I think that it’s all too common these days to pick up a newspaper or a business magazine and read all about visionary and charismatic leaders in the mold of someone like Jack Welch. It’s like the individual guy or gal at the top gets all the credit for a company’s success. We’ve gotten into the habit of making CEOs into rock stars.
At the same time, when a company gets into trouble, it’s also the guy or gal in charge who takes the fall due to a “failure of leadership” or some such.
But that’s not how Edward Deming, one of the great business thinkers of all time, saw great leadership. (If you don’t know him, check out his Wikipedia page here: For Deming, great leadership wasn’t about individuals at all. As he wrote in his book, The New Economics for Industry, Government, Education:
It is management’s job to direct the efforts of all components toward the aim of the system. The first step is clarification: everyone in the organization must understand the aim of the system, and how to direct his efforts toward it.
Similarly, in his book Built to Last (a successor to Good to Great), Jim Collins took a deep look at why some companies thrive over the long run while others crash and burn. One of the key differences he found was between companies who were run by “time tellers” or by “clock builders” which he defined this way:
Having a great idea or being a charismatic visionary leader is "time telling"; building a company that can prosper far beyond the presence of any single leader and through multiple product life cycles is "clock building."
In other words, great leadership isn’t about individuals – it’s about creating a system where everyone knows what they need to do to thrive. You don’t need to tell everyone the time if you teach him or her how to build the clock. Collins even takes aim at Jack Welch in his book, saying that Welch was effective as a leader because he was simply a product of the GE culture – not the other way around.
Look, I believe that people as a whole hate to be “managed” and told what to do. The goal, therefore, should be to have a system in place where people can manage and lead themselves. Rather than boosting up or tearing down individuals, therefore, the system should be about getting to the root causes of problems and enabling anyone – not just charismatic and visionary leaders – to come up with the solutions. That’s what The Great Game of Business is: a workplace leadership system.
What do you think? What do you think is at the root of great leadership?