Tracing Our (Grass) Roots

With our November issue, Fast Company will celebrate 10 years of publication. Each month until then, we’ll review one of our favorite editions from the first decade.

From 1975 to 1995, according to the Library of Congress, books on leadership appeared at a rate of about 24 a year. In the past 10 years, that output has doubled. That’s a new book on leadership every week, or enough over the decade to wallpaper every classroom at Harvard Business School. We’ve been graced recently with leadership lessons from everyone from Jesus to George W. to Geronimo to The Sopranos.


Which is to say, we can’t get enough of this leadership stuff. As we wrote in June 1999, “with so much change and turbulence taking place, people need leaders more than ever.” By then, of course, Fast Company already had established its cred on the matter. The study of leadership — and the celebration of great leaders — had been part of our DNA since issue one. So that 1999 issue, “Make Yourself a Leader,” was not as much a first go at the subject as it was a full-frontal attack.

At that moment, in the throes of dotcom-o-rama, many were wondering what sort of person made a great leader. We took a contrary tack: Who isn’t a leader? Surely, the days of the tough guy, the “top-down, hard-nosed, kick-ass-and-take-names-later” CEO, were past. We scoffed at the charismatic leader — the “jut-jawed hero on a white horse.” So too the genius leader, the “smartest one in the room.”

Instead, we placed our bets on an emerging class whose rise was made both possible and necessary by the democratization of the workplace. All hail the grassroots leader! The antithesis of command-and-control, this model depended on having leaders at all levels and functions of an organization. “These days,” we declared, “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.”

If readers remained uncertain or unsettled, we produced a 12-page “state-of-the-art leadership kit,” complete with step-by-step instructions. “Leaders,” we observed, “are authentic.” They make unexpected connections. “Leaders protect their people from danger — and expose them to reality.” And most telling of all: The job of the true grassroots leader is to “make more leaders.”

How does that grassroots ideal hold up today? We reconnected with Ronald Heifetz, founder of Harvard’s Center for Public Leadership, whose perspective in “The Leader of the Future” story from that issue had struck us as an “unblinking look at the hard work of leadership — emphasizing courage, humility, and a commitment to making change.”

Heifetz still isn’t blinking. The role of a leader remains, as he told us six years ago, “to help people face reality and to mobilize them to make change.” But today’s climate also offers “a window of opportunity” for trustworthy leaders, he says. “Part of your marketing opportunity is to position yourself as a more trustworthy, sober, and realistic analyst of the environment — to exercise leadership in which visions have accuracy and not just imagination and zeal.”


That is, honesty matters. Observes Janice Gjertsen Caillet, featured in the same issue as business development manager for AOL’s Digital City New York (remember that?): “Clients can smell it when dealing with someone they cannot trust. We’ve seen what happens when a company’s culture does not value being trustworthy. Can you say ‘Sarbanes-Oxley’?”

Sadly, we can. Perhaps that’s one sorry result of the rise of grassroots leadership: With all those folks running their own shows, it’s conceivable that Bernie Ebbers and Ken Lay really didn’t know what was going on in their own companies. That tension, between the very real urge for democracy and the equally real demand for accountability, is what makes leadership so tough — and why we keep buying all those books.


“Most leaders die with their mouths open. Leaders must know how to listen — and the art of listening is more subtle than most people think it is. But first, and just as important, leaders must want to listen.”

— Ronald Heifetz, “The Leader of the Future,” June 1999