Learning the art of leading people

True leadership is not about prestige, power or status, says Marilyn Carlson Nelson. It is about personal responsibility and personal engagement. Leading people in a fast-changing business world is no longer about command and control. It is about collaboration and community

The ancients, gazing at the stars, often saw very different things. Some looked skywards and saw only random points of light. Others detected in the firmament faint but recognizable outlines of objects, animals and heroes.

Then, as now, gifted leaders need to discern patterns and shapes amidst the chaos, and interpret them in a way that illuminates and inspires others. This ability is at the heart of the concept of integrated leadership.

We are living in the most information-rich, instantaneous, borderless time in the world’s history. And it is predicted that the rate of change over the next 25 years will be four times what it is today.

The world – its peoples, its governments, its markets – and its problems are becoming increasingly complex and interactive. Effective leadership requires a more integrated approach than ever before.

Robert Joss, dean of Stanford Graduate School of Business, says: “Leadership is taking complete responsibility for an organization’s wellbeing and growth, and changing it for the better. Real leadership is not about prestige, power or status. It’s about responsibility.”

Integrated leadership is being responsible to all stakeholders – customers, employees, distributors, suppliers, communities and the environment – and not just to shareholders. It is making clear what I, as a leader, am willing to give. It’s about personal responsibility and personal engagement.

Many of the leaders who built the global corporate giants that are in existence today naturally passed on their leadership lessons to the generation that followed. They came from the period following World War II and, understandably, adopted a command and control style of leadership.

We know that commanding works well in wartime; no one has yet figured out how to “manage” people into battle. But command and control no longer produces maximum results in today’s corporate environment. In fact, it often inhibits the creativity, entrepreneurship and empowerment that employees seek in their jobs and that we, as employers, strive to cultivate.

Integrative leadership requires collaboration on many fronts: business, public policy and philanthropy. Leadership that addresses all these fronts will provide a truly secure future for businesses and communities in the current generation and for generations to come.

It should not be lost on any of us who are drawn to business that business is one of the most powerful tools on earth for positive change. At least one eminent scholar has defined business as “people working together to work for others”. At its core, all business is in service of others.

All business creates community. As leaders of the community of business, we are not just responsible for an isolated corporate entity, but for an increasingly large landscape.

Belief in the fact that the community of business can be engaged in positive change is the spirit that lies behind the World Economic Forum’s own Global Corporate Citizenship Initiative.

This community is expanding as customers, suppliers and employees from all parts of the globe enter, participate in and are rewarded by the free market system.

For many developing countries, the community of business is the best hope for an escape from poverty. It is the best protection from extremist philosophies and it is a necessary condition of a free society. Integrative leaders understand this, and always consider the broadest possible implications of their decisions.

Connecting the dots The president of one large American power company admits that when she was chosen to lead her company she wasn’t exactly sure why. She didn’t have a strong specialization in any business competency such as marketing, human resources, business law or operations. The chairman told her: “I have accountants, lawyers, sales people. I need someone to connect the dots.”

Integrative leadership is about “connecting the dots”. Everyone readily admits that the ability to connect the dots within a company is critical to success. But today’s effective leaders know that connecting the dots between the company and the outside world may be even more critical to future success.

Alexis de Toqueville wrote: “The knowledge of how to combine is the key to all other knowledge.” This is perhaps a more eloquent way of saying that the ability to connect the dots is all-important.

Effective integrated leadership has a price of entry. The leader must continually learn in order to hold the widest possible view of business and its impact on the world. The true leader must see the periphery, understanding that challenges to a business could just as easily come from a distant set of circumstances as from a well-known competitor.

Today’s effective leaders have an awareness, if not necessarily an in-depth understanding, of the economic, social and political forces that have the greatest potential to put a company at risk.

Many of them may not appear to be immediately relevant to the business at the moment. Some trends may be fairly constant, such as globalization. But most are moving targets, waxing and waning in their significance. Some will appear suddenly, as surprises. Who could have imagined that a small group living in, among other places, Afghanistan could bring an entire industry – travel and tourism – temporarily to its knees? That’s what happened when this group struck on September 11.

Who could have imagined that anyone would need to defend American business as being ethical and upstanding to young job market entrants, and worth their future endeavours? That’s what corporate leaders had to do after the Enron scandal cast a cloud over the corporate world.

Who could have imagined that, as CEO of a global service company, it might be useful to take a course in process engineering and Six Sigma discipline?

President John F Kennedy once said: “Leadership and learning are indispensable to each other.” Those who are entrusted to lead the ever-widening community of business must commit to remaining sensitive to the social, economic and political stirrings that could well become the next sea change in their industry.

A public responsibility

Integrated leadership also means taking the initiative to influence public policy. There are times when business needs to be protected from burdensome regulations and there are times when it needs to be protected from its own zealousness.

Either way, a business and its leaders have a responsibility to engage in public policy debates. It is part of the integrated discipline. It is in this spirit that the International Business Council has articulated Universal Corporate Governance Themes.

Effective leaders are keenly aware that it makes no difference whether a company is a global giant or a sole-proprietor enterprise; all business is “in business” with local and national governments.

The laws passed by sovereign nations around the world have a very real impact on the entrepreneurial energy that is essential to success. An economic and regulatory environment can fuel the spirit of enterprise. But it can also dampen it, or crush it altogether.

Most business leaders do not have a problem with leading a business. But there are all too few business leaders who seem to see themselves as community leaders, influencing government action. In today’s world, this is a key part of the role.

Traditionally, corporate leaders have seen their role as sources of funding for social causes. New leaders see their role differently.

Today, corporations are contributing by helping non-profit organizations to think more like businesses by putting better controls and metrics in place and insisting on more focus on the end user. To feed people, you develop programmes. To end hunger, you develop leaders. We need to inspire in our business leaders an increased level of commitment to become involved in solving the social problems that could benefit from the talents and resources that the community of business has to offer.

We need more entrepreneurial energy and creativity that allows business to efficiently contribute competencies to public-private partnerships.

At Carlson Companies, we have joined with Queen Silvia of Sweden and ABB, DaimlerChrysler, Oriflame, SAP, Skandia and TeliaSonera and others to found the World Childhood Foundation (www.childhood.org) as part of our commitment to changing the world around us. The World Childhood Foundation’s mission is to promote the right of every child to their childhood by fighting such conditions as poverty, violence, sex trafficking and drugs that expose the world’s most vulnerable children to exploitation.

It does this by providing funding and expertise to educate and build leaders to fight these plagues at the grassroots level. Napoleon trained his troops to believe that every French soldier carried a field marshal’s baton in his knapsack. He wanted them to know that in his absence, he had confidence that any one of his soldiers could pick up the cause.

Two hundred years later John Kotter, writing in the Harvard Business Review, pointed out that “institutionalizing a leadership-centered culture is the ultimate act of leadership”.

Indeed, a recent issue of Fortune magazine that listed the 10 greatest CEOs of all time purposely did not include such corporate icons as Jack Welch of General Electric or Bill Gates of Microsoft.

The reason, the magazine said, is that great leaders can really only be judged after they have been gone from an organization for at least a decade. Only then will the effect of their leadership truly be apparent.

As the leader of one of the world’s largest private companies, I have the burden and the satisfaction of knowing that my leadership will be judged by my grandchildren and their children after that. My role as an integrative leader is to build not just future leaders, but to build the process for building integrative leaders.

The future leaders of successful companies will be called upon to integrate what they know, what they learn and what they believe so as to improve the state of the world.

The World Economic Forum provides the stimulus for this collaboration. Those who approach the annual meeting thoughtfully, selecting offerings from each stream of the program and seeing how they integrate, will indeed begin to see the future – connecting and aligning the stars to create a better future for humankind.

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