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Leading Off
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From time to time in the leader's fast-paced pursuit of the future, it makes sense to look back to the lessons of the past. New insights on psychological, behavioral, and organizational ideas flow from the leadership industry in a torrent, but many of those insights were innately understood by legendary leaders who grasped the human underpinnings of leadership and delivered on them throughout their careers. This week, let's tap into Abraham Lincoln, Robert Moses, Steve Jobs, McKinsey's Marvin Bower, and others to help you brush up on some good old-school teaching.
Replace authority with leadership
Amid the modern corporation's push for ever-greater speed and agility, the shortcomings of command-and-control management are becoming ever more apparent. They certainly were obvious to Marvin Bower in 1997. Bower, who joined McKinsey in 1933 and led the firm from 1950 to 1967, saw early on the need for senior managers to abandon rigid hierarchies and adopt programs to develop leaders, starting with themselves. In this excerpt from his book The Will to Lead, he details the attributes that make the best leaders.
“If you want to be liked, get a dog.”
That's Jeffrey Pfeffer, professor of behavioral organization at Stanford Graduate School of Business, quoting Gary Loveman, former Caesars CEO. Pfeffer's point, developed in “Getting beyond the BS of leadership literature,” is that a great deal of leadership writing overly simplifies people and personalities, rather than describing the types of behaviors, and the underlying social-science evidence and principles, that are “needed to get things done in complex, interdependent systems in which people pursue multiple, often conflicting, agendas.” Check out his reading list that covers Machiavelli, Robert Moses, and Steve Jobs for lessons from the most artful of leaders.
That's 87, as in “Four score and seven years ago … ” the first of just 272 words in Abraham Lincoln's Gettysburg Address, delivered in just three minutes, that connected a current crisis—the US Civil War—with the history and mission of the enterprise—American polity and its central proposition. Beyond Lincoln's communication skills, the leadership lessons explored in this appreciation speak to the virtues of empathy, discernment, and the inevitable isolation of the leader during times of challenge. Special bonus track with this article: a reading of Lincoln's Gettysburg Address.
photo of Dwight D. Eisenhower
Consider, for a moment, the 1950s. The Western world was worried about attacks from enemies to the East—nuclear attacks, not cyber ones. A pandemic originated in Asia in 1957 and killed one million people, 100,000 of them in the United States. A drought in Texas lasted most of the decade. Dwight D. Eisenhower, assuming the US presidency after overseeing the US military's victory in World War II, had a worldview “that everything was fragile,” says biographer William I. Hitchcock. Sounds downright contemporary, doesn't it? In this profile, learn from a servant-leader who considered planning to be “everything,” balanced individualism against community, and considered corporations at their best when they served the public interest.
Straight to the top
photo of sailboats
If we fast-forward to today, it remains true that a company still has only one peerless role: chief executive officer. Despite the scrutiny of the CEO, little is understood about what they really do to excel. Many consider the job so specialized that the only way to prepare for it is to do it. That said, it's possible to narrow down the essential elements of the role and assess the behaviors of mind and the practices that contribute to success. Check out the assessment guide to compare practices and mindsets with your own.
Lead historically.
— Edited by Bill Javetski, an executive editor in McKinsey's New Jersey office
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