• 12.23.10

What’s Different About Leadership in 2011?

We all hope that we are emerging from the recession, those of us in the U.S. and Europe and elsewhere who have been so deeply affected. How do we think about leadership in these fragile times?

Excellent leadership, the kind that inspires long-lasting enthusiasm and loyalty, has always had at its core an ability to balance both results and people. And this is what the Recovering Leader in 2011 needs to do. Excellent leaders build strong, enduring organizations that deliver outcomes while also honoring and developing people. Consider Thomas Watson of IBM, or Robert Wood Johnson of Johnson & Johnson. Each man, generations ago, famously combined a strong desire to make money with a strong concern for their people as they created the leadership cultures that set their companies on a path to greatness. They knew that profit today would lead to profit tomorrow if they invested in both business and people. When those companies honor that wisdom, they do well.


What has changed over the years is that the level of leadership skill required in most organizations has risen dramatically due to an increasingly intense and complex business environment, combined with an ever-expanding reliance on knowledge work–the kind of work whose outcomes depend on the enthusiasm and engagement of people more than machines. Companies in highly competitive industries, especially those companies with global ambitions, confront a world of rapid change and increasingly sophisticated customers and other stakeholders at the same time that the needs of its diverse workforce demand more from them. As a business moves up the value chain, the leader must orchestrate rather than direct those highly educated resources, and motivate rather than dictate actions if they are to capture the discretionary effort needed to win. This challenge requires constant alertness not just to the business, but also to the people.

Take Xerox, for instance. When Ann Mulcahy took over the top leadership role in 2001, she became responsible for redefining the way Xerox did business. Under her leadership, innovation became the key driver, which necessitated a shift into working as a collaborative networked organization that quite deliberately and systematically harnessed the strengths of a more diverse workforce. When last I checked, two-thirds of Xerox’s revenues were coming from the products and services that were only two years old. Her leadership enabled Xerox’s recovery by engaging its people around a very challenging and uncertain mission which they accomplished brilliantly.