Leadership: Visionary. Charismatic. Dull?

Two Minute Trainings by Maria Simpson

Meg Whitman, former CEO of EBay, wants to be the governor of California, what is sometimes referred to as the “state CEO.” (LAT, 2/16/09, p. C1) She and her supporters argue that her corporate experience makes her an ideal candidate for “state CEO.”

The question is not, “Is Whitman qualified to be a CEO?” but “Is she qualified to be successful in a political environment rather than a business environment?” I think her corporate experience makes her an ideal candidate for another business CEO position, but maybe not for governor, a political CEO position. Moving from one management environment to another doesn’t make you automatically successful in the new environment no matter how successful you were in the old one. Your skills have to match those necessary in the new environment.

On the Op-Ed page of today’s New York Times, David Brooks writes interestingly “In Praise of Dullness” as a corporate leadership trait distinguished from leadership traits in other areas. (5/19/09, p. A23) He quotes from a study showing that the traits often praised as necessary for leadership such as being a good listener, team builder or communicator, didn’t really matter all that much for business CEOs. Rather, what mattered “were execution and organizational skills.” Skills like attention to detail, persistence, efficiency and the ability to work long hours were much more important than warmth, flexibility, and empathy. Emotional stability, dependability, and executing plans make successful business CEOs.

A new book on leadership makes these distinctions clear. Leadership on the Line: Staying Alive through the Dangers of Leading by Heifetz and Linsky points out some of these different skill sets and how they affect the ability to lead. This book focuses on the difficulty of decision-making and how it can alienate you from those who disagree with your decision. Getting the most from a disagreement is an important part of leading, and exploring how to do that and keep your sanity and commitment are discussed to advantage here.

This book seems to echo a gradual shift in how we discuss leadership that began with general ideas. For a while, books on leadership were titled just that: “on leadership,” or maybe “the leader,” or maybe the plural was used and the book was about “leaders” in general.

Then work on leadership shifted gears. First it focused on metaphors, and we got books that compared leadership with a “challenge,” a “new science,” or an “odyssey.” Another phase included descriptors like visionary, jazz, high velocity, and even “primal.” In general, I find these books very helpful, but when lessons on leadership drew on the writings of leaders like Attila the Hun I began to see a lot of these as brand extensions rather than interesting explorations of an idea.

More recently, the focus has shifted from metaphors and lessons to a more philosophical approach to processes, especially a focus on conflict resolution and the particular skills needed to find the creative opportunities in disagreements. Becoming a Conflict Competent Leader, Conflict Competent Teams, and Leading Through Conflict are all examples and excellent resources, and Leadership on the Line follows this path.

As Brooks says, “Business leaders tend to perform poorly in Washington [meaning, in politics], while political leaders possess precisely those talents – charisma, charm, personal skills – that are of such limited value when it comes to corporate execution.” Are you being the outgoing, social animal as leader when your organization needs someone to focus on the work and execute the plan? Are your behaviors consistent with the need? Are Whitman’s?

These new ideas about leadership are wonderful, but my favorite book is still If Aristotle Ran General Motors by Tom Morris. It’s a short, philosophy book about leadership based on beliefs about truth, beauty, goodness, and unity, and how they apply to business. Maybe the former CEO of GM should have read it. Maybe Meg Whitman should read it. Maybe you should, too.

Have a great week!


Maria Simpson

Maria Simpson, Ph.D. is an executive coach, consultant, trainer and mediator who has worked extensively with the corporate, non-profit and conflict resolution communities to promote incorporating conflict resolution into organizational systems and training people in the skills and approaches of mediation. MORE >

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