Leader as nurturer of talents

When former General Electric CEO Jack Welch visited the Stanford Graduate School of Business two years ago to talk about leadership and his book, Winning, he made a simple comment to the audience: "Leadership is not about you. It's about the people who work for you."

by Stanford Graduate School of Business
Last Updated: 23 Jul 2013

"The day you become a leader, it becomes about them," Welch said.

"Your job is to walk around with a can of water in one hand and a can of fertilizer in the other hand. Think of your team as seeds and try to build a garden. It's about building these people," he insisted. "Only you will know the team."

Welch was saying that the minute you move from being a task-oriented professional to being a manager of people, it stops being about your individual talents, your successes, and starts being all about coaching, motivating, teaching, supporting, removing roadblocks, and finding resources for your employees.

According to Stanford Graduate School of Business dean Robert L. Joss, leadership is about celebrating their victories and rewarding them; helping them analyze when things don't go to plan. "Their successes become your successes. Their failures are yours too." Dean argues that too many people today think leading is exclusively about their own performance. Even some of those who become CEOs, usually highly intelligent people who worked hard to get where they are, turn into self-aggrandizing individuals once they hit the executive suite.

Joss says too many people, perhaps encouraged by the media, have developed an obsession with leaders. In his book on hierarchies, Top Down, Hal Leavitt covers a broad range of issues. Leavitt, who is the Kilpatrick Professor of Organizational Behavior emeritus at the Stanford, surmises that part of today's infatuation with the leadership discussion springs from the fact that we perceive organizations have become flatter, when they are still hierarchies, though changed ones that are "participative" and "groupy".

They have become harder to navigate with chains of command that are less clear. As a result, leadership qualities are more necessary for managers at every level, not just for those at the top of an authority pyramid.

Leavitt identifies three recurring themes of leadership: Transformation, persuasion, and competence. Leaders are able to transform or change a situation. They can influence others and motivate them to follow. They exude confidence and competence about what they are doing that inspires others.

Of prime importance, in the view of Joss, is the notion that leadership is about change and a leader must leverage those who work for him or her, empower and support them with regular feedback, rewards, and exchange of ideas. Sometimes leaders have to "weed the garden" in Welch's pithy vocabulary. The tough job of firing and hiring is part of creating an effective team.

One person, no matter how talented, cannot accomplish much in a managed organization of today's complexity and global reach.

Transforming through others is the job of the leader at any level. As Welch said: "The day you become a leader, your job is to take people who are already great and make them unbelievable."

It's Not About You
Robert L. Joss
Stanford School of Graduate Business, August 2007
An earlier version of this essay appeared in Stanford Business alumni magazine.

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