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Published: February 14, 2003


Noel M. Tichy: The Thought Leader Interview

TICHY: Bottom-up is junk. The top has to take step number one. The CEO must have an objective — “that’s where we’re going” — have a teachable point of view and get a top team aligned before he or she can cascade it to the rest of the organization. That said, culturally, that can be very difficult to navigate, because in a large company, you have lots of people who run their little empires.

S+B: How do you make change happen in those situations?

TICHY: For successful leaders, the way you manage is much more Machiavellian than is conventionally perceived today. There’s a whole set of fun rules for the successful leaders. They do things like make history by volunteering to keep the notes. There’s also something called the “garbage can theory” of decision making. The skillful Machiavellian leader creates a garbage can and everyone throws their stuff into it, but [the leader makes] the real decisions over here.

S+B: You said that a leader must have a “teachable point of view.” Is that the same as a “belief system”?

TICHY: No. Let me explain it by example. Imagine you’re a tennis coach. Fifty people show up at your five-day tennis camp. You better have a teachable point of view on tennis. You’ve got to have more than a set of rules about what your students should do on the court: You have to have a set of ideas about how you teach the backhand, the forehand, the serve, the rules of tennis. If you’re a good coach, there’s an intellectual framing; you have a set of values, because values support the ideas. If ideas are all I have, I can hand out a brochure to these 50 people and say, “Read it.” I ain’t going to get you to sweat eight hours a day if I don’t have a teachable point of view about emotional energy. I’ve got to get you excited about those ideas and values. And then if I’m a good coach, I have to make the yes/no decision about people after I’ve coached them, about who’s on the team and off the team. That’s a teachable point of view. To run a company, you have to have the same thing.

S+B: Your new book, The Cycle of Leadership, is in large part about developing and using a teachable point of view. Your goal, as you put it, is to create a “virtuous teaching cycle” in a company. What is that?

TICHY: That’s the core DNA of this thing. If we think back about the lousy teachers we’ve had, either they didn’t care, or the teaching was one-way, or it was autocratic.

S+B: You criticize Eckhard Pfeiffer, the former CEO of Compaq computers, as an example of the one-way teacher.

TICHY: Yes. The one-way leader is someone who just turns the megaphone on. It’s the CEO coming in with the teleprompter and the speech, or the autocrat who doesn’t learn. It turned out that that style worked at Compaq during the turnaround. But the world got more complicated. And if you don’t engage your people, you can’t align them. The way people get aligned is by having ownership together — we work some stuff out, now I’m committed to it.

That’s the virtuous teaching cycle. When you think about good teachers and teaching experiences, you would describe these as experiences where the teacher and learner both learned, both gained, both improved. I really think that is the guts of what we’re talking about.

S+B: That’s simultaneously bottom-up and top-down.

TICHY: But the conditions for doing it have to be controlled by the people in power. The fact that Welch, and now Jeff Immelt, can go to Crotonville and engage in a virtuous teaching cycle is not just because they have the plant and equipment. Jack, and now Jeff, show up with an agenda, and with a teachable point of view. And you should be doing it with your customers, and with your suppliers, as well.

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