Where Style Meets Substance

As companies change with the times, so must the people who lead them. The question: What exactly needs fixing?

Jo-anne Dressendofer was happily ensconced as CEO of her fast-growing full-service marketing company, Imedia, based in Morristown, New Jersey, when seven of her top employees marched en masse into her office in 1992 and threatened to quit if she didn’t change her autocratic ways. For Dressendofer, the moment was a turning point in her realization that the leadership style she had grown accustomed to, that had served her well since her elementary school days, needed a complete overhaul, which she quickly set about constructing.

Thousands of bosses around the country – spurred, like Dressendofer, by employee revolt, or, more often, by nose-diving sales – are also looking to change, going beyond the old military leadership approach to one where all employees feel empowered and encouraged to be candid, instead. Leadership may well prove to be the most important strategic issue facing organizations in the next century, management experts believe, since running a company can no longer be likened to a symphony orchestra, as leadership guru and USC professor Warren Bennis says; rather, it’s like leading a jazz band with all its improvisation and surprise.

“A few people at the top knowing everything and making key decisions is no longer serving organizations the way it once was,” says Tom Both, vice president of global research and development at Eden Prairie, Minnesota-based Wilson Learning Corp., a 30-year-old training company whose courses include the “Authentic Leader” and “Managing for Excellence.” Global competition and the demise of customer loyalty are creating such intense challenges for executives that only bottom-to-top creativity and enhanced productivity at all levels can ensure success, he says. For example, Roth and others note, the wonderful innovations that have come out of Microsoft since its inception have everything to do with Bill Gates’ leadership style, which encourages suggestions from all ranks and debate of all ideas. In fact, a Wilson Learning study of 25,000 workers at various companies found a surprising 69% of employee job satisfaction related to the leadership skills of their bosses, with productivity way down among those who, like Mick Jagger, don’t get no satisfaction.

Whether or not those at the helm can learn to empower their workers – making them want to contribute more – may be the key to future profitability and growth. “You can make people work long hours, threaten them if they don’t, and you can get the job done. But the repercussions are so long-term – where people hate coming to work, give you dirty data, don’t tell you the truth – that it doesn’t maximize effectiveness for the long haul,” says Blaine Lee, vice president of instructional psychology of Provo, Utah’s fast-growing Covey Leadership Center, based on Stephen Covey’s “Principle-Centered” leadership approach. “Employers can no longer guarantee employment,” adds Wilson’s Tom Roth, “Instead, there’s a new psychological contract in organizations, to create employability, giving the person enough skills and experience so they want to be there.” In other words, old-style “heroic” managers get things done by people, while the more modem “post-heroic” managers get things done with people.

The Range of Change

Though most leadership experts believe that anyone can learn to navigate through the new way of leading, all admit the road is long and arduous. Joe Reynolds, a former Procter & Gamble executive who now heads up Leadership Dynamics, a consulting firm in Houston, notes that, for leaders, acquiring a radically different style can be “like learning to play a violin in front of a bunch of strangers on Fifth Avenue. Each tentative step is watched by every employee in the company.”

Often, older executives who’ve been successful throughout their career rise are too comfortable with the way they have done things in the past, which for most means being tied to the “my way or the highway” method of leading. Because the old-style method has worked for them and for their companies in the past, they can be bathe to make the change.

“Success is a blinding factor; it’s why major breakthroughs more often come from entrepreneurial companies, or from periods of breakdowns at large corporations,” says Ed Gurowitz, executive director of the Oakland, California office of the Generative Leadership Group, a leadership consulting firm.

But a growing number of companies are facing that sense of breakdown, judging from the increasing interest in books and courses on the new way of leading. “For the first time in 60 years, leaders are not going to have a choice. A ‘change or die’ mentality will be coming to nearly all businesses within the next few years,” says Gary Heil, co-author of Leadership and the Customer Revolution, who says he got out of the leadership-consulting business a few years ago because of the lack of leaders’ desire for change, though he’s back with a vengeance now.

A radical shift in leadership styles has already largely taken place within the manufacturing sector, Heil points out, signaling to skeptics that change can indeed come. “Top executives in manufacturing had to learn how to empower their workers and remake entire businesses virtually overnight, and they did,” he says. “Within a few years, they were able to enlist employees’ help to increase performances inside factories, drive costs out, reduce cycle times and flatten structures. In most cases, the leaders were the same people who had done things the old, antagonistic ways before.”

Not every executive goes through the process kicking and screaming. For many strategic decision makers, long consumed by financials, the ability to focus more on leadership offers an exciting opportunity for growth.

Jeff Smith, executive vice president of the Gallipolis, Ohio-based Ohio Valley Bank, decided after considering graduate-level programs in banking that he really needed a course in leadership, instead. It’s not that Smith, COO of Ohio Valley these past three years, was unhappy with where his bank had been. Rather he was concerned that to thrive in the increasingly consolidating industry means “paying more attention to people and less to technicalities.” Smith signed up for the highly respected Leadership Development Program at the Greensboro, North Carolina, Center for Creative Leadership, and says the program changed his thinking about the people who work for him. “In school you always learn that there’s one right answer for things,” he says, “but the course really helped me see that different people might approach the same situation differently, none of them necessarily wrong.” In the few months since he completed the week-long course, Smith says he has altered his work with his teams, dictating less and encouraging more tolerance of the divergent attitudes among members.

Looking Back at Leadership

The Center for Creative Leadership, like many other leadership programs today, is based on the notion that anyone who really wants to change can do so. But that was not always the predominant thinking. “The study of leadership has undergone huge shifts over the years,” Covey Leadership’s Lee observes.

Prior to the late 1800s, Lee explains, people believed that leadership was based on family, environment, and circumstances, so if you weren’t born with a prominent pedigree you didn’t have it in you to be a leader. Then, as the discipline of psychology began taking hold, people came to observe traits like charisma, dynamism, and loyalty in their leaders, reasoning that if they emulated those traits they could be successful leaders, too. “The problem with that approach is that some people who were introspective and thoughtful were good leaders,” Lee says, “but they were bending over backwards to be outgoing and genial even when it didn’t suit them.” Today, leadership consultants go out of their way to avoid using the word “traits,” talking instead about qualities or competencies that good leaders possess. Professor Warren Bennis, for example, identifies four “indispensable qualities”: a guiding vision, constancy so followers know what to expect, candor with both themselves and others in the organization, and the ability to limit themselves to several key objectives. Wilson Learning, similarly, speaks of five “leadership capacities” that bosses should cultivate.

When behavioral psychologists gained ground in the 1940s, leadership increasingly came to be seen as what you do, not who you are. Leaders were studied to see how long they spent communicating with their followers, how much time they walked around in their organizations, and the like. Some experts, in the one-minute manager mold, still adhere to this behavioral approach, noting that people can quickly learn techniques to make them more empowering bosses, such as rephrasing commands as questions or pausing between sentences to really hear what others have to say.

In the 1960s, the notion of studying leaders was amended to include assessing followers, too, on the theory that a person might need a leader who gives detailed direction for one task but one who inspires them for another. The idea that varying situations may call for different approaches is still largely adhered to, Lee notes, though leaders also need to be true to themselves and not become spineless chameleons.

The rapid changes during the last decade – where global competitors muscled in on formerly complacent companies and workers discovered the hard way that guaranteed employment was an illusion – has helped spawn the new way of looking at leadership. “People can change jobs quickly and, now that they know the company has no loyalty to them, with absolutely no sense of guilt,” Lee says. “So the overriding question has become: Given people’s other options, why would they choose to follow you?”

Bosses get their way with employees via a number of approaches, says University of Maryland (at Potomac) management professor Hank Sims, who identified four types of leaders in his 1989 book, Superbleadership (co-written with Arizona State professor Charles Manz). The “strong man”‘ uses his authority to issue commandments, which employees respond to based on fear; the “transactor” rewards followers for going his way; the “visionary hero” leads by inspiration, evoking an emotional commitment on the part of his staffers; and the post-heroic leader, which Sims terms the “superleader,” encourages those in all positions of the organization to feel and act as if they’re leaders, too. In this model, power is more evenly shared, and the leader’s job is largely to help employees develop the skills – including idea generation – to contribute more fully than just by sewing the pockets properly on the company’s jeans.

Removing the Chains

How a leader actually makes the transition to creating a more empowering organization is somewhat controversial. Dan Ciampa, CEO of the Lexington, Massachusetts-based consultancy Rath & Strong, believes that transformation is not made by attempting fairly significant changes in the leader’s personality. “It is not important or realistic to ask people who run large organizations to dramatically change their style. To expect that is not only naive but destructive,” Ciampa says. Instead, he feels, leaders must understand what they do well, what the shortcomings of their style are, and how to implement a superstructure for compensating for those shortcomings.

Ciampa says, for example, that his company’s studies reveal that most corporate leaders possess styles similar to one of several recent U.S. presidents, Franklin Roosevelt (a strong soloist), Dwight Eisenhower – and the more modern Ronald Reagan (who needed to be surrounded by strong key managers), and John Kennedy (who fostered teamwork). But while Ciampa joins others in the belief that the Kennedy-type manager works best in today’s environment, he believes that those who seem more closely like the other two men should understand themselves enough to choose key managers who can better foster the empowering style within the corporation. Even the Kennedy approach needs some controls, he says, because when you’re too good at inspiring others, those others sometimes feel that they can’t dissent.

When evaluating where companies wants to be in 18 to 36 months (the timeframe Rath & Strong believes is most realistic for making change), Ciampa says, leaders need to look at what steps will get them there and in what ways their own leadership styles help or hinder movement in that direction. A company that hopes to become the most customer-focused in the industry, for example, would then look backwards at how it might get there, say by breaking down the walls between the various departments and fostering more internal interaction. If the leader is not the type who is able to bring that environment about, Ciampa explains, a structure needs to be introduced showcasing other key managers who will. “We’re not talking about those leaders changing their style, but rather we’re talking about changing their decision-making systems,” Ciampa says. A Course, of Course

Other leadership experts believe that leaders can – indeed should – alter their personal styles to ensure long-term success. Imedia’s Dressendofer, for example, used the impetus of her employee confrontation to institute a new employee-management system at her $7-million company, comprised of five “action teams” that deal with the company’s various departments, plus a more senior group of representatives from each team, which meets every few weeks to resolve conflicts and changes in action-team objectives. Relinquishing control didn’t come easily for Dressendofer (who sits on one committee – and often finds herself sitting on her hands, watching others make what she sometimes considers bad decisions), but when sales at her firm shot up more than $1 million as a result, Dressendofer became a believer.

In making these radical changes, leadership courses often help, because they don’t just talk about the error of people’s ways, they help them see what’s holding them back from becoming the leader they might prefer. The Generative Leadership Group, for example, teaches executives how to see the invisible, self-imposed lids that keep people from rising to their potential greatness. One of the first exercises in their courses has leaders engaging in dialogue until they fall into the traps of their personal myths. For example, executives may come to see that they cling to notions like “disagreeing means being disloyal,” or that if there’s a leader, there have to be followers behind – a belief that flies in the face of empowering others. Women have additional paradigms, GLG believes, such as if you’re viewed as aggressive, your opinions won’t be respected.

“‘We have met the enemy and he is us’ sounds like bad news, but if I’m the source of the limiting paradigm, if I alter the thinking, I don’t need anybody else’s permission to change, so it’s actually very freeing,” says Ed Gurowitz. With those lids removed, executives can get outside their traditional thought boxes to take a new, unfiltered look at where they and their organizations hope to go before plotting specific steps for getting there.

Linda Alepin is vice president of business development at Amdahl, the $1.7 billion, Sunnyvale, California, computer company that, like its competitors, is in the midst of the painful shift from mainframe seller to client/server integrator. Charged with helping to steer the battleship’s turn-around, Alepin thought taking a GLG course would help her learn to more effectively lead the company through a real cultural change, rather than the more superficial laying down of tools and techniques the company had been using.

For Alepin, who opted for the course geared to women, the “Eureka!” came when discussing the paradigm that women have to be perfect to succeed. “What that does is make you work three times harder than you probably have to,” Alepin says. “Now that I’ve let go of the desire to make everything flawless, I’ve tripled my productivity.”

Other aspects of that course, and a second Executive Education GLG program that Alepin is currently taking, helped her see that she was more hands-on than she needed to be. So, when a major new project looked like it was headed toward a crash-and-burn just two days before Alepin was to fly off for a Hawaiian vacation, it really put her penchant to be hands-on to the test.

The next day the project leader sat down with Alepin and, as she had learned in the course, they talked about the facts that were hampering the multimillion-dollar project, rather than spending time assessing blame for its failure. When the person told Alepin to have enough faith in him to get it done, Alepin had no choice but to don her lei. When she came back from Maui, the project was complete. “True empowerment really works,” Alepin says she has learned. “My staying in the middle would have done nothing, and it might have been detrimental. Now I understand what it is to get out of the way.”

From “Eee-gads!” to “Eureka!”

At many leadership courses, which range from two-day open seminars to week-long programs customized for specific organizations, role-playing, deep introspection, and, sometimes, standardized personality tests are key components for self-reflection. At the Center for Creative Leadership, for example, Myers-Briggs tests are used to help an executive understand how his personality type affects his dealings with others. One Myers-Briggs construct, for example, is a cerebral type who is most comfortable when things are in a state of closure. “That may be helpful in many situations, but it may also push the person to reach a decision without considering enough unusual options,” says Lily Kelly-Radford, program manager at the center.

Often, courses use written feedback provided in advance by peers, subordinates, and superiors. The CCL’s “effective leadership indicator,” an instrument others use to identify where the executive falls on 48 descriptive adjectives “shocks” many participants, Kelly-Radford says. “Many people don’t know how others experience them, yet that greatly affects how much buy-in they get on their decisions,” she says.

While the information may not be as dramatic for some, it almost always provides useful insights. Rubin Pfeffer, president of the Harcourt Brace Trade Division in San Diego, says that the feedback he received during the CCL program made him realize that he hadn’t been addressing the issue of conflict as early as was sometimes necessary. Since taking the course last summer, Pfeffer has initiated regular team meetings of top-level managers in his division, and one item he specifically puts on each agenda is airing areas of conflict. “Talking about disagreements is not something they would have felt comfortable doing at these meetings if I hadn’t made it a topic of discussion,” Pfeffer says. “It’s easier to ignore or delay conflict, but then you run the risk of it erupting later into a major rift.”

During her seminars, Amdahl’s Linda Alepin became more aware of her role as a critic in the company. “I was always looking more at why things wouldn’t work. Now I’m into figuring out what’s missing,” she says.

Another self-discovery method used in many leadership courses is the “Outward Bound” type ropes program, where everyone works together to complete physically challenging assignments. “These exercises give you an opportunity to interact; you have to absorb the material and then put it into action,” says Brian Berger, vice president of sales for Markham, Ontario-based Pillsbury Canada who completed a leadership development program last June. Berger says he happily discovered though this process that he “has the natural ability to bring some sense to disorder.”

Several of the courses go further, taking the approach that becoming an empowering leader requires also looking at – and possibly changing – your personal character. Wilson Learning posits a diamond-shaped “leadership mind,” where vision, reality, courage, and, importantly, ethics are four key and equal elements. And character, especially personal integrity, forms the foundation of the Covey Leadership Center approach. Only when people feel they can trust you, Lee explains, can they feel empowered by you and the organization. “People always say, ‘If the organization would only change,’ and we say, ‘No, it starts with you, with your integrity,” Lee says. “To really succeed, people have to stop checking their integrity at the office door and bring all of themselves to how they work with others.”

A Lenox, Massachusetts-based New Age retreat center, Kripalu, also sponsors leadership programs for executives that take that inner-character connection even one step further. “The type of work we do is deep and transformational,” says Paul Deslauriers, director of the company that runs the programs, New Resources for Growth (in short, NRG – read: “energy”). Its “Leadership from Within” program, for example, features a period of deep introspection, called a “vision quest,” to help participants get in touch with the deeper essence of what their work is really about. One participant, says Deslauriers, the head of a large manufacturer of furniture, decided during the five-day program that getting cheap wood from endangered rainforests, which he had been doing, was not in harmony with his own beliefs. When he returned from the program, he revamped his purchasing system to buy from sustainable forests.

In the end, those who advocate the new way of leadership say, bosses who take even small steps toward changing to a more empowering leadership style will find themselves feeling better about going to work each day. “People need to ask themselves, ‘Do I love coming to work?'” says Amdahl’s Alepin. “If the answer isn’t ‘yes,’ a primary reason could be because they and their workers aren’t growing together.”

Lee says that people merely need to be reminded of how wonderful it is to be around an ethical, empowering individual. “In my course, I ask people to remember someone who has made a profound difference in their lives, why that person behaved that way towards them, and what they would do if the person were here today and needed something from them,” he says. Course participants often get teary-eyed, Lee says, as they recall an old teacher, Cub Scout troop leader, or childhood friend that they would do anything for. “Then I ask them, What if the people you work with felt that way about you? It doesn’t take them long to realize how much that would transform the entire workplace.”

“Leaders who learn new ways of leading become almost like reformed smokers,” author Gary Heil concludes. Those who find it within themselves to change become passionate about their jobs and their role as leaders. “And when people love what they’re doing,” Heil believes, “that’s when they come to see that anything is possible.”

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