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Musings on leadership from reading the news

As leaders, we quickly learn that much of the success of our organization depends on our abilities to attract, motivate, inspire and retain skilled, committed people. Several newspaper articles over the last week gave me some special insights into how to do it right. From Ahmet Ertegan and Tom Friedman I learned that trusting in our people to do the right thing is essential. Walter Isaacson used lessons from Steve Jobs to point out the critical role of intuition and attention to the needs of customers. Ross Douthat reminds us that leaders have much to be humble about.

See what you think:

From the Wall Street Journal review of Robert Greenfield’s new book, The Last Sultan, on Ahmet Ertegun, the famous record company executive:

Ertegun founded Atlantic Records in 1947 with his friend and fellow jazz and blues lover Herb Abramson, though the major shareholder was the Ertegun family dentist, Vahdi Sabit. On the original three-page contract, the name ‘Horizon Records, Inc.’ is crossed out and replaced by “Atlantic Recording Corporation.” Ertegun explained: “The name Atlantic was probably about our eightieth choice, because every name we came up with . . . had already been taken. . . . It wasn’t a name we were crazy about—it was so generic. There are so many Atlantics, A&P and all that, but finally we said, who cares what we call it?”

Ertegun could play plenty of angles, but his primary occupation was simply being out and about. David Geffen, the record executive and film producer, recalls asking Ertegun how to make money in music only to have the older man stand up and shuffle across the floor. After Mr. Geffen says twice that he doesn’t get it, Ertegun finally says: “If you’re lucky, you bump into a genius and that makes you rich in the music business!”

No mention is made here of the thousands of non-starters that Ertegun must have encountered in his nightly prowls. His focus was on the geniuses, and once he found them he gave them free rein. Rather than try to shape his artists’ work to meet the desires of some perceived audience, as other executives did, Ertegun trusted the instincts of his artists as he trusted his own.

New York Times’ columnist Tom Friedman’s article titled “Help Wanted”:

We are present again at one of those great unravelings — just like after World War I, World War II and the cold war. But this time there was no war. All of these states have been pulled down from within — without warning. Why?

The main driver, I believe, is the merger of globalization and the Information Technology revolution. Both of them achieved a critical mass in the first decade of the 21st century that has resulted in the democratization — all at once — of so many things that neither weak states nor weak companies can stand up against. We’ve seen the democratization of information, where everyone is now a publisher; the democratization of war-fighting, where individuals became superempowered (enough so, in the case of Al Qaeda, to take on a superpower); the democratization of innovation, wherein start-ups using free open-source software and “the cloud” can challenge global companies.

And, finally, we’ve seen what Mark Mykleby, a retired Marine colonel and former adviser to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, calls ‘the democratization of expectations’ — the expectation that all individuals should be able to participate in shaping their own career, citizenship and future, and not be constricted.

‘The days of leading countries or companies via a one-way conversation are over,” says Dov Seidman, the C.E.O. of LRN and the author of the book “How.” “The old system of ‘command and control’ — using carrots and sticks — to exert power over people is fast being replaced by ‘connect and collaborate’ — to generate power through people.” Leaders and managers cannot just impose their will, adds Seidman. “Now you have to have a two-way conversation that connects deeply with your citizens or customers or employees.”

A lot of C.E.O.’s will tell you that this shift has taken them by surprise, and they are finding it hard to adjust to the new power relationships with customers and employees.

“As power shifts to individuals,” argues Seidman, “leadership itself must shift with it — from coercive or motivational leadership that uses sticks or carrots to extract performance and allegiance out of people to inspirational leadership that inspires commitment and innovation and hope in people.”

An opinion piece in the New York Times by Walter Isaacson on Steve Jobs:

One of the questions I wrestled with when writing about Steve Jobs was how smart he was. On the surface, this should not have been much of an issue. You’d assume the obvious answer was: he was really, really smart. Maybe even worth three or four reallys. After all, he was the most innovative and successful business leader of our era and embodied the Silicon Valley dream writ large: he created a start-up in his parents’ garage and built it into the world’s most valuable company.

So was Mr. Jobs smart? Not conventionally. Instead, he was a genius. That may seem like a silly word game, but in fact his success dramatizes an interesting distinction between intelligence and genius. His imaginative leaps were instinctive, unexpected, and at times magical. They were sparked by intuition, not analytic rigor. Trained in Zen Buddhism, Mr. Jobs came to value experiential wisdom over empirical analysis. He didn’t study data or crunch numbers but like a pathfinder, he could sniff the winds and sense what lay ahead.

He told me he began to appreciate the power of intuition, in contrast to what he called “Western rational thought,” when he wandered around India after dropping out of college. “The people in the Indian countryside don’t use their intellect like we do,” he said. “They use their intuition instead … Intuition is a very powerful thing, more powerful than intellect, in my opinion. That’s had a big impact on my work.”

Mr. Jobs’s intuition was based not on conventional learning but on experiential wisdom. He also had a lot of imagination and knew how to apply it. As Einstein said, “Imagination is more important than knowledge.”

The ability to merge creativity with technology depends on one’s ability to be emotionally attuned to others. Mr. Jobs could be petulant and unkind in dealing with other people, which caused some to think he lacked basic emotional awareness. In fact, it was the opposite. He could size people up, understand their inner thoughts, cajole them, intimidate them, target their deepest vulnerabilities, and delight them at will. He knew, intuitively, how to create products that pleased, interfaces that were friendly, and marketing messages that were enticing.

Ross Douthat, Op-Ed columnist for the New York Times in a piece titled “Our Reckless Meritocracy”:

“In meritocracies, though, it’s the very intelligence of our leaders that creates the worst disasters. Convinced that their own skills are equal to any task or challenge, meritocrats take risks that lower-wattage elites would never even contemplate, embark on more hubristic projects, and become infatuated with statistical models that hold out the promise of a perfectly rational and frictionless world. (Or as Calvin Trillin put it in these pages, quoting a tweedy WASP waxing nostalgic for the days when Wall Street was dominated by his fellow bluebloods: “Do you think our guys could have invented, say, credit default swaps? Give me a break! They couldn’t have done the math.”)

Inevitably, pride goeth before a fall. Robert McNamara and the Vietnam-era whiz kids thought they had reduced war to an exact science. Alan Greenspan and Robert Rubin thought that they had done the same to global economics. The architects of the Iraq war thought that the American military could liberate the Middle East from the toils of history; the architects of the European Union thought that a common currency could do the same for Europe. And Jon Corzine thought that his investment acumen equipped him to turn a second-tier brokerage firm into the next Goldman Sachs, by leveraging big, betting big and waiting for the payoff.

What you see in today’s Republican primary campaign is a reaction to exactly these kinds of follies — a revolt against the ruling class that our meritocracy has forged, and a search for outsiders with thinner résumés but better instincts.

In place of reckless meritocrats, we don’t need feckless know-nothings. We need intelligent leaders with a sense of their own limits, experienced people whose lives have taught them caution. We still need the best and brightest, but we need them to have somehow learned humility along the way.”

What do you think? What did the above teach you about nonprofit leadership?

Topics: Nonprofit Leadership and Practice