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Howard Gardner

Howard Gardner

Howard Gardner is the Hobbs Professor of Cognition and Education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and Senior Director of Harvard Project Zero.

Best heroes are the quietest

Q: Tony Hayward, once credited for BP's "green" turnaround, is forced to resign in disgrace. Michael Dell, the revolutionary high-tech entrepreneur, is sanctioned for misleading investors. Wall Street titans, once lionized, are now reviled. Where have all the CEO heroes gone?

In one of my books, published in 2004, I singled out for praise John Browne and BP for its initiative in going 'beyond petroleum' and having a flat, transparent organization. And so I fully deserved it when my irreverent son said to me "So, Dad, what about your heroes now?"

In retrospect, I realized that while I had spoken to some BP executives, and read some of their materials, I had relied way too much on the conventional wisdom, and had not at all used any investigative journalist techniques to probe behind the story that BP wanted to tell.

We live in a time of publicity, public relations spin, and it is extremely difficult to find out which of the leaders in any sector 'who are singled out for praise (or for castigation) really merit these characterizations.

I don't think we lack any CEO heroes. But I suspect that the true heroes are largely unsung, and prefer to remain that way. They prefer to give credit to others, to remain behind the scenes, to avoid grandiose statements and predictions and promises, and to perform better than anyone expected them. And the ultimate test of these individuals may be the extent to which they plan for an orderly succession, to individuals who share the desire to remain out of the limelight, rather than to attempt to dominate it, and quietly but responsibly, to do good work.

By Howard Gardner

 |  July 26, 2010; 2:44 PM ET
Category:  Corporate leadership Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
Previous: Need a hero? Check out DaVita's Kent Thiry | Next: Uncritical admiration of a 5-year-old


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Jim Collins told us a long tme ago that real leaders are humble and often unsung. A key distracting influence in current times is that leaders are not leading, they are following. The media has become so powerful that many leaders see it as their publicity channel using spin rather than building their reputation through delivery of inspirational outcomes. Ironically, it is through their delivered outcomes that they inspire others to follow - and only through having thinking people willingly follow them do they become true leaders.

Too many people confuse "the person at the top of the organisation" with a leader. True leaders engage people in a way which stimulates them to participate in their cause/vision/purpose. This triggers them to support the leader in the achievement of the goals (paid or otherwise). This cause can be negative (Adolph Hitler) or positive (Martin Luthor King). Both had strong leadership capabilities as demonstrated by their ability to influence nations to act in ways they would not have otherwise done.

Leadership ultimately is about behavior. It reflects the ability to influence others in a way that they WANT to have a relationship with you because of respect trust and belief in you and your quests. Great leaders are highly adaptable and can adjust their behaviors to optimise the outcomes from the situation (without compromising their integrity). The issue we have with poor leadership at present is they are too short term focused and too much adjusting their style BECAUSE of the situation. That is, they are reactive rather than preempting the situation and adapting appropriate behaviors to change the situation. Leaders who apply constructive behaviours and focus on building relationships to achieve mutually desired outcomes will achieve. Those who focus on spin to "communicate a reputation" (as opposed to build one) will never be true leaders.

Posted by: ArthurShelley | July 29, 2010 8:37 PM
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I am disppointed in Howard Gardner's naivete.

I would think this cognitive scientist, whose work influenced my own layman's thinking about intelligence, could recognize the lionizing of "CEO"s as part of a socializing process.

Perhaps it's still assumed that "socialization" is still only a childhood process. Those assumptions in my view ignore the now daily presence in everyone's life, young or old, throughout life of a truly massive mass media that saturate minds in a bath of constant images, one of which is that of the corporate leader come to be called "CEO." Under that media influence, the business is come to be seen as one and the same as the individual, whereas in most cases the individual is simply an elevated hired hand in charge of managing a corporate group in size from great to small and primarily concerned with amassing a fortune for him/her/self. The as many as hundreds of thousands of individuals who constitute the team who carry out instructions and/or feed up ideas to the corporate hero are seen as simply pawns, not persons of any significance (with the possible exception of CFOs, who are effective adjutant "heroes").

Now I recognize that military commanders are in most cases also simply "elevated hired hands," and I'm grateful that the military commentator in this discussion doesn't make Eisenhower the hero of Omaha Beach. He does not make the army immanent in the leader, as first the financial press and then the saturating mass media have done with the corporation and its leader.

There are cases of outstanding corporate performance that can be related to a single individual, but I've always suspected that that isolated heroism is something of an overstatement, even if the exceptionalism of the individual leader is a fact.

Posted by: brombonz | July 27, 2010 12:50 PM
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"I had relied way too much on the conventional wisdom, and had not at all used any investigative journalist techniques to probe behind the story that BP wanted to tell."
Professor - what grade would you give one of your students who submitted a copy of BPs' press releases in place of a term project?

And are your students, imbued with this philosophy and work ethic, going on to careers in journalism? Where they will read from a press release and call it “news”? Perhaps they can find a career on Fox News.

Posted by: shadowmagician | July 27, 2010 9:23 AM
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OK, now I understand why our nation is going into the toilet with out self-grandising President! He is FAR from quiet, and VERY FAR from good for us or our future......it now makes sense.

Posted by: REBEL-1 | July 27, 2010 9:00 AM
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"I don't think we lack any CEO heroes."

Particularly to workers in China, Indonesia, Mexico and the rest of the Third World where they're not paid enough to buy the products they make.

Posted by: trippin | July 27, 2010 8:27 AM
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This is a wise observation, "I suspect that the true heroes are largely unsung, and prefer to remain that way." There is a reason for this which was noted earlier, and that is the best companies (even small ones) have "a flat, transparent organization."

The historic, top-down, command and control organizations do not work long term (I wish that Obama would figure this out...), and the best run companies in the information age are flat--meaning that input can come freely from all levels of the organization--and CEO's spend time creating an environment of creativity and productivity. Thus the spotlight is not on the CEO but on the employees and the ideas and work product that they bring to the company and customer. Almost by definition, these CEO's are unsung, often unnoticed. Their "win" and success comes from that of the company and its profits and reputation within its industry.

Posted by: SherlockHolmes | July 27, 2010 8:12 AM
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