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John Baldoni
Leadership author

John Baldoni

John Baldoni is a leadership consultant, coach, and regular contributor to the Harvard Business Review online. His most recent book is Lead Your Boss: The Subtle Art of Managing Up.

Alan Mulally's example

Q: In appointing a new Supreme Court Justice to replace John Paul Stevens, President Obama was seeking someone who could provide intellectual and personal leadership of the liberal block. His gamble in nominating Elena Kagan is bringing in someone from outside the 'priesthood' of appeals-court judges. What are the advantages and disadvantages of selecting a leader with non-traditional qualifications?

Managers focus on operations. Leaders focus on people. The distinction is important to understand in the context of a leader assuming a new role, particularly within an organization in which she may lack experience.

Such is the case with Elena Kagan, President Obama's choice to replace retiring Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens. While the operations of the court is new to her (and remember she would be an associate justice not chief justice,) she has proven leadership skills, notably as Harvard Law School. Kagan distinguished herself as a capable leader who was able to bridge divides between factions and focus the school on its primary roles of education and legal thought leadership. As a member of the high court, Kagan will experience a learning curve, but her ability to work with colleagues including those who disagree with her should hold her in good stead.

Management is the discipline of getting things done right. Leadership is the art of doing what is right in order to achieve intended goals. Managers with good leadership skills can succeed in new environments because they know how to surround themselves with people who know how to get things done right.

In the corporate world, we are witnessing two examples of outside leaders running businesses in which they had no previous hands-on experience; both are in the automotive industry. The first example is Alan Mulally, who became CEO of Ford Motor Company after a career at Boeing. Ford was in serious trouble when Mulally came aboard in September 2006. The company was in precarious financial shape, its product line was ragged, and morale was dispirited.

Although Mulally was new to the auto industry, he was not new to manufacturing. He was an accomplished manufacturing engineer with experience working on large projects, building teams and working with unions. Mulally knew the virtue of a single focus and with his team developed the One Ford plan. The going was not easy at first, but after three-and-a-half years, Ford is making money, new products are succeeding in the marketplace, and employees are feeling more confident. Ford is now considered one of America's most respected companies, in part because it took no federal dollars!

Across town, Ed Whitacre is serving as the CEO of General Motors. A retired telco executive, Whitacre is a tough, no nonsense guy. He has gutted GM's upper management and promoted middle managers to senior positions. Whitacre's challenge is to smash GM's clubby culture to get it moving in the right direction. To the federal government which appointed him, Whitacre is GM's last best hope for survival, and the executive who can help the company repay its federal debt. Time will tell if Whitacre can do for GM what Mulally has done for Ford.

An executive running an unfamiliar business will experience a learning curve, and in the process he may miss things; subtlety and nuance morph into gray that may hinder informed decision making. Only years of running the business will bring true discernment. But a savvy leader will be a quick study, and with the help of a good team of knowledgeable managers, will make the right choices to lead the business.

Good leaders know from experience what it takes to get a team to pull together for a common goal. They know how to sublimate their ego when necessary and delegate responsibility and authority to others. At the same time, they know when to crack the whip. And for leaders running businesses for which they are inexperienced, they surround themselves with experts who know it inside and out.

Such are the leaders who have what it takes to make a positive difference.

By John Baldoni

 |  May 10, 2010; 3:00 PM ET
Category:  Leadership Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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