In 1955 IBM’s legendary CEO, Tom Watson Jr., gave my mentor, Louis R. Mobley, a blank check and carte blanche to create The IBM Executive School. Fresh from successfully implementing IBM’s first supervisor and middle management training programs, Mobley confidently set about churning out executives as well.
The first thing he did, in conjunction with GE and DuPont, was hire the Educational Testing Service (ETS), the same company that still does the SATs, to identify the skills that make great leaders great. Once these intellectual skills were identified, Mobley and his colleagues at GE and DuPont assumed that spitting out executives would simply mean “training to the test.”
ETS dutifully rounded up a bunch of proven leaders and tested them every which way from Sunday looking for their common skills. The results were astounding and more than a little disturbing. As Mobley put it, “No matter what bell shaped curve we drew, successful leaders fell on the extreme edges. The only thing they seemed to have in common was having nothing in common. ETS was so frustrated that they offered us our money back.”
But failure wasn’t an option for Mobley, and after many a dark night of the soul he finally hit upon the answer. Unlike supervisors and middle managers, what successful executives shared were not skills and knowledge but values and attitudes. And over time Mobley identified the values and attitudes that great leaders share.
1) Great Leaders Thrive on Ambiguity. While most of us like black and white decisions, successful leaders are comfortable with what Mobley called, “shades of gray.” Great leaders are able to hold apparent contradictions in tension. They use the tension these paradoxes produce to come up with innovative ideas.
2) Great Leaders Love Blank Sheets of Paper. Supervisors and middle managers use a framework of policies and procedures to guide them to the proper decision. They want a plan that reduces their job to filling in the blanks or what Mobley called “following the bouncing ball.” By contrast, leaders create the blanks that managers fill in. Like some business Einstein intent on reinventing the universe, every great leader relishes the opportunity to “think things through” from scratch.
3) Great Leaders are Secure People. Successful executives thrive on differences of opinion. They surround themselves with the best people they can find: people strong enough to hold a contrary opinion and argue vociferously for it. Great leaders crave challenges, and this means hiring the most challenging people they can find with no regard for whether today’s challenger might be tomorrow’s rival.
4) Great Leaders Want Options. Long before it became fashionable, Mobley was a huge proponent of diversity. However his definition meant a diversity of opinion rather than the kind we usually associate with political correctness. Mobley’s great leader constantly demands diverse options from his team, and uses these options to produce creative decisions.
5) Great Leaders are Tough Enough to Face Facts. At heart Mobley was a spiritual man who valued the Truth for the Truth’s sake. Successful executives face facts, and this means being open to the truth even when it is not what we want to hear. One of the most successful executives I know offers cash rewards to anyone in his company who can prove him wrong. Great leaders have a nose for B.S and abhor it.
6) Great Leaders Stick Their Necks Out. It is a natural human trait to fear being evaluated. We crave wiggle room so we can deflect blame and get off the hook when things go wrong. In business what is often passed off as a collaborative effort is actually just an attempt to avoid individual accountability. Great leaders want to be measured and evaluated. They continually look for ways to measure things that may seem immeasurable, and they cheerfully accept the blame when they are wrong or fail to deliver. The old adage that success has a 1000 fathers while failure is an orphan does not apply to great leadership.
7) Great Leaders Believe in Themselves. While great leaders crave advice, options, and strong colleagues, they all share a profound belief in themselves and their judgment. Mobley described great leaders as “people stubbornly following their star who don’t know how to quit.” Holding this stubbornness in tension with a willingness to be wrong is perhaps the greatest trick that every great leader must perform.
8) Great Leaders are Deep Thinkers. Managers get things done. Executives must decide on the things worth doing in the first place. Though very difficult to quantify, great leaders are deep thinkers. They constantly dive below surface “facts” searching for new ways to knit those facts together. Great leaders are generalists not specialists driven by an omnivorous curiosity. They know that the answers they are seeking will probably emerge from outside business and from disciplines that may seem utterly unrelated.
9) Great Leaders are Ruthlessly Honest with Themselves. Self-knowledge is perhaps the most critical trait that all great leaders share. Leaders question assumptions and disrupt complacency by relentlessly asking the question: “What is the business of the business?” This exercise develops and refines the organization’s mission and purpose, and it is little more than the age old question “Who am I?” applied collectively. If you are not clear about the purpose of your own life how can you provide a sense of organizational purpose for others?
10) Great Leaders are Passionate. They may be loudly charismatic or quietly intense, but all great leaders care deeply about what they are doing and why they are doing it. Perhaps most importantly they care about people. Every business is a people business, and passionately caring about people whether they are employees, customers, vendors or stockholders is an essential leadership value.
Once Mobley compiled his list, he was faced with another even more difficult problem: How do you instill values and transform attitudes? He discovered that unlike supervisors and middle managers, executives shared another trait: They were constitutionally untrainable and reacted with hostility to any effort to “brainwash” them with “training.” Worse, Mobley discovered that values and attitudes are not only impervious to typical training techniques, but hectoring people to change often had the unintended consequence of hardening existing attitudes instead.
As the result some deep thinking of his own, Mobley eventually realized that what was needed was “a revolution in consciousness” rather than the kind of step by step curriculum that leads to a single “right answer.” Taking a leap of faith, he decided that the values and attitudes he was looking for could only be brought about as a side benefit or unintended consequence of what almost might be termed “spiritual work.” Rather than converging on a super set of skills, the IBM Executive School fostered the divergence that values uniqueness and individual authenticity.
The risk of failure was real, but if Mobley was going to produce people willing to stick out their necks he had to stick out his own first. He abandoned lectures and books in favor of games, simulations and other experiential techniques designed, not to “train,” but to “blow people’s minds.”
As for the personal accountability and measuring results, Mobley’s record speaks for itself. He ran the IBM Executive School from 1956-1966. It was his students that turned IBM into the fastest growing and most admired corporation in the world in the 1960s and 70s…