Making Sense of Leadership

November 29, 2009

Making Sense of Leadership

     The Economist’s The World in 2010 is out. I spent time reading it over the Thanksgiving holiday. The articles range from President Obama to Chinese workers to the FIFA World Cup to the swine-flu to museums to Shakira to the crisis in human genetics to e-readers. It has something for everyone. There were many insightful ideas but the one that I particularly liked was by the fairly new CEO of Yahoo! Carol Bartz. Her topic was Leadership in the Information Age which she knows a lot about as the head of one of the world’s largest information resources.
When it comes to CEOs, Bartz mentioned how unsettling it can be to learn how new employees know everything about you on their first day. They have scoured the Internet, read your speeches, seen your interviews and picked up all the gossip they will ever need to have a good conversation about your reputation in the cafeteria or online. She writes, “At some companies, insider information can barely be said to exist.”

She also says, and I totally agree, that one remark that is out of context or a slight misstatement can be debilitating to new CEOs.  Reputations can be damaged over less than Twitter’s 140 characters. Old CEOs as well.  Bartz writes: “Public companies in particular are so besieged by 24-hour commentary and instant opinion that many managers find themselves paralyzed.” After the long holiday weekend with Tiger Woods in the news 24/7 for his early morning car accident, I have to say that the commentariat have been very busy. But back to Bartz. She discusses in the article how hard it is to lead when everyone is second-guessing you and the competition is helping to feed the frenzy on how unfit leadership is. It is a high stakes game today.

How are leaders expected to lead when they are on stage for everyone to throw tomatoes or applaud madly? Bartz suggests that the old model of command and control is obsolete. Leaders have to change direction and be able to explain this new world order to those around them. To make that happen, she suggests listening carefully to employees. Leading from the bottom up. Second, she recommends finding the thought leaders within your organization. Why? Bartz says: “But equally pressing is finding those employees who, though perhaps not the best managers, have the ability to digest and interpret information for others. Grooming these in-house ideas people helps foster a culture of openness to fresh thinking—the greatest energy an organization can have.” Leaders need to lead by ideas, not by force of power. Products and services alone are not enough.

The CEOs of the next decade will need to take information from wherever they may find them. Inside. Outside. Inside out. One thing is for sure. They won’t find what they need to compete successfully at HQ. They need to be outside their corner offices and starting conversations with all types of people. As I see it, leadership will be all about making sense of this brave new world. Let’s call it sense-making leadership for 2010. That’s what will make CEO reputations worthy this time around.

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Leslie Gaines-Ross
Leslie Gaines-Ross
lesliegainesross@gmail.com

As Weber Shandwick’s Chief Reputation Strategist, I focus on the ever changing world of reputation. For the past 25 years, I have relentlessly observed, researched and commented on the rise and fall of reputations.

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