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“Great Leaders Illuminate the Future and Honor the Past.”

So said Jay Fishman, chairman and CEO of The St. Paul Cos, earlier this week at Wharton‘s annual Leadership Conference. “It’s too easy (and too wrong) to abandon the heritage of some companies.”

So said Jay Fishman, chairman and CEO of The St. Paul Cos, earlier this week at Wharton‘s annual Leadership Conference. “It’s too easy (and too wrong) to abandon the heritage of some companies.”

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How true. Yet, so many new leaders often pooh-pooh, rather than honor, the achievements of their predecessors. That happened in recent years at Ford and at P&G and resulted in the abrupt departures of chiefs who should have known better.

Of all the day’s many featured speakers, my personal favorite was Admiral Harold Gehman, former Supreme Allied Commander for the Atlantic and Commander-in-Chief of the U.S. Joint Forces Command. He said it simply, and it often is simple: “It’s the duty of a leader to lead. We define leadership in the military as the art and skill of getting a person to do something he wouldn’t want to do if left to his own devices. In business, it’s getting people to excel and to exceed what they they they can do.”

“You have to do whatever it takes,” added Adm. Gehman. “Sometimes it’s a pat on the back. Other times it’s a swift kick where they keep their wallets.”

Gehman, who chaired the Columbia Accident Investigation Board, had an insightful way of thinking about the physical and leadership problems that led to the Columbia shuttle accident. “These people (in NASA‘s human space flight program) hid their little mistakes. If all their little mistakes were publicized, it wouldn’t have been the perfect place anymore. So they only learned from their big mistakes.

“We saw in them the natural reaction of all mature, large organizations. They are organic beings like plants and animals. If you poke them, they go into a defensive crouch. The leader says we’re glad you’re here. We’ll support you, but the organization doesn’t. You have to get around that and overcome it and get to the truth.”