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Can L.A. Become Leadership Land?

Bob Sipchen is a senior editor for the magazine. His last article was a profile of Woody Harrelson

Who shall lead? The question popped up in some primal form the moment ants gathered to build earth’s first anthill. Since management theory emerged in 1911, each decade has seen pundits blathering new definitions. Now comes the millennium, and the leadership bombast has gone ballistic--especially here in Southern California, the chaotic megalopolis that is supposed to guide civilization into the 21st Century. * If the Messiah really is about to make a grand entrance, he (or she--important point) is probably spending these last days at some high-powered executive retreat, boning up on leadership skills. If the Y2K glitch does disrupt the time/space continuum, spilling history’s mucky-mucks into our pre-Armageddon present, we may well find Buddha and Mohammed bonding at a corporate ropes course; Cesar Chavez and Susan B. Anthony role-playing at an “Inner Warrior” seminar; Teddy Roosevelt paying pop-theorist Naomi Wolf $15,000 month to massage his inner alpha male. Leadership doesn’t just happen, you see? No, if we are to overcome our bone-rattling insecurity about the high-tech, globalized, whoops-there-goes-the-status-quo future, we’ll need to create a new breed of leaders to trust and admire. We may even be those leaders. Or so we’re trying to convince ourselves.

One weekend last month, aspirants to that role gathered at two Southern California locales. At Griffith Park, about two dozen 12- to 16-year-olds of varying ethnicity forked over $20 each for a two-day 4-H Club workshop. At San Diego’s Hotel del Coronado, a more chronologically diverse but ethnically homogenous group of about 500 adults paid $1,500 each for a three-day seminar sponsored by the cultishly popular business magazine Fast Company.

At their opening-day breakfast, 4-H’ers spooned Frosted Flakes from little boxes and talked about the challenges of overseeing homesick children at summer camp. At the Fast Company event, a roving fiddler serenaded gourmet buffet-grazers, who then settled in to network and Web surf at a “Cyber-Cafe” strewn with iMacs. Despite the contrast in trappings, the events’ leadership exercises proved strikingly similar. The 4H’ers, for instance, counted off into teams vying to construct the tallest structure of drinking straws and straight pins. A spectrum of nascent leadership styles emerged. At one table, Daniel urged his teammates to slap together whatever they wanted, “then we’ll just pile ‘em on top of each other.” Holly muttered a soft challenge: “We’re supposed to have a strategy.” But the group followed the older, more persuasive Daniel into anarchy and defeat.

At the Fast Company conference, teams of corporate executives and Info-Age entrepreneurs received matching caps and a clipboard with printed goals and rules, then convened to design e-businesses. You know the scene. Marketing wimps blustered macho, bullies from Human Resources bluffed with kind smiles, and clusters of digitally well-accessorized adults rocked the ornate ballroom with chants of “Team Four! Team Four!”

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As for leadership selection, “We kind of just passed the clipboard around and around until someone held on to it,” a Team 2 member confessed. “We were,” a teammate added, “under the influence of alcohol.” At that, everyone chuckled. But nervously--understanding, perhaps, that beneath the bonhomie, their cluster, like every jabbering cluster of people in the room and on every playground and in every synagogue and commune and 4-H camp worldwide, shivers with a tension integral to the human condition: the uneasy lust for and fear of power and control.

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“A complex phenomenon, nearly defying description, leadership is fundamentally a reflection of an individual’s values, education, training and experience.” So writes Gen. Charles C. Krulak in his preface to the upcoming book “Corps Business--Management Principles of the U.S. Marines.” It might be assumed that the Marine Corps has resolutely maintained a “take that hill” concept of leadership. That assumption is incorrect. Like virtually every other institution, the Corps is rethinking who leads, and how and why.

Historian Thomas Carlyle figured that leaders were pretty much born that way. “The history of the world,” he said, “is but the biography of great men.” Leo Tolstoy had other views, arguing that men such as Napoleon were basically just regular chumps, propelled to prominence by a confluence of events.

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These days, countless theories and “models” and “paradigms” of leadership--"transformative” “transactional” “situational"--roil through the ever growing glut of literature on the subject. In his book “Greatness, Who Makes History and Why?” UC Davis psychology professor Dean Keith Simonton mulls over factors that may contribute to leadership and other forms of greatness: genes, birthright, birth order, life-shaking epiphanies, IQ and a laundry list of other variables. His conclusion is essentially the same as Gen. Krulak’s: Whoa! This stuff is complex.

The psychological approach to understanding leaders may be on the wane, though. Noting that “psychobabble is out, biobabble is in,” the New Yorker recently explored author and Al Gore-consultant Naomi Wolf’s turn from Freud to a Darwin-derived analysis of pecking order. The sociobiology convert has reportedly urged the vice president to whip himself into a so-called alpha male. But is that domineering type, so integral to the function of wolfpacks and dog sled teams, really good leader material in the human realm? No way, says anthropologist Sarah Blaffer Hrdy. The ideal president for tomorrow, she tells the New Yorker, is a grandmother whose 12 or so grandchildren could be hidden from her in various parts of the country, rendering Granny unable to make a leaderly move without concern for the well-being of her spawn.

Psychological and sociobiological considerations have, of course, already worked their way into business. Niccolo Machiavelli? Sun Tzu? Were these pioneering advice meisters alive today, “The Prince” and “The Art of War” would be on trade bestseller lists, the authors teaching at USC and Claremont. And they’d moonlight as consultants, better to maximize their share of an industry that, by teaching and preaching and fretting about what it means to be a leader, generates an estimated $15 billion to $150 billion or more a year. (Do you count university management courses? In-house corporate seminars? Book sales? Rotary retreats?)

That technology and globalization have spurred cataclysmic change is a given among leadership devotees, some of whom contend that it has never been tougher to lead. “We’re already seeing evidence that the speed, size and general impact of commercial events will overwhelm the ability of our social, political, and economic institutions to cope with them,” the CEO of Tenneco said in Chief Executive magazine. And it’s not just CEOs who are stressin’, who have convinced themselves that we can no longer afford the luxury of being a follower.

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What unifies the tangle of current approaches is the notion that future power will be dispersed more “horizontally” than in the old top-down, command/control model, that there must be more focus on relationships and coalitions and that leaders must develop lightning reflexes in a world where flux and ambiguity are the only constants.

So where did this abruptly ubiquitous thinking come from? “Feminist scholarship,” says Helen Astin, a professor of higher education at UCLA. “It’s not only feminist but postmodern thinking that has challenged the notions of hierarchy, patriarchy and social structures.”

That the anti-patriarchy contingent’s revolutionary thinking has infiltrated the Great Satan of business is in evidence everywhere. At the Fast Company conference, Arlene Blum slipped into a crowded room wearing a hippie dress and Teva sandals, trailed by her 12-year-old daughter. In an instant, her slides transported the audience to the Himalayas. When she began mountaineering, Blum told the group, most expeditions restricted womenfolk to base camp. To fund the first all-woman ascent of the peak Annapurna, her group printed T-shirts reading, “A Woman’s Place Is on Top.” Before sticking ice-axe to escarpment, however, they met with a psychologist to discuss how each felt about leading and being led.

Drawing from other gurus, Blum described two styles of leadership. A herd of buffalo, she said, has one leader, and hunters learned long ago that if they shot the lead buffalo, the rest of the herd would become befuddled, scatter and make easy prey. Geese, on the other hand, take turns leading as they fly. If the point goose goes down, another takes the lead.

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After Blum’s presentation, an aspiring leader questioned the climber about a tragedy in which a second all-women duo wanted to try the summit. Blum was against it. But she didn’t prohibit the attempt. The women fell to their deaths. “I was not command/control enough,” Blum conceded, her weathered face darkening. Still, letting her teammates make their own decision was the the way of the world to come, she said. “The information world we’re all plummeting into at this accelerating rate is not a limited world, it’s a participatory world. We’re all geese.”

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“Rome showed itself to be truly great, and hence worthy of great leaders.” That’s from Plutarch’s biography of Cato the Elder, as quoted by Warren Bennis in Organizational Dynamics magazine. So what about Southern California, better known for its Kato Kaelins, a place some consider more of a cancer than a community whose behavior might somehow submit to commands? Bennis, founder of USC’s Leadership Institute and--according to Forbes magazine--"the dean of leadership gurus,” says that producing take-charge autocrats just isn’t the way the vast, disjointed region--or the city of Los Angeles--works. “When I moved here in 1980, it still looked like you could get the power brokers together at the California Club and make a deal. If that were true today, there would be no problem about the NFL.”

On the other hand, Bennis says that the region, with its diversity and decentralization, is a perfect proving ground for the new leadership model he envisions--one where the ability to navigate a “honeycomb of relationships” will become more important than the ability to bark orders.

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More and more organizations are getting on the case. Robin Kramer, chairman of Coro Southern California’s board of directors, says that when she was selected as a Coro fellow in the post-Johnson, post-Nixon class of 1976, the term “leader” was as suspect as an old napalm canister. Twenty-three years later, she says, Coro fellows still wrestle with the question “What does it mean to lead?” To find answers, the program thrusts them into business, government and nonprofits. The result, Kramer says, is “unvarnished exposure to this panoply, these forces that collide to give the region its special character and to the people who give it life.” Along the way, fellows are expected to develop ways to share leadership, encourage it in each other and disperse it to those they’re working with, Kramer says. Which is not to say that Mayor Richard Riordan’s former chief of staff buys the go-with-the-collective-flow leadership models. “I’m not one of the ‘Kumbaya’ fans,” Kramer says. “There has to be a leader. But there are many ways to shape how that looks. In the end, the art of leadership is that everyone feels a stake in the project, outcome, idea, decision, goal . . . .”

*

The main events at the fast company conference took place in a massive white tent that hummed with evangelical fervor. On the first day, the founding editors of the 5-year-old magazine paced the stage Oprah-like. Music blasted and a light show rippled. “We are all leaders if leadership means trying to make a difference,” they told the crowd.

That view would seem to expose a paradox, however. To direct participants from the hotel out to the tent, a drummer drummed. A fiddler fiddled. Staffers stood at strategic points wiggling signs that read: “Don’t Follow the Pack--Lead It.” And the corporate executives and e-business entrepreneurs let themselves be herded like cattle.

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The first day’s keynote speaker offered a glimpse into the irony. Dr. Ben Carson, chief of pediatric neurosurgery at Johns Hopkins Hospital, talked about how he, as a young black man weighted by stereotypes and cultural gravity, climbed into medical science’s most rarefied realm. He also digressed to decry a society that mindlessly worships celebrity, allows peer pressure to whipsaw its musical tastes and, with little more than a whine, hands its most vital interest over to an oligopoly of Health Maintenance Organizations.

So, amid all the upbeat talk about innovation and reinvention, some may have wondered if the notion that we’re all leaders is just Orwellian euphemism? Aren’t we really a nation of followers? Gutless followers? Or, worse, deluded followers who’ve been led to believe we’re in charge? Who, after all, could fail to notice that many of our recently minted “leaders” are emperors in invisible vestments? That participating in “adventure leadership training” does not really confer upon a corporate VP the sort of courage, vision and charisma that, in 1914, allowed Sir Ernest Shackleton to keep 27 men alive on a polar icecap. That a “360 degree skills evaluation” by a leadership coach can’t really transform an unprincipled glad-hander into Nelson Mandela.

Even modern management theory’s main man questions the phenomenon he helped create. Peter F. Drucker, 90, is a fixture on the leadership circuit. Last month he appeared (by satellite feed) at a seven-day “Emerging Leader Program” in San Diego for which corporations coughed up as much as $7,495 per participant. Before the conference, though, Drucker said, “The present preoccupation with leadership is not something I’m particularly happy with . . . . My definition of a leader is someone who has followers, not someone who has publicity.”

Followers are an often overlooked clue to the leadership conundrum. When USC president Steven Sample and Warren Bennis cooked up a course titled “The Art and Adventure of Leadership,” English professor Thomas Gustafson, only half in jest, proposed a parallel course exploring the historical impact of followers. “This revisionary study,” he wrote, “will neglect Hamlet and Hitler. . . . It will focus instead on the ideology and behavior of renowned followers such as Polonius and Eichmann and on the actions of people en masse: mobs, crowds, audiences, the Silent Majority . . . .”

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It should be noted that the two syllabi do share at least one required reading assignment: Pulitzer Prize-winning author Garry Wills’ “Certain Trumpets--The Call of Leaders.” The title of that 1994 book comes from verse 14:8 in I Corinthians: “For if the trumpet give an uncertain sound, who shall prepare himself to battle?” By examining the lives of such figures as Socrates, Harriet Tubman, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and George Washington, Wills identifies 16 types of leaders: Intellectual, Radical, Rhetorical, Constitutional, etc. His one overarching definition: “The leader is one who mobilizes others to a goal shared by leader and followers.” Wills’ focus is on the delicate collaboration between those who sound the trumpet and those who heed the call. He acknowledges that most people will do both in their lives. Yet his clearest insight is that we tend to misconstrue our current dilemma. We don’t lack leaders, he says, what we’re short of are enlightened and diligent followers. “Tell me who your admired leaders are and you have bared your soul.”

Southern Californians might keep that in mind as we ponder the mantle of leadership the world seems intent on bestowing on our region--and as we ruminate on how this uncooperative beast might best be led. In all likelihood, the string-pulling billionaire Big Boys will be harder-pressed to have their way as the region’s interests grow more intricate. Nor do newly empowered social activists have much hope of a significant power grab, even as neighborhood councils and similar clout-diffusing mechanisms take hold. On the other hand, exuberant, unbridled anarchy has served us pretty well up to now. The trick may be to stop obsessing on leadership and focus on talking.

At the 4-H conference in Griffith Park, the dynamic between leader and led played itself out much as it may 20 years from now. The men and women who step forward to grapple with those issues may or may not be the ones who jumped up on tables at 4-H camp to get their peers to listen to their important agendas. Those who soldier in behind them may or may not be the ones who pitched in with a “Shusssh.”

On the first morning, for instance, two younger boys awoke at 5:30 in Cabin 5 and began chattering enthusiastically in Spanish. Instantly a bleary-eyed, sleep-deprived bunk bed quorum convened. Speaking in modified hip-hop, two African American boys encouraged silence. A couple of white-ish boys chimed in with firm seconds on the motion to keep their traps shut. No charismatic leader emerged to hand down a solution. No wondrously synergistic collaboration fixed the problem. But neither did fists or harsh insults fly. By breakfast, all parties were still speaking. For Los Angeles at the turn of the millennium, that’s a pretty good start.

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