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 / Spring 2003 / Issue 30(originally published by Booz & Company)


Noel M. Tichy: The Thought Leader Interview

I did most of my work in the ’70s with areas underserved by health care. That’s how I worked through my ambivalence: I felt that I could bring behavioral sciences and business to the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Health Center in the South Bronx. The first book I did was Organizations Designed for Primary Health Care. I then went off and ran the Hazard Family Health Service in Kentucky for a year in 1977-78, worked with Montefiore [Medical Center] in their residency program in social medicine.

S+B: You got your undergraduate degree from Colgate in ’68?

TICHY: It was that famous class of ’68, where you had Martin Luther King’s death —

S+B: — Bobby Kennedy’s murder.

TICHY: And then I came to Columbia to do my graduate work. It was an incredible time on the Columbia University campus, a real inflection point for me. My first research project was a project with the Bureau of Applied Social Research, with sociologists Allen Barton and Charles Kadushin, studying the impact of the Columbia uprising on faculty, students, and community, doing surveys. I couldn’t have parachuted into a better place.

And it almost didn’t happen. In October 1967, Warren Bennis was starting a new doctoral program at the State University of New York at Buffalo. Even then, he was the pinnacle of what I wanted to be because he had written a lot of the most important organizational development books. The SUNY program read like my dream program. I was a senior at Colgate, I went up for the interview, I met with Warren. At the end of the interview he said, “Don’t bother applying. You don’t have a chance of getting into the program.” Today, he denies it. He says, “You rejected us.” I say, “No way.” Warren tells me it didn’t happen, but it did happen. And thank God I didn’t go there. If I hadn’t gone to Columbia, I would not be sitting here.

S+B: So many of the folks who came through the cauldron of the ’60s at some point began to see the business organization as the best place for social change.

TICHY: I saw a real bridge. I wanted to study different kinds of change agents. I wanted to know what their cognitive map was for diagnosing their systems, what their values were, and what their tools were, and how all of that fit together. I broadly defined a change agent as anyone who was interested in purposeful change. So I had Minutemen, I had Black Panthers, I had radical anarchists, I had McKinsey consultants. I had 133 change agents. I had some of the wildest interviews. I went to a cocktail party in 1971 in New York City. There were Black Panthers there, and there were white Minutemen. They said, “Look, we agree on the means, we disagree on the ends.” It was Looney Toon time.

S+B: Were there other inflection points that led you to your current interests?

TICHY: The other one was going to GE’s Leadership Development Center at Crotonville. My life changed. I went in April of ’85. I was teaching at the University of Michigan at the time. I actually showed up right after Jack Welch had done a session the night before. It was the worst day of teaching I had ever done. I was finishing the transformational leadership book. What I didn’t know at the time was, in 1985 — I don’t know if you’ve seen the Control Your Destiny or Someone Else Will book, page 1.

S+B: There’s a story you tell of a session in which GE executives are discussing Welch among themselves, and they put up on a board two thoughts.

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