Official Blog of Center10 Consulting

Leadership takes center stage - insights from Christensen, Welch, Koehn

on Wednesday, October 2, 2013
The World Business Forum, a popular annual conference in NYC hosted by WOBI, featured a series of provocative thinkers and business leaders. Here I share a few key insights: Clay Christensen urges us to get beyond the false Gods of ROI/ROCE metrics to invest in empowering innovations, Nancy Koehn exhorts us to grow conviction, forbearance and backbones as leaders, and Jack Welch conveys his musings on the Generosity Gene of successful leaders.

On the first day of the World Business Forum in New York (WBFNY2013), I had to sit back and grin as Rashmi, a thoughtful strategist from a large food corporation, stepped up the microphone and asked Jack Welch if he had practiced what he'd just preached. Actually, she was much more eloquent, and if I  may paraphrase from memory, her question went more like this - Mr. Welch, you talked about the Generosity Gene as critical for leadership. When you were early in your career, did you do what you just said typifies the generous leader - encouraging change, sharing the praise, celebrating? Or did this wisdom come with time, as your career itself evolved?

It's a trenchant, if non-verbal commentary, on the culture of management vs. leadership that you could see the people around Rashmi stifle grins. I enjoy watching front line managers who do seem to have a generosity gene. There's a deep integrity in how they build the people around them. These are role models. I respect Mr. Welch surfacing this set of behaviors in his writings - in a way, it may make amends for some of the more short-sighted managerial trends we may see around us that are credited to him and his GE way.

I'm hoping that in a few years we'll be looking at the time they actually shut down government. These be tough times - times where there seems to be a deficit of leadership and vision (you read that as you will, folks.)

Not surprisingly, I see more actually happening among clients and business in general that prioritizes role model identification and leadership focus. I'm helping a client develop its innovation capability and laying out the R&D culture - and beyond some innovation processes, we're veering into vision, mentoring, recognition.... Leadership is needed, wanted, critical....

As the stirring HBS business historian Nancy Koehn challenged "The world needs your BEST SELF more than ever needed."

Nancy's review of Lincoln and Shackleton drove to a few universal leadership themes:
  • In turbulent times, commit to a worthy mission and then demonstrate flexibility in the means you use to achieve it
  • Take inventory of your emotional tools and then use them in the service to your mission. Forbearance is critical. So is detachment and resilience. Lincoln and Shacketon relied heavily on all three os these tools, honing them (and themselves ) during crisis. They both walked around (physically and mentally) and surveyed themselves - and devided what their worthy impact could be
  • Frame the stakes of the moment and the mission for your people. Rememeber the Gettysburg address - short, lazed focused, inspiring.
  • Keep your friends close and your enemies closer
  • Listen carefully, gathering input from a wide range of sources
  • Get our of the office and spend time leading “in the field”
  • Don't forget that as a leader, all eyes are on you. So remember to show up as your best self, acting in service of your mission 
Intense stuff....

...and a great call for continuous self-reflection and evolution. Learning to be a strategic and innovative leader is not only possible, but critical. And possible. I know Lincoln gets hauled out every so often when leadership is reviewed, but what I most enjoyed is Koehn's review of how Lincoln continue to evolve and grow well into his presidency. 

An auto-didact with only a few years of formal primary education behind him, he certainly steeped himself in the continuous classroom of life. You'll see great leaders do it all the time - Lincoln joined the debating society when he moved to Macon County and his first time putting his hat in the political ring was when he was less than 22 years old. As his law partner said, Lincoln's "ambition was a little engine that knew no rest."

More importantly he evolved his style and nature as a lawyer - starting as a sarcastic showman who did nothing till the last minute, then crammed, he moved from this style built around a lack of indepth prep with a sarcastic and cynical veneer. Over time, he stripped away sarcasm, anger and cynicism. He bacame a strategic, through lawyer. As he said, know deep inside what points will win you the case and the jury, don't hold on the every single point , let some go and slowly disarm the opposition. That kind of wisdom and forebearance takes time to develop - and a will and wisdom to develop.

And then there was Shackleton, who displayed just such dextrous forbearance through his ill-fated expedition. Interesting that his purpose and message brought together a hardy, full team, even though his advertising skills may have left a lot to be desired!

And how does all that tie into innovation?

The inimitable Clay Christensen's keynote was a gentle, yet urgent, call to evolving towards disruptive
innovation. Empowering innovation is innovation that evolves what you do and how you do it.

As Clay sees it, the heavy focus on financial rations has driven businesses into the behaviors that limit them significantly. Ah, the fallacy of metrics - rations like ROI and ROCE makes efficient use of rations hugely seductive - and we begin to underinvest in more empowering innovations that are about expanding into new areas, rather than making you more efficient/ cheaper.

And, sustaining and efficiency-focused innovation only help cut jobs. Empowering and disruptive innovations change the jobs, but create them too. I'm hoping the math will prove that out.

We've slipped into a prescriptive, effiency-based management-driven mindset. From the looks of it, the economy (in the US and globally) could do with a dollop of vision and leadership. Thankfully, that's also what the talented people in your companies want too... so hopefully business leaders will be listening.


Post a Comment