Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Lincoln and leadership

Leadership, as I have noted earlier, is, perhaps, the most written about topic in the Harvard Business Review - it's covered even more than that other perennial favourite of management gurus, strategy. I am inclined to believe that if all the literature on leadership has simply led on to more literature, then leadership must be pretty difficult to teach or learn- either you have it or you don't and the only real teacher can be life itself.

This feeling was reinforced by an interview in the latest HBR on Abraham Lincoln and leadership. The interview is with historian Doris Goodwin, whose book, Team of Rivals, is the one book that President Obama said he would take to the White House, apart from the Bible. Goodwin says of Lincoln's secret of leadership:

Lincoln surrounded himself with people, including his rivals, who had strong egos and high ambitions; who felt free to question his authority; and who were unafraid to argue with him.
.....Obama is obviously trying to do the same thing by choosing his chief rival, Hillary Clinton, to be secretary of state; by picking rival Joe Biden as his vice president; and by including powerful Republicans in his cabinet like Robert Gates and Ray LaHood.

But you have to remember, the idea is not just to put your rivals in power—the point is that you must choose the best and most able people in the country, for the good of the country. Lincoln came to power when the nation was in peril, and he had the intelligence, and the self-confidence, to know that he needed the best people by his side, people who were leaders in their own right and who were very aware of their own strengths. That’s an important insight whether you’re the leader of a country or the CEO of a company.

Hmm.... Let me see.... I have worked for several organisations, corporate and academic, served as consultant to and board member on quite a few. How many places can I think of where the person at the top did what Lincoln did- put strong people, including rivals, in key positions and let them fight it out with him? Only one !- and this was my immediate boss, not the CEO.

This was one boss who did not feel insecure about having people superior to him working for him, indeed he openly declared that he was inferior. Did he make it to the top? No way- he didn't last long in the corporate world and ended up as a small farmer in his village.

It may be well be that you need Lincoln's ability to surround yourself with strong people in order to be a super-achiever. But this ability, I am afraid, is rare and I can't see that it is something that people can be taught. That is why Lincoln is Lincoln, one of the towering figures of all time while many corporate and other leaders have ended in the dust-bin of history.

1 comment:

Varun Jain ( ) said...

Respected Sir,i ve been following your blog for a while now as recommended by 1 of your student at IIMA. They r of great knowledge. Thank you Sir for creating such a blog where you can share your immense knowledge.
Sir my question to you is that US Bank,Goldman Saches was almost on verge on bankruptcy but yesterday only it was in news reflecting its 1.8billion$ dollars profit. How can it make a comeback at such a stage when economies of whole world r struggling. Do you think its total manipulation or politics?
Can this case be similar to that of big US companies like Chrysler,GM