Saturday, 3 March 2012

The fad and falderal of leadership

I have long held, that given an innovative technology which meets a large enough market need, three things distinguish between success and failure: sufficient finance, strong management and a large slice of luck. I tend to witter on a lot about entrepreneurial finance, so today I want to say something about management.  I'll leave the luck for another time, but in passing recognize that successful entrepreneurs invariably deny the luck element; possibly that is why so few of them are successful twice.

I have to admit the luck piece isn't entirely my own; the idea was shaped by John van Maanen, a senior professor at the Sloan School of Management at MIT.  John taught the required course in organizational behavior when I was there thirty years ago, but I don't suppose he does that anymore.  I became friends with him when he helped me reorganize Occidental Chemical's R&D department, and we devised an effective technology team building workshop which was rolled out in Oxy, and has been used elsewhere.  Nothing to do with drum beating or having fun outdoors, but contrary to today's team building culture required some serious thinking about how teams work together.   

John was recently in the news when he gave an interview in Canada on the relationship between management and leadership.  He basically said there was no difference; tends to have quite interesting and challenging thoughts, does John.  You can see the interview here (skip the ad first).  Leadership, he said, is a current fad, which will be replaced by something else in three or four years.  He sounded apologetic that MIT had had to develop a leadership model because everyone else has one - the Sloan model requires Sensemaking, Relating, Visioning and Inventing - you can read about that here.  

John's point is that it is very unlikely that any one individual will possess all four attributes, but several people in an organization might - the concept of distributed or shared leadership.  "So if you don’t distribute decision rights, if you don’t distribute the ability to contribute to the overall plan, then organizations are going in the wrong direction."  So management and leadership are the same concept, with different names.

I hesitate to disagree with John, but it is unlikely that he will read this, so allow me to try.  Prior to my doing a management degree at Sloan (MIT didn't have MBA's back then, but that is what it was)  I worked for a company called Technicon Instruments in NY.  Big T, as it was known, was the world market leader in clinical laboratory instruments, at one time holding a 98% market share.  It was also, in my experience, among the worst managed companies I have ever worked for.  Indeed, my belief that there had to be a better way, was in part, what drove me to Sloan. But here's the thing, the company owner, Jack Whitehead, was an inspiring leader.  He attracted some of the leading clinical scientists of the day and we all worked hard and long for him.  It was an amazing place, Big T, and I would love to be able to recreate that environment again, but never have. Sir Paul Nurse, President of the Royal Society, is planning to build the Francis Crick Institute in London which will house 1500 of the world's leading biological scientists - just needs the last $100m.  Sir Paul has said that the Institute will not have a conventional management structure, so the there will be freedom to be creative. An interesting experiment to watch.