Leading Edge: Substance Over Style

These are tough times for leaders. After more than a decade of being treated as demigods, CEOs and other leaders are now routinely vilified. Jack Welch, former CEO of General Electric Co., is an especially dramatic example of the phenomenon. Two years ago, he was widely lauded as a world-class example of how to lead. Aspiring leaders pored over their copies of his bestseller, Jack: Straight from the Gut, as if it were the Rosetta Stone that would unlock the long-lost secrets of the corner office and the executive jet. Now, largely because of fallout over his retirement perks, Welch (whose contributions, I believe, will continue to be valued) is routinely included, fairly or not, in the growing register of leaders who have fallen from grace.

The age of the iconic leader is over, we are told. After a long period of idealizing the heads of organizations, we now seem bent on demonizing them. Few business publications were able to resist running photo spreads of former CEOs being arrested and doing the perp walk—being led off in handcuffs from their expensive homes and offices, still wearing their impeccable custom-made suits. A New York Times/CBS News poll conducted in July, shortly after the Enron scandal broke into the headlines, showed that 71 percent of Americans think business does “only a fair” job of making sure its executives adhere to ethical and legal standards. The blow of corporate malfeasance to the nation’s economy and indeed our public life has been enormous, and it is only right that the guilty should be punished. But there is something else going on in much of the gleeful reporting about how the mighty have fallen—a confusion of style and substance that obscures issues of real importance.

Many people seem to have decided recently that a major reason for our complex economic problems is the charismatic, larger-than-life corporate head. The consequence of this shift is a new enthusiasm for the low-key, aw-shucks-style leader. In the past, being perceived as flamboyant or demanding did not automatically preclude a CEO’s inclusion on anyone’s best-managers list. But now the pendulum has swung the other way, and the only leaders we seem ready to embrace are those who are smaller than life. Prickly but able CEOs like Microsoft Corp.’s Steve Ballmer are suddenly out of fashion. Instead, we long for CEOs and other leaders who are humble, retiring, pleasant, even nice—just as, not so long ago, we extolled leaders who were tough, confident, charismatic, even arrogant.

I have nothing against nice, mind you, and arrogance grates on me as much as on the next person. My concern is that this is a false dichotomy that has nothing to do with genuine leadership. We seem to have forgotten that leadership is not a matter of personal style, the current enthusiasm for warm, fuzzy leaders notwithstanding. Leadership is, and always has been, about certain timeless attributes that matter in every era and context.

It’s worth remembering that our attitudes toward leaders are cyclical, and high-profile, charismatic leaders will again have their day, just as the corporate versions of Mr. Rogers do now. But there is a danger in this polarized view of leadership beyond its being simplistic. First, we tend to forget, whether we are hailing them as saviors or cursing their names, that leaders are only one factor in the success of an organization. S. Lieberson and J.F. O’Connor’s classic study of the impact of CEOs on company performance (as measured by profit margins) found the leader accounted for just 14.5 percent of a company’s success and was about half as important as its industry. More recent studies have quantified the leader’s impact from a low of 5.7 percent to 12.8 percent.

The take-home lesson of these studies is that leadership is only one factor in organizational health, albeit a significant one, especially in times of crisis. Great organizations result from the happy convergence of many elements, one of which is often a great leader. But the quality of an organization’s followers also matters, and bench strength can often compensate for weakness at the top—as it so often does when companies are between CEOs and have acting heads at the helm.

Indeed, whether a leader barks or whispers may not matter, but some other things always do. There are four enduring characteristics of leaders: adaptive capacity, the ability to engage others through shared meaning, voice, and what I only recently began to call driving purpose.

Adaptive capacity is the single most important attribute of successful leaders—successful people, for that matter. Adaptive capacity encompasses such disparate qualities as resilience and the ability to seize opportunities. Learning how to learn is part of adaptive capacity, as is the ability to remain open to experience. The latter is not always easy. When those who lack adaptive capacity hit a rough patch, they tend to shut down and scar over. The fortunate remain hungry for experience no matter how severely they are tested. Adaptive capacity also includes the ability to observe closely and accurately, to be what writer Saul Bellow calls “a first-class noticer.” Some nice guys (and women) are resilient and so are some arrogant individuals. But no one can be a genuine leader without resilience and a sharp eye, or without creativity, which is another attribute of authentic leaders.

The ability to engage others through shared meaning also transcends personality. Genuine leaders are able to empathize with others and to make them feel that they are an essential part of the organization. Like adaptive capacity, this attribute is found in all kinds of individuals—nice ones, prickly ones, warm ones, aloof ones, folksy ones, patrician ones. No single personal style has a lock on the ability to win others to his or her vision of the organization. Indeed, much more important than personality is the character of the leader. People want to follow individuals who are worthy of their loyalty or whom they perceive to represent their interests and share their values.

The third characteristic of timeless leadership is voice—who we really are and how we express it. This attribute includes fidelity to oneself, integrity and self-confidence. It is the attribute that inspires trust in others.

It’s only recently that I recognized purpose as the fourth essential characteristic of leaders. For a long time, I used the term “moral compass” to describe that fourth universal, but that term failed me as I grappled with the great conundrum of 20th-century leadership—the rise of a series of genuinely evil leaders. Unlike moral compass, which always seeks true north, purpose can be fair or foul—whether in business or in political life. For example, Adolf Hitler and Josef Stalin were very like F.D.R. and Winston Churchill in having a consuming purpose, one that they poured all their passion and energies into. The crucial difference was the nature of that purpose. Those leaders who were good as well as successful fought tirelessly to reduce suffering, to create opportunity and equality, to promulgate fairness, to support free inquiry, and to extend basic rights to all. In contrast, the monstrous leaders of recent times, like the human scourges of the past, have fought with all their power, talent and resources to oppress and destroy.

It is dangerous nonsense to classify our leaders as good or bad on the basis of their personal styles. Leadership isn’t a dinner party in which the person who is the best company wins. The attributes—the gifts and skills—that allow a person to lead are timeless and indifferent to whether the individual is Casper Milquetoast or a braggart. And just as personal style doesn’t determine the ability to lead, that ability is no guarantee of virtue. The ultimate test of leadership is having willing and inspired followers.

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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