When Leadership Makes a Difference

Exemplary leaders face difficult circumstances, work with others to devise plans for addressing these circumstances, cultivate support for these plans, and execute plans with a degree of success. Such success in difficult circumstances is possible.  However, as the following vignettes illustrate, leadership is crucial.  If top leaders remain stewards of the status quo, fundamental change will not happen.  Leadership is the most important competency augmented by vision, strategy, communications, and collaboration.

National leaders are among the most obvious exemplars.  Abraham Lincoln and the Civil War (1861-1865), as chronicled in Team of Rivals (Goodwin, 2006), showcased his abilities as a shrewd navigator of people and positions to achieve enormous, albeit painful, success.  Teddy Roosevelt and the Progressive Era (1901-1909), chronicled in The Bully Pulpit (Goodwin, 2013), illustrated commitments to basic principles rather than the power brokers.

Franklin Roosevelt and the New Deal (1933-1945), combined with Winston Churchill and World War II (1940-1945), are wonderfully portrayed in Fateful Choices (Kershaw, 2007).  They needed to negotiate feasible and viable decisions to address and counter decisions by Hitler, Mussolini, Stalin, and Tojo.  These two leaders needed to understand their respective constituencies and how they could engender support for a cataclysmic confrontation.  They succeeded.

Corporate leaders might include Carnegie, Morgan, Rockefeller, and Vanderbilt, but amassing monopolistic power does not seem to me to epitomize leadership as much as accumulation of raw market power.  Instead, consider Louis Gerstner and IBM (1993-2002), Bill Gates and Microsoft (1975-2000), and Steve Jobs and Apple (1976-2011).  These leaders transformed their enterprises.

IBM had its highest share price in 1990, but was on the path to losing billions in 1993.  Louis Gerstner, as new IBM CEO, is widely credited with transforming IBM.  Gerstner joined IBM in April 1993. During his tenure, the company’s share price increased more than 800 percent, and its market value grew by $180 billion. The company also gained market share in key strategic areas, including servers, software, storage and microelectronics.

Microsoft at first dismissed the Internet and Netscape’s web browser, introduced in 1994.  By May of 1995, however, Microsoft CEO Bill Gates had thrown his company wholeheartedly into joining the “Internet tidal wave.”  They released Internet Explorer as an add-on for Windows 95.  More recently, Microsoft introduced Azure cloud computing services in 2010 and now is second in market share behind Amazon Web Services. 

Apple was on the brink of fizzling out, struggling to find a consistently profitable source of revenue.  Instead of continuing to aimlessly pursue marginal product ideas, Apple, with Steve Jobs again leading, began to focus once more on creating beautiful consumer electronics, starting with the iMac in 1998. The iPod was an even bigger success, selling over 100 million units within six years of its 2001 launch. The iPhone, another smash hit, was released in 2007 and resulted in enormous year-over-year increases in sales. The iPad followed in 2010.  Apple changed its name in 2007 from Apple Computer to just Apple.

Academia has been led by many transformational leaders.  Charles Eliot, President of Harvard (1869-1909) transformed this provincial college into a pre-eminent American research university. Karl Compton, President of MIT (1930-1948) and highly involved in supporting World War II efforts, transformed MIT to become a national research asset.  The federal funds that subsequently flowed to MIT have been immense.  More recently, Charles Vest, President at MIT (1990-2004) and the National Academy of Engineering (2007-2013), spearheaded expansions into the fields of brain and cognitive sciences, nanotechnology, genomic medicine, biological engineering, and engineering systems.

Wayne Clough, President at Georgia Tech (1994-2008), oversaw $1 billion in new construction, increased retention and graduation rates, achieved a higher nationwide ranking and pursued a much larger student body, including programs which encouraged undergraduate research, offered international experiences, and made college more affordable for low-income students. Clough went on to become Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution (2008-2014).  His Provost, Jean-Lou Chameau became President of Cal Tech (2006-2013).

The above listing only includes men, mainly because political, industrial, and academic organizations were almost always led by white men.  Women found other paths to leadership.  Clara Barton founded the American Red Cross in 1881.  Margaret Sanger opened the first birth control clinic in the United States in 1916, which evolved into the Planned Parenthood Federation.

The early 20th century was an innovative period for cosmetics. Elizabeth Arden founded her cosmetics empire Elizabeth Arden, Inc. in 1910.  Helena Rubinstein founded Helena Rubinstein Inc. cosmetics company in 1915.  Both women became among the richest women in the world.

Madam C.J. Walker made her fortune by developing and marketing a line of cosmetics and hair care products for black women through the Madam C. J. Walker Manufacturing Company, founded in 1910. She is recognized as the first female self-made millionaire in America.

Women comprised almost 60% of US college students in 2020.  Almost 51% of students in medical schools and more than 52% of the students in law schools were women.  Women comprise 27% of the Members of Congress.  Roughly 70% are Democrats.  Much of the growth in female Members has come since the 1990s.  There is a steadily growing number, now over 40, of female CEOs among the Fortune 500. These trends portend increasing numbers of women in leadership positions.

Leadership is not just a matter of being in charge, which can be characterized as management or perhaps administration. Exemplary leaders face difficult circumstances, work with others to devise plans for addressing these circumstances, cultivate support for these plans, and execute plans with a degree of success.  Management or administration are seldom adequate in such situations.  Leadership is the most important competency augmented by vision, strategy, communications, and collaboration.

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