Michael Useem: How to Find Your Own Leadership Style

Michael Useem: How to Find Your Own Leadership Style

Michael Useem is a professor of management and director of the Center for Leadership and Change Management at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania. He is also the author of Leading Up: How to Lead Your Boss So You Both Win. Here is a rough transcript of his remarks:

I'm going to work with you about 45 minutes here about how to find your own leadership style. But first, let's think about this question: When does leadership make the greatest difference? A colleague of mine did a study of 48 firms among the Fortune 500 largest U.S. firms and asked two direct reports of their CEOs to describe their boss personally. To what extent are they visionary, self-confident, performing pretty high, walking the talk, and determined to get the job done? Some of those CEOs don't measure up so well. Some are fantastic. Some are less so. Then my colleague looked downstream 2-3 years out. When those firms are facing an uncertain and fast-changing world, that's when it makes the biggest difference if the leader has those five qualities. When things are stable and predictable, those qualities are less necessary.

With some exceptions, to forecast the future of a company, you need to know more about the top management team than you do about any single chief executive, including the CEO. How many people are on that team? How good are they? Is there a sharing of the agenda? You want to talk about your leadership, but by "you" we mean the plural "you."

I have two illustrations before we move on. Margaret Whitman, CEO of Ebay, was traveling on Sept. 11, 2001. After the fact, she called her No. 3. And she had three priorities. One, make sure our employees are safe. Two, we're an e-commerce site, make sure that our Web servers are secure. And three, put some items on the home page to raise money for charities, the Auction for America. Her No. 3 was able to get the job done on all three items in her total absence.

Then there's Sherron Watkins, who walked into Kenneth Lay's office on Aug. 22, 2001, and said that the company could "implode in a wave of accounting scandals" from partnerships created by CFO Andrew Fastow. Different than Meg Whitman, Ken Lay's dead in the water. Had he tried -- and the record shows that he barely did -- aggressively to address the conspiracy, here's his team. Andrew Fastow, who's probably involved. Enron CEO Jeffrey Skilling, who had just walked off the job. Even if Lay was visionary and decisive, he's got a management team that ensures he's going to be able to do absolutely nothing except plunge into bankruptcy.

You've got to get this leadership thing right if you want to get where we want to go. What are the leadership qualities that really make a difference? What are the common capacities? Strong moral character. Passion for a point of view. A vision they believed in. They walk their talk under a lot of duress. They have character.

Imagine that you're Lou Gerstner, IBM's CEO. It's June 7, 1995. You're Lou Gerstner. I'm Jim Manzi of independent Lotus. You give me a call, and when I get a call out of the blue -- no pun intended -- from IBM, it's probably not good news. What if shares are going to be tendered? IBM acquired Lotus in mid-1995 for $3.5 million, an acquisition that was first resisted, then embraced.

Lotus had had a tough year. They'd already announced a 15% cut back in white-collar workforce. They had plans for cost cutting of $50 million after a quarterly loss. Turn to your neighbor and in two minutes, write the speech Lou Gerstner would give on stage at the Wang Center when speaking to 2,200 Lotus employees the day after the acquisition. What questions would you expect?

From the standpoint of a Lotus employee with all of those executive search firms calling you today, why would you want to stay the course? What did you want to hear from the boss today? We want to know about the vision thing. And we care about the personal implications. Vision is pretty important. People want to know about it. They want to know about the strategy as well.

This is starting to build out a template for your own leadership. A template is generic, but the moves are specific. Leaders consistently talk vision at every occasion. You can't say it too often in slightly different terms. Vision, strategy. Something that's less obvious is that leaders always honor the people in the room, the team, in effect, that will take the chosen path to that dream. It also has to be translated to the personal implications for everybody. Then you get to a question that Lou Gerstner was asked. Here's the actual question: At the next company party, at the next annual Lotus event, will you come and wear a woman's dress? Here's what he said: You give me 20% growth, and I'll give you anything you want. Humor, a sign of character. You've got to say what you say in a way that it hits people. Say it so it sticks. They came to the Wang Center thinking layoffs and left thinking this guy must have a growth plan.

The No. 1 factor that people will cite at the end of a career that got them where they are is that they had stretch assignments given to them that they took. No. 2 is a mentor. Sometimes people don't know they're mentoring. No. 3, your style -- strategy, vision, honoring the people, personalizing your message, making it stick -- is a style that's acquired. That ties into No. 2, mentoring, and No. 1, the stretch experience, and that's part of why you're here.

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