Monday, September 14

Losing Leadership: Where Collectives Begin


Sangeeth Varghese re-raised an interesting question at Forbes, one that was also raised by Harris Collingwood in the Atlantic last June. Collingwood seems to draw a conclusion. Varghese leaves the answer open ended.

Of the two, the original is the stronger piece, better explaining the cornerstone of a study conducted by sociologists Stanley Lieberson and James O'Connor and published in the American Sociological Review in 1972. They argued that leadership accounts for a mere 14.5 percent, with the balance accounting for the marketplace and historical place in the corporate pecking order.

Varghese then goes on to cite Leo Tolstoy, who seemed to make the case that Napoleon Bonaparte, one of the greatest great men of all time, wasn't really the cause of all the momentous things that happened under his name and banner. Collingwood offers J. Richard Hackman, a psychologist at Harvard, who has done extensive work on leadership within small teams, and he has found that leaders do exert measurable influence on their team’s success or failure.

So which is it? And why are these questions surfacing now?

“None of us will ever accomplish anything excellent or commanding except when he listens to this whisper which is heard by him alone.” — Ralph Waldo Emerson

The why may simply be a sign of the times, much like the anti-authority sentiment of the 1970s when Lieberson and O'Connor conducted their studies. This time around, the sentiment is different, sometimes framed up as collaboration trumps individual thought in social media or the collective public good supersedes individual choice regarding choice in health care.

While perhaps unintended, both trends tend to diminish leadership, and with it responsibility. It's easier to defend the position of customers than it is an original idea just as it's easier to raise the banner for the public good against freedom of choice at a time when most people are willing to make and impose sacrifices for a false sense of security.

If there is any irony, it is that neither path is purely right.

"The greater danger for most of us lies not in setting our aim too high and falling short; but in setting our aim too low, and achieving our mark." - Michelangelo

What Lieberson and O'Connor might have missed in their original number crunching is considering how many of the 167 companies they studied helmed leaders at the time. A good number might have held the position of CEO willing to set the aim too low, but only a handful were true leaders, setting the bar much higher. Or, in other words, the majority was inclined to do little more than allow markets and pecking orders to dictate their fate.

The minority, those who reshape the world like Steve Jobs, J.W. Marriott, Henry Ford, Ray Kroc, Estee Lauder, or Jack Welch, tend to account for much more than 14.5 percent. It is their very ability to move forward despite environmental conditions that leads to success (e.g., while some companies suffer through the economy, Apple posted its best non-holiday quarter revenue and earnings in history).

Sure, there are times that the crowd demonstrates wisdom, but there are an equal number of times that those crowds will never produce any clarity of thought like an Albert Einstein, Richard Feynman, or any business leader mentioned above. So where do crowds come into play? Generally, the wisdom of crowds is most likely to prevail when there isn't any leader available.

The symptoms are easy enough to spot. When authority figures begin selling security and charging individual sacrifice in exchange, they are no longer leading but simply attempting to herd the mass. Leadership, on the other hand, requires something different, beginning with individual thought.

1 comments:

karim on 9/26/09, 3:28 AM said...

Good one on leadership and it helps a lot.

Thanks,
Karim - Mind Power

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