Thursday, August 12, 2010

If I sat next to David Gergen on the plane....

The other night, I flew on a late night flight from LAX to SFO.  Also on the plane was David Gergen, CNN senior political analyst and advisor to 4 US Presidents. You always imagine what you’d talk about sitting next to someone like Mr. Gergen (or if he’d just sleep on the plane, like I do).

So, the next morning I read this interview with Gergen by Chris Stanley of HSM.  It’s just how I could hear us talking in row 11.

You’ve served under four different presidents.  Which ones did you find most impressive from a leadership point of view?

The single most impressive leader I worked for was Reagan.  He was a conviction politician in the Margaret Thatcher style in that he had deep seated beliefs and principles that guided him.  Both the country and his team knew what it was that ultimately he was trying to accomplish.  Carter who was his predecessor was very wishy-washy.  You never knew from one day to the next in what direction he was going to go in.  Reagan was very different in that sense, just as Thatcher and others have been.  At the same time, in pursuing those principles, he could be quite flexible in means.  He could tack left or right in order to get there.  I have come to believe that “steady in principle, flexible in means” is a very important facet of leadership.  Beyond that, Reagan had a contagious optimism which was very important.  Even if you didn’t particularly agree with his policies, he gave you a sense of feeling more secure, that you were going to get there.

How would you assess the importance of charisma in a leader as opposed to intellect?

I am persuaded by Jim Collins’ analysis that charismatic leadership at the corporate level is much overrated.  But I think it has an important role in politics.  The whole theory of Good to Great is that people who are not very charismatic, who are humble and self-effacing but very steady, persistent, and strong tend to make better corporate leaders.  You add to that theories of emotional intelligence and you've got the makings of a good CEO.  I do think in politics some charisma makes a difference however.  The politicians who have been most effective over the years have also been those who have had a degree of charisma.

I also believe that in politics, as in corporate life, that intellect is important.  I think you do have to have a grasp of the job.  Curiosity is at the foundation of intellect.  George W. Bush had a perfectly good mind - he just wasn’t very curious.  So he didn’t start asking a lot of questions about how the world worked until he got into office.  He tried hard to learn, but he was training on the job.  I think the better leaders are the ones who have been working and asking questions for a long time and who have become more seasoned by the time they get there.  His father, for example, was a much more curious person about the world.  He had a very good sense of how the world ran before he got into office, and he was a very good foreign policy leader as a result.

What I think is dangerous, though, is to put all the emphasis on intellect and not on character.  I think character remains bedrock.  The two smartest presidents I worked for were either completely undone by their character flaws as with Nixon, or partially undone as with Clinton.  Nixon was the best strategist I ever met.  He had an extraordinary capacity to look 20 or 30 years into the future and act accordingly.  Clinton was a very different kind of mind, very tactical, a mind that was not so imaginative.  He was very good at integrating lots and lots of information.  He had a very solid grasp of policy.  But he obviously had some character flaws, and they upended him.  He fell short of what he might have been.

I think a leader also needs to be ambitious.  You’ve got to have an inner fire.  So for me the three principle elements of leadership are professional competence, character and a level of ambition, and inner fire that will get you there.

Bill George talks about the need for a new style of leadership in the 21st century.  Would you say that business leaders require different skills today than 30 or 40 years ago?

I do think that context matters.  And I do think the 21st century makes different demands.  But I do think there are some things that don’t change across time.   What I’ve been talking about are the things that haven’t changed.  Character is as important in the 21st century as it was in the 19th or 20th.  I think there are some things that are imperishable.  But there are also some things that have changed.  The 21st century does require a capacity to work in teams far more than in the past.  If you don’t have a good team around you as a leader and as a corporation, you are a fool.

I also think that a leader today requires a greater sense of international perspective than ever before; whether it's language or cultural appreciation.  It certainly requires a willingness to live in a more transparent world with far more accountability.  We have moved away from the top down, leader knows all model, to one where you push power down into the organization.  You ask people, especially knowledge workers, to be more self-reliant and have ideas bubbling up not down.  It’s much more of an influence model.

How do corporate leaders go about restoring confidence in their own leadership and business as a whole?

They’re going to have to be extremely prudent in their behavior.  Even as you build your corporation, you’re going to have to make sure that your people are appropriately and competitively paid.  You’re going to be very aware that if you pay people a lot of money, you're going to risk the government coming after you in some fashion - whether that’s flogging you or trying to raise your tax rates.  Government's going to be looking for revenue.  I think you're going to have to be very careful about trying to maintain not only good quarterly earnings but your corporate brand and your reputation.  Look what's happened to Goldman Sachs.  It’s rare you've ever seen a company fall this far this fast in terms of its corporate reputation.  That’s not to say that they won’t dig themselves out - and I think they will - but you can get hit very fast very hard for symbolic things.

No comments: