Warren Bennis and Friends Look at the Future
What if leaders are given too much credit for leadership? This is the counterintuitive question posed by James O'Toole in his contribution to The Future of Leadership, a series of essays by an impressive collection of leadership thinkers and practitioners, including Charles Handy, Thomas Stewart, Tom Peters, James Kouzes and Barry Posner.
Booz Allen Hamilton consultant O'Toole, author of several leadership books including 1996's Leading Change, questions why some companies seem to do well no matter who is at the helm, and why some CEOs are incredibly successful in one company, then fail miserably in their next position (George Fisher, who successfully led Motorola, but was unable to turn around Kodak, is one example). O'Toole's conclusion: Leadership can also be an organizational trait. That is, certain characteristics of an organization ensure that whoever is sitting in the CEO's office will be successful.
O'Toole reached this conclusion while leading a study, undertaken by Booz Allen and the University of Southern California's Center for Effective Organizations, for the World Economic Forum. The study revealed that it is not the leadership qualities of one individual that ensures continuing success, but rather the extent to which leadership is embedded in the systems, processes and culture of the organization.
"This characteristic is more than the frequently observed phenomenon of 'cascading' leadership (in which a strong leader at the top empowers other leaders down the line)," O'Toole explains. "Although cascading is often a part of what we observed, more to the point in these organizations many of the key tasks and responsibilities of leadership are institutionalized in the systems, practices and cultures of the organization."
How well organizational systems - such as goal-setting and planning, risk management, recruiting, professional development, communications and knowledge transfer - enable leadership determines whether leadership is an embedded organizational trait that is not dependent on the CEO. The lesson for leaders of the future, O'Toole writes, is that "they don't have to do all the work of leadership by themselves." In fact, leaders should define their tasks "as creating the systems under which others would be encouraged to do all the things that typically end up on the desk of the do-it-all leader."
Honoring Warren Bennis
The essays in The Future of Leadership were first presented at a conference held in honor of influential leadership guru Warren Bennis. Edited by Thomas Cummings, Gretchen Spreitzer and Bennis, the essays are divided into five parts:
- Setting the Stage for the Future.
- The Organization of the Future (which includes O'Toole's contribution).
- The Leader of the Future.
- How Leaders Stay on Top of Their Game.
- Insights from Young Leaders.
Bennis contributes the first essay of the book, in which he lays out a dozen of the challenging issues that leaders today and tomorrow must confront. Among the issues he puts on the table are:
- Disparity of talent. Not everyone can be a successful leader. However, "the increasing chasm of income between the top quintile and the bottom quintile - along with the obscene differential between the average CEO and the average worker ($419 to $1 at last count) - is a serious issue," Bennis writes. "Should we not be worrying about the 'Brazilification' of our society?"
- Demographic changes, specifically the new phenomenon of extremely successful young people as well as the healthy and productive elderly still in the work force. "What do we do with these old duffers who have their energy and health and hopefully their marbles?" Bennis asks. "And what about the bored twenty-something millionaires?"
- Balancing the demands of work and home. "Tell me," Bennis writes, "Do you know anyone who has reached that state of nirvana called "balance"?
A Comprehensive Look
Bennis's questions were originally used to frame the discussions at the conference, which organizers labeled a festschrift(after the German word for a volume of essays contributed by colleagues as a tribute to a scholar). The result of this festschrift is a sometimes surprising and always insightful comprehensive examination of leadership by some of the world's greatest thinkers on the subject. CEOs, future CEOs and anyone concerned about organizational leadership have much to learn in these pages.