Heifetz and Linsky say the value added by leaders in change interventions is not the work they do directly but, rather, their success in getting followers to take responsibility for solving their own problems. In doing so, however, leaders invariably encounter resistance and leave themselves vulnerable to attack. Nonetheless, the authors encourage readers to take the risk of leading, to “put yourself and your ideas on the line” because, in the end, that’s what it really means to be alive. They say there is such intrinsic value in leading that we should all partake in the risks, responsibilities, and rewards of trying to make our organizations, and the people in them, perform up to the level of their potential. And they say we should do so even though the effectiveness of such leadership can’t be gauged by conventional metrics.
Modesty and Greatness
However, consultant and former professor Jim Collins offers some fairly convincing metrics for doing just that, gauging leadership effectiveness, in his best-selling book (and strategy+business’s “best business book of the year” in 2000-2001) Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap … and Others Don’t (HarperBusiness, 2001). Measuring sustained results over a period of 15 years, Collins identifies 11 well-established companies that made the nearly impossible leap from being “good” to being “great.” The most important factor in those transformations is what he calls Level 5 Leadership, “a paradoxical blend of personal humility and professional will.” Such leaders “channel their ego needs away from themselves and into the larger goal of building a great company.” (For more on the Level 5 Leadership framework, see “Climbing to Greatness with Jim Collins,” by Art Kleiner, s+b, Fourth Quarter 2001.)
Significantly, the CEOs of the great companies Collins identifies are not the high-profile celebrities whose faces regularly grace the covers of magazines. The only CEO he mentions who has anything amounting to a high profile is the late Ken Iverson of Nucor Steel (whose own book on leadership, Plain Talk: Lessons from a Business Maverick [John Wiley & Sons, 1997], we reviewed here last year). Instead, Collins says his leaders modestly work behind the scenes to build the capacities of their followers, getting them to “face the brutal facts” that they have to change their own behavior if the organization is to achieve its potential for greatness. As in the Heifetz model, Collins’s CEOs “lead with questions, not answers”; “engage in dialogue and debate, not coercion”; “conduct autopsies without blame”; and “build red flag mechanisms that turn [data] into information that cannot be ignored.” Collins admits he doesn’t know why these leaders developed the way they did, but he suspects it had to do with such factors as “self-reflection, conscious personal development, a mentor, a great teacher, loving parents, a significant life experience…” — which turn out to be the very developmental factors Bennis and Thomas identify.
In essence, the convincing body of data Collins amasses (with the help of a team of researchers) is consistent with the theories advanced by Bennis and Heifetz: The characteristics of the leaders Collins cites fit their models; their models explain the success of his examples. The overlay between his facts and their theories may not be perfect, but it is about as close as it’s possible to get when describing the complexity of human behavior. We suggest there is utility in reading these three books in conjunction with each other, because Collins provides the convincing examples missing in the other two works, and Bennis’s and Heifetz’s theories help readers fill in the blanks to explain why and how Collins’s great leaders got that way. Moreover, the findings of all three books about how leaders use data, rather than charisma, to get their followers to confront the “brutal facts of reality” squares with our own study about the characteristics of “yellow-light leadership.” (See “Yellow-Light Leadership: How the World's Best Companies Manage Uncertainty,” s+b, Second Quarter 2002). Although no one has all the answers with regard to leadership effectiveness, if one adds up the many available bits and pieces of knowledge, a generally consistent pattern of behavior may come into view.