A Return to the Power of Ideas

Deal making and salesmanship are giving way to creativity and invention as the driving leadership ethos in corporate America.

The array of charismatic CEOs who have begun to give up the reins of blue-chip corporate America fall into several distinct genres. There are the savvy dealmakers like GE’s Jack Welch, IBM’s Louis Gerstner and Citi-group’s Sandy Weill, leaders who deferred innovation and charmed Wall Street. There are the rogue, self-styled serial acquirers, like Tyco’s Dennis Kozlowski, WorldCom’s Bernard “Bernie” Ebbers and Global Crossing’s Gary Winnick, executives who ignored innovation and indulged in corruption. Then there are the faux inventors and pitchmen of the new economy like Webvan’s George Shaheen, whose pretensions to innovation were little more than vaporous self-promotion.

Taking their place is a new breed of CEO that, despite paying respectful homage to their predecessors, largely eschew the mantle of the dealmaker and the brazen swagger of the salesman. Instead, they are focused on creativity and innovation and on reviving and polishing the legacies of their enterprises. This new “new thing” is really a return to the spirit of the titans of the old economy —leaders like GE’s ingenious Thomas Edison, IBM’s visionary Tom Watson Jr. and MCI’s entrepreneurial Bill McGowan — and a revival of such lost legacies as that of Polaroid’s Edwin Land, RCA’s David Sarnoff, Xerox’s Joe Wilson, Hewlett-Packard’s David Packard and Westinghouse’s George Westinghouse. Although these leaders varied greatly in their professional backgrounds, they were of one mind when it came to their ideas about enterprise building. As Edison, who held 1,093 patents, famously put it,“Genius is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration.” Land, second only to Edison with more than 500 patents, once told me that beyond his filtration-of-light instant photography, his proudest creation was Polaroid Corp.’s collegial, knowledge-seeking corporate culture, which he termed a “noble prototype in industry.”

That kind of thinking — the emphasis on invention in all its forms — has always been revered by entrepreneurs. Steven Jobs credited Land’s inspiration for the early culture of Apple Computer Inc. Michael Dell launched a computer company in his college dorm room and quickly invited 70-year-old technology visionary George Kozmetsky, Teledyne Technologies’ former CEO, to sit on his board. Kozmetsky’s hands-on, continually self-evaluative style remains instilled in Dell’s company to this day. Bill Gates, too, is renowned for his efforts to spark redefinitions of Microsoft Corp. at least every three years to ensure that the company stays relentlessly on the edge of innovation.

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