I spent last week at a conference for the enterprise resource planning suite currently used by the company for which I work. Not particularly interesting to most, and thus, not the topic of this article. What was of interest is what I found during my investigation of the conference agenda. One of the opening session keynotes was being delivered by General H. Norman Schwarzkopf. This kernel of information did exactly what it was intended to do: it piqued my curiosity. For, nowhere in my mind could I reconcile a technical conference with a presentation by General Schwarzkopf. Although most would characterize him as a leader worthy of a place in the history books, General Schwarzkopf is not the first name that pops into your head when you think, “business”.
Turned out that the keynote was about leadership. What is it? What are its key components? General Schwarzkopf stood in front of a crowd of thousands and openly admitted he did not have a clear answer for either of those questions. He related to his audience that in preparation for delivering his address, he started where many of us might: the dictionary.
Main Entry: lead·er·ship 1 : the office or position of a leader 2 : capacity to lead 3 : the act or an instance of leading 4 : LEADERS
He found this was of little help, so he looked a bit further. What’s a leader?
Main Entry: lead·er Pronunciation: 'lE-d&r 1 : something that leads : as a : a primary or terminal shoot of a plant b : TENDON, SINEW c plural : dots or hyphens (as in an index) used to lead the eye horizontally : ELLIPSIS 2 d chiefly British : a newspaper editorial e (1) : something for guiding fish into a trap (2) : a short length of material for attaching the end of a fishing line to a lure or hook 2 : a person who leads : as a : GUIDE, CONDUCTOR b (1) : a person who directs a military force or unit (2) : a person who has commanding authority or influence c (1) : the principal officer of a British political party (2) : a party member chosen to manage party activities in a legislative body (3) : such a party member presiding over the whole legislative body when the party constitutes a majority d (1) : CONDUCTOR c (2) : a first or principal performer of a group 3 : a horse placed in advance of the other horses of a team
Although he joked that he finally felt he was getting somewhere when he could relate the topic to fishing, he admitted that this shed little light on the heart of what constitutes leadership or what it means to be a leader. He was no further along than he was before he began. As a man that has been described as a leader by others for most of his career, not being able to clearly define this troubled him greatly.
General Schwarzkopf decided to take a different approach. He clearly knew what leadership was not. Leadership has absolutely nothing to do with one’s position. Leadership is not about making people do things. In fact, as he imparted to the audience, leadership has everything to do with “being able to inspire individuals to voluntarily do what is against their very nature to do”. The example was given of a country calling on young men and women to put themselves in harm’s way in defense of something larger than themselves. General Schwarzkopf also said that leadership has nothing to do with developing a product, charting a project, or fiscal accountability…although, he admitted, these are all excellent skills to have. He used a phrase that I remember hearing from a retired Army Lieutenant Colonel I used to work with several years ago: “managers manage things, leaders lead people”, defining leadership as being personal, collaborative, and primarily about relationships with people. Although management is a crucial skill, being an excellent manager does not automatically insure you will be (or are) a good leader. The same is true in reverse. Great leaders are not necessarily good at the tasks of management.
At this point in his presentation, General Schwarzkopf had the complete and undivided attention of the entire crowd of thousands. He made it very clear that he did not believe leaders were born. Great leaders, as history has shown repeatedly, are typically very normal people thrust forward into the the limelight by extraordinary circumstances. “You are all leaders”, he said, “whether it is in your business, your social life, your church, or your home. Each of us has the responsibility of leadership somewhere in our lives”. The trick, he believes, is in knowing how to recognize yourself in a leadership role, and then knowing how to act when confronted with this mantle of responsibility.
General Schwarzkopf felt it was important to sum up what he believed to be the secrets to successful leadership. To this end, he shared a story of an experience he had shortly after he received his second star. He had been working in the Pentagon for a very short time when his superior packed up to leave for six weeks. As his boss was walking down the hall headed for the door, General Schwarzkopf asked, “What am I to do? I haven’t been here long enough to have a full handle on all the goings on here. How should I conduct business in your absence”?
To this his superior simply responded, “Rule 13”.
“Very good, sir. Rule 13. No problem. Ah, by the way, sir, Rule 13…if it’s not too much trouble, what exactly is that”?
“Rule 13: When put in command, take charge”.
To this General Schwarzkopf added another anecdotal story of a command he had been given where there had been a recurring problem that continued to resurface for many years through many previous commands. Over the years, no one had managed to make a decision on the matter. Despite great efforts to avoid it, the problem just kept popping back up. General Schwarzkopf made a quick evaluation of the issue, and implemented policy. When asked by one of his aids how he could make a decision so quickly on a matter that others had not been able to reach a conclusion on, he responded that, by making a decision, right or wrong, he had helped the organization make progress. If it was the correct decision, it would become lasting policy. If it was an incorrect decision, it would be corrected down the ranks. Either way, by taking charge of the situation, he had given his subordinates fuel to move forward rather than having them continue to stumble on this recurring obstacle.
As General Schwarzkopf’s superior was continuing to leave for his six week absence, Schwarzkopf asked, “However am I to make my decisions? Should I consider what you might do? Should I take the counsel of anyone in particular”?
To this his superior responded, “Rule 14”.
“Rule 14, sir”?
“Yes, Rule 14: Do the right thing”.
So many people incorrectly assume that the most competent individuals are the best leaders, when in fact, the individuals with the greatest strength of characters are the ones seen by others as being the best to follow. General Schwarzkopf stated that almost all of the failures of leadership he could recall were failures of character, and not failures of competence. He used Enron as a prime example. Enron’s management was clearly comprised of competent business people, but a failure of character created a scandal that rocked the investment world.
General Schwarzkopf holds that doing what you believe to be right, perhaps even against the grain of popular opinion, is the responsibility of leadership. Having the character to stand by your convictions can be lonely at times, but demonstrating that kind of integrity earns the respect of others, and in the end, engenders loyalty that can “conquer nations…or the business analogue: competitors”.
I still have no idea what General H. Norman Schwarzkopf was doing at an ERP product conference, but I have to say that I am very glad he was there. He gave me some food for thought. Here we are, students, faculty, staff, and alumni of business programs focused on developing the leaders of the future. What does that mean? Under the surface of the course lessons, what are the core values? In my best recollection, I think it is fair to say that the cornerstone of my experiences could easily be boiled down to having learned two key things:
When put in command, take charge. Do the right thing.
There is a certain elegance in simplicity. I do not know if I ever would have framed the value of my Dominican MBA in those terms before April 14, 2003, but I must thank you, General Schwarzkopf, for giving me a new perspective.