Wednesday, August 1, 2007

It’s Not About You

A couple of years ago, former General Electric CEO Jack Welch visited the Stanford Graduate School of Business to talk about leadership and his book, Winning. With about 800 people, we had a public conversation about managing. The best comment he made, I thought, was the simplest. It’s something I believe and try to practice every day. Leadership is not about you. It’s about the people who work for you.

“The day you become a leader, it becomes about them,” Welch said. “Your job is to walk around with a can of water in one hand and a can of fertilizer in the other hand. Think of your team as seeds and try to build a garden. It’s about building these people,” he insisted. “Only you will know the team.”

That’s right. The minute you move from being a task-oriented professional to being a manager of people, it stops being about your individual talents, your successes, and starts being all about coaching, motivating, teaching, supporting, removing roadblocks, and finding resources for your employees. Leadership is about celebrating their victories and rewarding them; helping them analyze when things don’t go to plan. Their successes become your successes. Their failures are yours too. Too many people today think leading is exclusively about their own performance. Even some of those who become CEOs, usually highly intelligent people who worked hard to get where they are, turn into self-aggrandizing individuals once they hit the executive suite.

Too many people, perhaps encouraged by the media, have developed an obsession with leaders. In his book on hierarchies, Top Down, Hal Leavitt covers a broad range of issues. Leavitt, who is the Kilpatrick Professor of Organizational Behavior emeritus at the Business School, surmises that part of today’s infatuation with the leadership discussion springs from the fact that we perceive organizations have become flatter, when they are still hierarchies, though changed ones that are “participative” and “groupy.” They have become harder to navigate with chains of command that are less clear. As a result, leadership qualities are more necessary for managers at every level, not just for those at the top of an authority pyramid.

Although it is difficult to find common characteristics among acknowledged leaders (What would Winston Churchill have in common with Mother Teresa?), Leavitt identifies three recurring themes of leadership: Transformation, persuasion, and competence. Leaders are able to transform or change a situation. They can influence others and motivate them to follow. They exude confidence and competence about what they are doing that inspires others. At the Business School, we have created a leadership development program that gives students experiences and coaching to help recognize and reinforce some of these qualities.

Of prime importance, in my view, is the notion that leadership is about change and a leader must leverage those who work for him or her, empower and support them with regular feedback, rewards, and exchange of ideas. Of course, sometimes leaders have to “weed the garden” in Welch’s pithy vocabulary. The tough job of firing and hiring is part of creating an effective team.

One person, no matter how talented, cannot accomplish much in a managed organization of today’s complexity and global reach. Transforming through others is the job of the leader at any level. Said Welch when he was here: “The day you become a leader, your job is to take people who are already great and make them unbelievable."

An earlier version of this essay appeared in Stanford Business alumni magazine.