptual skills: the capacity to think systematically, creatively, and inventively.

These can be learned -- and improved -- over time.

Next we have...

  • taste: the ability to pick the right people -- not clones of yourself, but people who can make up for your deficiencies; and...
  • judgment: the ability to make quick decisions with imperfect data.

These organizational skills are also learnable -- provided that one is willing, which is not always the case. For example, I may be vain and insecure, thus inclined to pick people who are clones of myself. Or I may be timid and perfectionistic, thus very limited in my ability to move on imperfect data.

     Also on Bennis' list is...

  • track record: having done it before and done it well.

This one is clearly a product of experience. You can't learn it, and you won't acquire it unless all the others -- plus favorable circumstances that give you the opportunity to lead -- are already in place.

     Bennis completes his list with..

  • character: the "core competency" of leadership, also known as "integrity" or "moral fabric"; and...
  • people skills: the capacity to motivate, to bring out the best in people.

These are essentially personality traits. I'm not saying they can't be learned. It's just that if you don't have them firmly in place by the time you reach adulthood, it's going to be an uphill battle to acquire them.

     So in just one list, we have intellectual and creative skills, experience, character traits, and organizational skills.

     I'm going to give you another list, which I also like -- because I took part in the creation of it.

     I was interviewed by a friend and colleague who's writing a book based on interviews with successful leaders. He conducted in-depth interviews with a variety of successful leaders from all walks of life, from army generals to business people, to civic leaders.

     Like every leadership list, this one is strong on personal qualities.

  • High self-esteem.
  • Still listening and learning.
  • Enthusiastic -- not "grown-up."
  • A risk-taker; not afraid to fail.
  • A feeling of being lucky.
  • A strong and active faith in some higher power.
  • A sense of greatness -- in other words, leaders see farther than other people; they see the broader implications. They see the trees, the forest -- and what lies beyond the forest.

Finally, there's...

  • Dedication to making the world a better place. Of course. Why else would you want to lead?

     My list also has several items in another category that's not represented at all in Professor Bennis' list; I call it "work ethic/stamina." Here are the items:

  • Strong discipline.
  • Persistence.
  • The will to finish stronger than you start. In my work, that means that regardless of the job I have, I know one thing: I am going to leave that business in better shape than when I started.
  • Decisiveness/results-oriented.
  • Ability to concentrate on one thing at a time.
  • Sense of urgency.
  • A commitment to excellence.

     So those are the categories of leadership skills: business literacy, experience, people skills, organizational skills, character, and work ethic/stamina.

     As you go through other lists, you'll discover other leadership qualities, and perhaps other categories of qualities. You don't have to worry about which list is authoritative: they all are -- as long as they're based on solid research or actual experience.

     And that's really the benefit of lists: they tell you the kinds of knowledge, skill and experience you need. The more of them you read, the more you'll understand the full range of personal leadership qualities.

     So how do we improve our own leadership skills? We assess ourselves against the qualities in each category...and decide which ones we want to address, keeping in mind that different learning strategies may be required.

     Technical competence and work ethic are the easiest to improve. And they're probably the ones that need the least attention from this group. If you had any serious defects in those areas, you wouldn't even be in this room.

     Creativity is also learnable, to a degree. There are lots of ways to loosen up your thinking.

     Organizational and people skills are harder; as I said earlier, a person's character and personality may make it quite difficult to improve.

     Personality traits are the hardest of all to change. You can learn good character in church or from books -- but how does one acquire a sense of greatness or a feeling of being lucky? I really don't know. Maybe you just have to look back on your experience, identify the times when you had these feelings, and try to put yourself in similar situations in the future.

     Let me move on to my last Key to Understanding Leadership: Personal qualities alone are not sufficient. This one should appear as a "consumer warning" on the cover of every leadership book.

     Just as notes on a page are not music, so do lists of qualities fail, in an important way, to capture the essence of leadership. Before music can happen, the notes on the page need at least one musician -- that is, someone who can bring those symbols to audible life. Similarly, there are other elements without which leadership can't happen.

     If you have all the qualities we've been discussing, you'll be in very good shape indeed...because they're the ones that will make you a successful person in a relatively entrepreneurial, free-market society like ours.

     Leaders have all these qualities, plus one more. I call it "vision through people." In other words, there is something you want to accomplish...and it can be accomplished only by marshaling and directing human talent.

     But we're still not there yet. There are other elements of leadership that we have a lot less control over.

     One of them is the presence of an audience that's receptive to your vision. Without that, your leadership potential won't turn into leadership. You won't have what every leader needs -- followers. You'll just be one of those people who are ahead of their time. Not bad -- but not leadership.

     Next, your followers must not only be inclined to help you realize your vision...they must be able to.

     There's an old Prussian military saying that "incompetent armies defy the commander." And truly, they do.

     That's why you need what Professor Bennis called the "taste" to pick people whose strengths complement yours. You need competent colleagues and subordinates who have the same leaderly virtues as you...and who will rally round you and work to make your vision a reality.

     Plus, there must be a critical mass of followers, and they must have the right level of enthusiasm. Too few and lukewarm just won't cut it.

     Of course, leaders also need an organization that gives them the structure through which they can gather followers and become leaders.

     We still need one more factor before leadership can happen. It's the mysterious X-factor: circumstances.

     There has to be a need, a leadership vacuum that seeks to be filled -- an opportunity, at just the right moment, for leaders to employ their skills. You're probably thinking of wars, assassinations, economic crises, dramatic corporate turnarounds and other radical circumstances, but leadership vacuums come in all sizes and in every level of intensity.

     In our company -- and we're far from unique in this respect -- we give Superior Achievement Awards to people who see projects that need doing, pull together teams, and get the job done.

     These projects will never make the evening news, but they save us significant amounts of money, they help us grow faster, and they make us a stronger company. And they are excellent examples of responding to circumstances with leadership.

     So there you have it: personal qualities (including vision through people)...plus followers, plus organization, plus circumstances equals leadership.

     Leadership is like lightning: the same elements must come together at precisely the right time...but they come together in an infinite number of ways, which is why no two lightning bolts -- and no two leadership situations -- are the same.

     That's why I wanted to pass on to you some of the keys that I've found helpful in working my way through the mountain of material on leadership...and polishing my own skills.

     Yes, business people should read about great leaders of history -- but take it all with a grain of salt.

     Yes, we can learn from sports and military leaders -- as long as we stay alert to the important differences between their situations and ours.

     And yes, we can improve our leadership skills, as long as we understand that there are different kinds of skills, whose improvement may require very different kinds of efforts.

     And we should try to improve our leadership skills. All of us. All the time. And I'll tell you why.

     Of the many, many quotes about leadership I've seen, the one I like best...comes from Napoleon: "A leader is a dealer in hope."

     Hope is among the most human of emotions. Of all the intelligent creatures on this planet, only we know that the future can be different from the past. Only we can hope that it will be. Perhaps even the most destructive leaders arouse some kind of hope, however dark and misguided it may be, in the people who follow them.

     But at its best, leadership is like lightning -- an infinitely powerful energy that, properly directed, can create wealth, build nations, and lift humanity to a better life.


[1]Point is from The Classic Touch: Lessons in Leadership from Homer to Hemingway, by John Clemens and Douglas Mayer (1987).

[2]"Where Leaders Come From," Forbes, 9/19/94.