NOT NECESSARILY GENIUS: Reflections on Leadership from the Wharton Leadership Conference

(This article also appeared in the July 2008 issue of the Wharton Leadership Digest)

Leadership is not necessarily about smartness or genius or some other specific trait. That’s not only what I heard from speakers at the 12th Annual Wharton Leadership Conference on June 18, but what I observed as each speaker – a leader in his or her own right – displayed unique insights and styles. That people with different talents and abilities can be great leaders is an inspiring thought for those of us who underestimate our own ability to lead. Many of us suffer from the misconception that leadership requires superhuman talents. In fact, as I learned at the conference, the best leaders are often the most humane.

I was touched by the humility of Colleen Barrett, president of Southwest Airlines, who attributed her strength to her exuberant love for people and an emotional connection to her work. “We like people who take the business very seriously, but not themselves very seriously,” was how she summed up the culture in her company.

S.A. Ibrahim, CEO of the credit-risk management firm Radian Group, seemed to share a similar sense of passion for his work when he said, “You could do seemingly impossible things if you assumed that you had no choice but to do them.” At a personal level, I understood this statement as a deep commitment to excellence, where no half-hearted effort is considered satisfying. Ibrahim recalled at time when his company was forced to work with limited choices, and he told his employees: “Just because [our competitors] have the same paint brush and paper does not mean they can paint as well as us. We’re in the business of painting masterpieces.”

William Weldon, CEO and director of the board of Johnson & Johnson, highlighted the importance of flexibility in moving employees around so that they can find the place where they best learn and grow. In continuation of an idea mentioned earlier in the conference, he said that a leader doesn’t think of his task as being about him or her, but about the success of the larger group.

Amidst multiple challenges and external forces, however, a leader can easily lose touch with the larger perspectives of life. Wharton professor Stew Friedman, author of the new book Total Leadership, argued that each individual is a leader, charged with the task of identifying values and priorities and then aligning actions to reach those goals. Friedman advised individuals to take the sometimes difficult step of sitting down with important “stakeholders” in one’s life – whether co-workers, bosses or family members – to understand their expectations of one’s performance. The result, he said, is often surprising: We tend to expect more from ourselves than other people do, said Friedman. Having a clear and realistic sense of others’ expectations, then, can help focus our personal and professional lives.

New York Times business columnist Joe Nocera argued that a good leader cannot afford to be unreasonable and irritable, especially when working with bright people who have other opportunities. Citing several examples (and using some colorful language about Apple CEO Steve Jobs in particular), he read passages from his new book, Good Guys and Bad Guys, to make the point that leaders depend for their success on support from those who work for them.

Peter Cappelli, director of Wharton’s Center for Human Resources, asked the audience to think about their best developmental experience and whether or not it took place as part of a training course. Surprisingly for the audience – though perhaps not for Cappelli – most people’s most defining moments did not come as the result of a pre-planned course of action; rather, it happened on the fly, as a result of circumstance or chance. Cappelli encouraged leaders to create similar learning circumstances, and, sharing research from his new book, Talent on Demand, he showed how on-the-job training makes more strategic sense than formal coursework for companies in an era of high employee turnover.

Echoing this theme, Ken Chenault, CEO of American Express, explained how crisis can be a platform for constructive change. Chenault shared the story of the many challenges his company faced after 9/11 – including large layoffs – and how these painful transformations laid the groundwork for company cohesion and future financial progress. He defined leadership by paraphrasing Napolean: “A leader is someone who defines reality, and gives hope.” Chenault encouraged every person – regardless of title – to create his or her own brand of leadership based on personal core values.

Earlier in the day, former presidential adviser David Gergen shared his reflections on the leadership qualities of the US presidents. He identified leadership as a three-legged stool based on intelligence, character and ambition. A good leader’s ambition grows beyond the self to the greater good of their organization or country, he said. Gergen cautioned that intelligence alone is not sufficient for true leadership, since a critical balance of humility and toughness is required to compliment good judgment.

All these speakers, as well as questions from the audience, provided inspiration, but the words of T.S. Eliot words, quoted by speaker S. A. Ibrahim, have stayed with me: “Only those who will risk going too far can possibly find out how far one can go.”


Many thanks to Andrea Useem for her invaluable contribution in editing this.

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