Leadership Often Emerges Beyond the Corner Office

This week’s Power List features men and women at the top of the largest organizations in the state. However, occupancy of the corner office is not necessarily an indication of leadership capability. And more importantly, leaders often emerge who have none of the trappings that would land them on a Power List.

Executive managers often have large numbers of people who respond to their decisions and instructions. How-ever, if their authority is derived solely from the title on their card, then they are not leading anyone. One test of leadership is to ask, “Would anyone follow me if I did not have this job?” In fact, the purest and therefore most instructive examples of leadership are those in which power or influence is derived from personal leadership rather than any organizational position. Here are some examples:

Jody Williams was anything but an organizational leader and certainly did not plan become a political activist. In 1991, she decided that the most important thing she could do was devote her energy to eliminating the use of land mines worldwide. Starting with nothing but two other individuals who shared her vision, she began her work in 1991. In 1997, she shared the Nobel Peace Prize for her work in establishing an international treaty to reclaim land and eliminate land mines.

Joe Liemandt was an undergraduate student at Stanford University in California in 1990. In the midst of a tech boom with companies spending millions on sales software, Joe believed that most of the market offerings missed the boat. His approach was radically different, and he felt strongly that he would miss the market if he waited. Even in the face of his father’s extreme ire, Joe left school nine months before he graduated. With nothing but his passion for the idea, he attracted an initial team and launched Trilogy Systems, where he is still chairman and CEO. Trilogy is privately held, but analysts believe that as a public company it would be worth about $1 billion.

One of my favorite examples of leadership by example is from HP. The global giant had all but given up on solving the problem of distributing toner in a timely manner. Several consulting companies had been unable to untie the Gordian knot of processes that extended delivery time to three weeks. Julie Anderson was a middle manager in distribution and keenly felt the pain of customers. She assembled a small team of people equally committed to a solution and delivered what the consultants could not — and for one-third the cost. The DaVinci team saved HP and its customers billions of dollars and was featured on the cover of Fortune magazine.

At this time of year that we remember the work of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. King did not start with a large budget and clear charter to be the leader of the civil rights movement. But his passion and willingness to put himself on the line elevated him to the position of leader and spokesman for a very powerful idea. King and the idea he represented changed the face of our nation forever.

The irony is that the business leadership stories we most often hear or read in best-sellers are about those men and women in the corner office. Sadly, those books too often center on an executive’s celebrity more than on their leadership. Occasionally, if we are lucky, we find someone who has both organizational resource and well-developed leadership capabilities. And, if we are really lucky, at some point in our career, we work with or for someone like that.

Originally published in Arkansas Business, Barry Goldberg On Leadership, January 30, 2006.