Integrated Leadership Perspective - Part III
General George S. Patton dressed in all the regalia of a four-star general, complete with a chest full of metals and a Colt-45 sidearm with a monogrammed pearl handle. Mahatma Gandhi wore a simple cotton garment he spun himself and walked hundreds of miles to gather salt. Martin Luther King Jr. stood before hundreds of thousands of people and proclaimed a vision of justice that continues to resonate four decades later. And Steve Jobs debuted a computer named after a piece of fruit and challenged the forces of corporate darkness.
What do these four great leaders have in common? What separates those who become great leaders from those who are merely good? And is there a lesson to be learned for management professionals by studying those who rose to the most dizzying heights?
SOM Dean Joel Podolny and Jeff Sonnenfeld, senior associate dean of executive programs and Lester Crown Professor in the Practice of Management, explored the methods and tactics of some of the 20th century’s most influential leaders as part of week five of the Integrated Leadership Perspectives course. The ILP course is the culmination of the first year of the new SOM curriculum, intended to bring together and build on all that students have learned.
A major reason for studying these figures was to better understand the kind of leadership necessary to operate large organizations, where executives never meet most of those affected by their decisions. Students prepared for the day by reading scholarly writings, including those by the two professors, on the meaning of leadership and its impact on business and world history. They were asked to be prepared to address key topics on the subject, such as the true impact of charisma, where style informs the substance of a leader’s decisions, whether technology and flattened command structures have downgraded the role for individual leadership, and what traits each student needs to develop in order to be a great leader after leaving SOM.
Using documentary clips and scenes from biographical movies, Podolny and Sonnenfeld analyzed each leader to find the point of “heroic collaboration” where personal ambition and the needs of society meet. They asked the class to not just hear the words but notice the symbolism so key to each leader’s appeal.
Patton, as played by George C. Scott, stood in front of an enormous American flag, held a riding crop in his hand, wore a helmet with the four stars of his rank, appearing very much as the pinnacle of the U.S. Army. “What he is saying is, I am part of this institution, that there is something larger than the self,” Sonnenfeld said. “He doesn’t want the troops to focus on their individuality. All the combat medals on his chest give him credibility in this moment before leading his troops into battle. It provides confidence because he’s been there and triumphed over it.”
Gandhi didn’t wear an impressive uniform or command an army. Still, he toppled an empire. Like Patton, he became the embodiment of a vision, used symbols to rally people around him, and understood how to craft an image for the most powerful, emotional impact. He acquired a level of moral authority that proved stronger than the might of his oppressors.
A business leader must face shareholders rather than opposing armies or governments. But when Jobs spoke at the 1984 Apple annual meeting, he employed many of the same techniques as Patton and Gandhi. He positioned the Macintosh, which he dubbed “insanely great,” as a warrior in the battle against IBM, which he characterized as an all-consuming monopolist. “IBM wants it all,” he warned, before revealing the Macintosh to sustained cheers from the shareholders.
“This is just a box with some circuitry in it,” Podolny told the class. “But he turned it into a battle between good and evil. He takes what would be a very rational decision — Is this a good product? — and turned it into emotion.”
Jobs created a sense of mission in his consumers that continues to this day. On a grander scale, the same can be seen in the “I have a dream” speech. King uses symbols, soaring rhetoric, and a piercing vision to motivate hundreds of thousands of people to fight for civil rights. Few business leaders will ever be called upon to deliver such a powerful message. But Podolny asked the class to pay special attention to how the speech shifts toward the end, at the moment King begins speaking of his dream. He no longer looks at the text, because he’s speaking extemporaneously.
There are multiple stories about why King strayed from his script that day. But it’s clear that once he began to improvise, he took a good speech and made it legendary. “Does that make you more optimistic or less optimistic that you can make it happen?” Podolny asked.
There was a lesson to breaking down King’s speech. By the time he stood before the lectern on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, he’d given thousands of public speeches. He may have been a great man, but he was also a seasoned pro.
“The lesson here is practice,” Podolny said. “You practice so that you’re prepared for that moment of spontaneity.”
Sonnenfeld offered a new, research-based model of leadership to explain the impact an individual can have on an organization. He focused on CEO charisma and the importance of personal dynamism (vision and accessibility), empathy (recognition and concern), authenticity (moral credibility and legitimacy), goal setting (setting high expectations) and courage (moderate risk taking). The point of the class, he summed up, was to find ways to inspire people at all levels of an organization. Great leaders create meaning for everyone. “It happens in the corporate world all the time,” Sonnenfeld said. “Howard Schultz [the founder of Starbucks] infuses a sense of purpose into how to sell coffee at $5 a cup to people around the world.”