A Fresh Perspective: Leadership as an Organizational Trait An Interview with James O’Toole

Russ Volckmann

Q: One thing from your writing is the idea that the focus on the heroic notion of leadership is destructive. Would you care to comment on that?

A: I don’t use the word ‘heroic,’ but I think it is dangerous to focus on leadership as an individual trait. It is also based on the fiction that in any one organization there is a ‘leader,’ the person who is at the top of the organization. I think, in fact, when you look at the greatest leaders they were always surrounded by a group of other outstanding leaders. These other people were every bit as responsible for the success of the organization, movement, company, or country as was the one leader at the top.

You can start with Jesus Christ. Christianity would not have survived if it had not been for his disciples, who were pretty good leaders themselves. You can move forward to the founders of this country and see that there wasn’t just one, there wasn’t just Washington. There were about a half dozen people around him who were almost as effective and as important as Washington was in terms of founding the country. When you look at the Civil Rights movement and Martin Luther King, Jr., it wasn’t just King. There was also Andy Young, Ralph Abernathy, Jesse Jackson, and about a half dozen other people who were like a ‘Who’s Who’ of African American leaders. They were all working very, very closely with King.

And it’s also true when you look at corporations. The first corporation that I dealt with in the sense of digging into and observing it was Motorola in the early 1980s. If you read the newspapers at the time, Motorola was all Bob Galvin. In fact, when you talked to Galvin you saw that the kind of leadership that he practiced was based on sharing of power. He tried to surround himself with people who were more talented and smarter than he was so that the company wouldn’t be limited by his own abilities. It was never about him. It was always about the company. It was about building the leadership capacity of Motorola. You can talk about literally dozens of people at Motorola who legitimately can be credited with the success of that company starting in the late 70’s and throughout the 80’s during Galvin’s time there.

The same can be said about almost every other major corporation in the U.S. If you look at the great turnaround at Ford at the time of team Taurus, and if you interview the people inside Ford and ask who was responsible, they’ll cite about a half dozen leaders. The more you push you would find that leadership went down to the plant level. It wasn’t just at the very top. I think that it is always overly simplified to talk about leadership as an individual trait. Whenever you dig into the organization, you find that many people being leaders.

Q: It’s really not just one individual; it’s collections of individuals. But they don’t act without of a context. There’s a context that I think you would say is very important, is that right?

A: Yes. You have to have the right culture, the right systems, the right processes, and the right rewards, everything in place so that all of those leaders can be effective. There are many organizations in which there are potential leaders, people who could be making a tremendous difference. But their hands are tied because they don’t have the authority. They don’t have the information. They don’t have the resources needed to be effective.

So, it isn’t just a question of having the talent on board, or even the willingness to lead. There also has to be the opportunity. The opportunity is really the environment in which you’re working, the organization or the system, depending whatever word you’re most comfortable with. But in the research that we did with Booz-Allen we looked at the various aspects in the system, one of the most important of which is rewards. If people are not rewarded for doing things to help advance the organization, or if they’re rewarded for the wrong things, there will be forces of misdirection or obstacles that prevent people from exerting initiative in terms of their own leadership.

Almost all of these major systems have to be consistent, or aligned. One of the real values of anthropology, or at least the social anthropology in which I was trained, is that it views organizations as systems, as complex wholes, all parts of which need to be mutually reinforcing if the overall system is to be effective. What you often get in business organizations is that some of those systems will be aligned, but some aren’t. So people get mixed signals, or they actually have obstacles thrown in their path even though they may be clearly told by the leader, “Here’s what we want to do.” But when they try to do it, they can’t because the systems aren’t aligned.

Q: What does it take to align the systems?

A: If you’re lucky, you inherit it as the organization builds under an entrepreneur or from the ground up organically. Things will fall into place just through trial and error; but most organizations don’t develop that way. They are designed or redesigned by individuals who make mistakes. So I think the first thing that has to happen is that leaders, and I say plural leaders, have to be conscious of the fact that they have systems that need to be aligned. They have to start measuring the systems and start thinking about them consciously.

There are very, very few leaders who are capable of consciously thinking about all the systems that need alignment. They tend to think about them piecemeal, responding as problems arise. So they work on them one at a time, rather than seeing how they all mutually interact with each other. Admittedly, that’s a very difficult thing to do. People are not trained to deal with a dozen variables in their heads at one time. Some people can think systemically like that, but for most of us, it’s a real stretch. We have to keep reminding ourselves to go back and to check when we start tinkering with one part of the system to make sure that it is going to line up with the other parts.

Q: In a way, what you’re speaking about now is the kind of behavior and organizational coherence that you focus on. You also talk about behavior and organizational agility. Do you want to comment on that?

A: Well, there is a lot of work in the last couple of years that shows that organizations have to be both aligned and adaptive. You have to have coherence, but at the same time an organizations needs the ability to innovate. People talk about such organizations as being ambidextrous. That’s hard to achieve because the more you try to get things aligned, the more you are viewed as limiting people’s options, their freedom and ability to take risks and to try new things. On the other hand, the more you encourage people to try new things, to take risks and to be innovative and entrepreneurial, the more it looks like you’re breaking down the coherence or the structure of the organization. In fact, great leaders are able to do both at the same time. Again, to be able to do that requires a leader to be conscious about doing so. One needs to be able to understand how to build an organization that has a coherent structure and, at the same time, encourages healthy innovation, entrepreneurial behavior, and risk-taking.

The person who is probably best at that in American corporate history was Bill Gore, CEO of W.L. Gore and Associates, makers of Gore-Tex. He was one of the few business leaders who I’ve ever read about who consciously-and what I mean by consciously is every single day in his life–thought about the issues of structure: How to structure his people in a way that would encourage them to be innovative, but innovative in an effective way that advanced the organization’s goals. Most business people are not organizationally creative in that way. Gore was really an exception. Not only did he think about it, he was successful at doing what he set out to do.

Q: While he had the focus on what needed to be done, rather than looking to himself to do it, he built a cadre of leaders around him who could help him accomplish that?

A: He not only built a cadre of leaders, he created a system in which they could succeed. That system was very consciously built. He saw that if you have people in large groups, they tend to become bureaucratic. So even though he had 10,000 employees, he tried to keep them in groups of 100 or maybe 200 at most so that they could be self managing. They could all know each other. They could behave as teams and not feel that they were lost in a large bureaucracy. When you start breaking up 10,000 people into groups of 100 or 200, you can create quite a managerial headache for yourself in terms of control. Gore’s genius was that he was able to focus the efforts of those people while at the same time giving them an incredible amount of freedom.

I don’t know if you know the work of E.F. Schumacher, who wrote Small is Beautiful. Schumacher says that the effective leader is like a balloon man who is holding onto the strings of a bunch of helium-filled balloons. You have seen them at circuses: They’ll be holding as many as 50 or a 100 really big balloons, each filled with helium and ready to float away. The total control the balloon man has is exerted simply by holding the strings the bottom. To Schumacher, that was the kind of leadership that one wants. You want all your people to be free to bounce around on their own, but nonetheless to be tethered to the organization in a positive way so they just don’t float off and become lost. I think that that’s what Bill Gore accomplished.

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