Leading in Unnerving Times

Warren Bennis: I don’t recall a time like today. A time when it’s clear that we don’t have the answers, when younger people may know more than their seniors and the importance of experience is declining, when the foundations of success have morphed from natural resources to human capital, when the economy is changing at warp speed and the life of the proverbial deal-making, world-shaking, tyrannical mogul just doesn’t cut it, when employees really are a company’s most valuable asset. You can see it all reflected in CEO turnover. Forget that within the last year, the CEOs of Procter & Gamble, Xerox, Kodak and Coke have had to resign. That’s small beer when you consider that CEOs appointed after 1985 are three times more likely to be fired than CEOs who were appointed before 1985 and that 34% of Fortune 100 companies have replaced their CEOs since 1995. It has been said of a recently fired CEO, “He didn’t get small; the world got bigger.”

Most managers find it unnerving to be thrown into situations they can’t anticipate. Accustomed to being on top of everything, they are now experiencing doubt. And they should be. As organizational-behavior professor Karl Weick has suggested, our contemporary age should consider the “legitimization of doubt.” The really great people know they need new tools and new ways of thinking about leadership. They make it a point of learning how to learn. All of you are leadership educators and have witnessed and participated in the current burst of interest in leadership education. What’s your take on it?

Kevin Cashman: We’re leaving a period of history and trying to live in it at the same time; people are interested in leadership education because it’s necessary for the transition.

David Peterson: But companies are focusing on doing the old leadership programs better; what they need is a new approach.

Paul Hogan: Our businesses are changing in response to competition, the Internet and deregulation. When a management team can’t see the problems coming, companies often have to get a team that can. However, the new people may have no experience as managers — hence the interest in leadership education. Also, employees often know more than managers, so managers have to ask for ideas on running the business and then learn how to bring diverse opinions into a cohesive strategy.<

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