Leading Edge: No Lone Rangers

Just as the terrorist attacks of 9/11 produced vivid lessons in leadership, so does the war in Iraq. The conflict has put the spotlight on one of the most important competencies of leadership—the ability to build coalitions. Much was made in the days leading up to President Bush’s decision to go into Baghdad of his failure to create a genuine “coalition of the willing,” and rightfully so. Just as business leaders must sell a shared vision to their various stakeholders, world leaders must forge alliances to solve global problems. When leaders fail to form alliances, their legitimacy is questioned. Even when their cause is just, they may be perceived as rogues. And however they are perceived, their work is made harder by the absence of allies willing to share the burden of the enterprise, including its costs.

Because leaders are, by definition, men and women who seem to stand apart, we tend to forget just how important coalition building is in the essential repertoire of leadership. In free societies, all leadership is the consequence of consensus and coalition building; it is never unilateral. Individuals become leaders by, first, articulating a vision and, second, by selling that vision to others. It is always a transaction with others. Individuals may long to lead, but authentic leaders, however powerful they may seem, know they become leaders only when they win the hearts and minds of followers. Look at your own organization and your role in it. As a CIO, you have access to information that is critical to your enterprise. But what power do you have except the collective clout you wield as a result of the careful cultivation and nurturing of alliances?

Coalition building has never been more important. As co-author Patricia Ward Biederman and I write in Organizing Genius: The Secrets of Creative Collaboration, the Lone Ranger is dead. The era is over, if the era ever truly existed, when a larger-than-life hero can ride into town and solve all our problems with his silver bullets. The pace of change is accelerating as never before, and complex, shifting problems require nimble, complex solutions—solutions that can only be reached by gifted people acting in concert. Even when these groups are headed by a single person—a titular leader—he or she has a vital but limited role to play. And that role is to do whatever it takes to keep the group moving toward its goal—running interference, making sure that essential information reaches those who need it, bolstering morale, whatever actions are necessary. Even if the leader ultimately takes credit for solving the problem at hand, the ability to solve it really lies with the group.

One corporate leader who understands the true power of coalitions is Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina. For eight months in 2001 and 2002, Fiorina battled Walter Hewlett—son of company co-founder William Hewlett—who opposed H-P’s $25 billion merger with Compaq Computer. Hewlett had the clout of the company name, control of his family’s financial stake and considerable shareholder sentiment on his side. According to George Anders’ book on the merger fight, Perfect Enough: Carly Fiorina and the Reinvention of Hewlett-Packard, Fiorina systematically brought more and more stakeholders over to her side. Using persuasion and nostalgic photos of the founders, she linked her leadership with their audacity. “This company has always been about being daring,” she said in her speeches, arguing that the merger was in keeping with that time-honored Hewlett-Packard tradition.

As Anders writes, a few days before a crucial meeting of shareholders in March 2002, Fiorina sat down with all of H-P’s directors except Hewlett over a squab dinner. She asked the directors to consider all the ramifications if the merger failed. Then she did something remarkable. Instead of trying to coerce their support, she exercised what former assistant secretary of defense Joseph Nye calls “soft power.” She left the room for more than an hour, allowing the directors to speak candidly among themselves. By the time they asked her to return, the group had allied themselves behind her. They were a true “coalition of the willing” who had decided that she had the best vision for the company and that their fates were correlated with hers. Within a few months, Hewlett was out, Fiorina was firmly ensconced, and the merger was on.

That’s what happens when leaders build alliances. What happens when leaders fail to create them? As I write this, Saddam Hussein has been toppled in one of the swiftest wars in history. But the victory will be an empty one if the United States cannot persuade other nations to join her and her handful of allies in accepting the expense and burden of rebuilding Iraq. After 9/11, virtually every Western nation and even moderates in the Middle East expressed solidarity with the United States. But we went into Iraq with little support from the international community. We may have survived our own failed diplomacy before the war, but we shouldn’t be fooled into thinking we won’t need coalitions in the long, trying period that will inevitably follow.

An irony that has not been lost on American editorial writers is that, unlike the current President Bush, his father was a brilliant coalition builder in the months leading up to Operation Desert Storm. The elder President Bush understood that you can’t craft international coalitions over the phone. They require face time. Travel is an important part of a leader’s strategic tool kit, especially when the aim is to garner support for a controversial policy with global impact. At the direction of George Herbert Walker Bush, his secretary of state, James Baker, became a platinum-level frequent flyer. He made eight trips overseas in the months leading up to the Gulf War, accepting jet lag as the price of making the case for the liberation of Kuwait in 18 capital cities. The first President Bush spent almost as much time in the air, reaching out to the world leaders whose support he needed to legitimize American foreign policy. We don’t know all that was said during these diplomatic missions. But we do know what they accomplished: They persuaded other nations that their goals and those of the United States were yoked.

It seems obvious that the best way to make one’s case to foreign leaders about matters that affect them is to make it on their turf, not yours. But, for the most part, the current Bush administration has not felt the need to do so. The result has been that France, Germany, Russia, Mexico and dozens of other nations have distanced themselves from the United States during the perilous uncertainty of war.

American business leaders need global allies as well. One of M. Douglas Ivester’s failures as CEO of Coca-Cola was his inability to make European allies. He didn’t take the EU seriously enough to consummate Coke’s European negotiations to buy the Orangina brand, and he failed to respond personally when bottles of contaminated Coke were discovered in Belgium. Ivester’s successor, Douglas Daft, speculated that the company had botched its European alliances because it had American blinders on when it needed global vision. As Daft put it: “You’ve got to be able to look at things through their eyes.” Ivester’s failure to create European alliances, combined with blunders at home, including insensitivity to the concerns of minority employees, led to his ouster after only 28 months as CEO.

Authentic leaders know that to build alliances you must make your would-be partners understand that your interests and your fates are intertwined. Former President Bush recently gave sound advice on the importance of working together to achieve common goals. “You’ve got to reach out to the other person,” the senior Bush said in a speech at Tufts University in February. “You’ve got to convince them that long-term friendship should trump short-term adversity.” It’s as true in business as it is in politics.

Warren Bennis is a professor of business at the University of Southern California. His most recent book is Geeks and Geezers: How Era, Values and Defining Moments Shape Leaders (Harvard Business School Press). Please send comments on this column to editors@cioinsight-ziffdavis.com.

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