It's one of the most perplexing problems of life in the new economy: With so much change and turbulence taking place, people need leaders more than ever. Yet, with so many acquisitions, spin-offs, and launches taking place, people insist on maintaining their independence more than ever. And with so much decentralization and delayering of companies taking place, people struggle even to know what leadership is more than ever. This much is certain: The old-economy model of leadership is obsolete. Gone are the days when Fortune magazine would feature its lineup of the "toughest bosses" — a salute to the top-down, hard-nosed, kick-ass-and-take-names-later CEOs of big corporations. (Memo to Fast Company talent pool: Remind us again why anybody would want to work for one of those jerks?) Equally obsolete are the old images of the charismatic leader, that jut-jawed hero on a white horse, or of the know-it-all leader, that genius at the top of a corporate pyramid who is always the smartest person in the room — any room. Work is changing. Organizations are changing. Careers are changing. Competition is changing. Leaders have to change. The question is, What does it mean to be a leader today?
We've been grappling with that question since we launched this magazine. Read, for example, the interview with Hatim Tyabji in our first issue ("At VeriFone It's a Dog's Life [and They Love It]," November 1995) or the cover story by Mort Meyerson in our second issue ("Everything I Thought I Knew About Leadership Is Wrong," April: May 1996). Issue by issue, over the past three years, we've touched on the new work of the leader. Now, for this issue's cover package, we've decided to present as coherent, consistent, and complete a definition of leadership as we could develop. The package consists of four parts, and we eagerly await your reactions and responses.
The first piece, "Leaders.Com," is this issue's Unit of One section. The premise: Leaders of Web companies must reinvent the practice of leadership to fit the circumstances of Web-based competition. And, sure enough, the 12 businesspeople who offer their insights and experiences identify compelling differences between leading on the Web and leading in other kinds of organizations.
Next, in "A Leader's Journey," Pamela Kruger chronicles Paul Wieand's two-decade-long trip from whiz-kid CEO to ousted CEO to counselor and adviser to CEOs. This profile is a touching, painful, and heroic story of a man who had to teach himself the most important lesson of leadership: Leaders must first know themselves. According to Wieand, "If you are authentic and trustful, people will realize it and respond. Authenticity is contagious."
To learn about "The Leader of the Future," William C. Taylor talked with Ronald Heifetz, who directs the Leadership Education Project at Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government. Heifetz offers an unblinking look at the hard work of leadership — emphasizing courage, humility, and a commitment to making change. The new job of the leader? According to Heifetz, it involves "mobilizing people to tackle tough challenges."
Finally, in "Make Yourself a Leader," a special tear-out booklet, we offer a "kit" that you can use to assemble a 100% grassroots leader. The principles around which the kit is built represent our best effort to take the practices and precepts that we have collected in the pages of Fast Company and to distill them into a model for leadership in the new economy. In developing those principles, we generated a long list of themes. But, as we went back over the contributions in the Unit of One section, the profile of Paul Wieand, and the interview with Ronald Heifetz, we found that we could break the new work of leaders into three categories: what leaders do, who leaders are, and how leaders act. And we arrived at one final proposition: Leaders make more leaders.
While the work of leaders is undergoing radical redefinition, the importance of leadership is greater than it's ever been. Walk into any fast company, and you'll feel the influence of its leaders. Walk into any fast company, and you'll also sense that there are leaders at all levels, in all functions, and in all parts of the organization. These days, the creation of a vibrant network of grassroots leaders may be the most important — as well as the most difficult — aspect of developing the art of leadership. That's why, for all of us, the task of making ourselves into leaders is one answer to the question "What are you working on?"
A version of this article appeared in the June 1999 issue of Fast Company magazine.