The Three Ways of Great Leaders

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In my morning trawl through the web, I came across this …


From Fast Company, by Bill Breen – September 2005

“What are the elements of this alloy we call “Leadership”?

Certainly, they include vision and integrity, perseverance and courage, a hunger for innovation, and a willingness to take risks. But in building their list of the top business leaders of the past century, Harvard Business School professors Anthony J. Mayo and Nitin Nohria have unearthed an immutable attribute that’s shared by all of the giants of business: They had an innate ability to read the forces that shaped the times in which they lived — and to seize on the resulting opportunities.

Henry Ford, Ray Kroc, Estee Lauder, Jack Welch — these business masters had more than their fair share of what Mayo and Nohria call “contextual intelligence.” That is, they possessed an acute sensitivity to the social, political, technological, and demographic contexts that came to define their eras. And they adapted their enterprises to best respond to those forces. Their outsized success at sensing opportunities and capitalizing on them had a dual effect: Just as the times profoundly influenced these business masters, they, in turn, profoundly influenced their times.

“We’ve always treated the historical context of a particular time as a kind of sidebar to any discussion about business leadership,” says Nohria, a coauthor of 10 books on leadership and organizational change. “But we’ve found that context is far more salient than we ever imagined.”

Four years ago, Mayo and Nohria set out to fill a void in the field of management thinking: the lack of a canon of history’s greatest business leaders. Students of literature read the classics of Shakespeare, Milton, and Joyce; the Harvard professors believed that students of business should understand the history and critical biographies of Sloan, Procter, Disney, and the other business leaders from the past century who profoundly shaped American life. So Mayo and Nohria identified 1,000 great chief executives and company founders of the 20th century; they then surveyed 7,000 business executives, asking them to evaluate and rank the original list of 1,000. Out of this, they produced a ranking of the top 100 business leaders of all time.

As the pair dug into the lives of their 1,000 leaders, they began to glean how contextual intelligence is an underappreciated but all-encompassing differentiator between success and failure. Seeing how context creates different kinds of business opportunities, the authors categorized their business legends by the different types of opportunities they pursued. Their expanded scope has resulted in a groundbreaking book on business leadership, to be published next month by Harvard Business School Press: In Their Time: The Greatest Business Leaders of the 20th Century.

In an interview, Nohria identified three prototypical leadership types — the entrepreneurial leader, the leader as manager, and the charismatic leader — and showed how each used their contextual intelligence to thrive in their times. “Leaders and those who aspire to lead benefit from having a sense of history,” he says. “Not because history repeats itself. History’s real value is that it allows you to imagine what’s possible.” Here, in his own words, Nohria shows that there is more than one path to becoming a great leader. In fact, there are three.

1. The Entrepreneurial Leader: C.W. Post

“At the turn of the last century, C.W. Post was an itinerant salesman who traveled through Michigan, which was the Silicon Valley of its time. It was the epicenter of more than 300 car companies, which spawned scores more companies. Entrepreneurship was in the air. Post didn’t directly exploit these technologies, but he did sense a gathering of forces that created the possibility for a new business opportunity…..”


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