The Triumph of Competence over Charisma
Despite all of the failures at the top of companies in recent years – or perhaps because of them – we are finally moving into an era of competent leaders, favoring them over charismatic leaders.
The appointment of the highly competent Bob Zoellick to replace the charismatic Paul Wolfowitz as president of the World Bank is just the latest such move. Zoellick is highly respected by finance ministers and bankers around the world and will be quickly confirmed. He was passed over two years ago for the ideological Wolfowitz who didn´t take long to alienate the bank´s staff as well as financial leaders around the world with his focus on ideology rather than performance. Look for Zoellick to turn that around quickly and to rebuild the trust in the institution. Unlike Wolfowitz, who placed his own interests ahead of the institution he was elected to lead, Zoellick has always been a builder of competent institutions who gets things done.
Zoellick´s selection has echoes of the replacement of Dick Grasso, the charismatic leader of the New York Stock Exchange by the very competent John Thain. The NYSE has flourished under Thain´s leadership, as he has quietly led it into the era of electronic trading and global trading.
It is ironic that several of the most competent leaders of today were initially passed over by their boards who gave preference to charismatic leaders instead. When these charismatic leaders got their companies in trouble, the boards turned to these competent leaders to bail the company out. Just look at the enormous success these leaders have achieved:
o A.G. Lafley at Procter & Gamble was passed over for the charismatic Dirk Jager. In less than two years Jager´s abrasiveness and abandonment of long-held P&G values led to a revolt of its management and his replacement with Lafley. Lafley has rebuilt the trust in P&G while quietly transforming the company into a global powerhouse in consumer goods.
- Anne Mulcahy at Xerox was also passed over for IBM star Rick Thoman, who led the company to the brink of bankruptcy in just thirteen months. Mulcahy avoided bankruptcy and rebuilt Xerox by focusing on its core products, new technologies, and customer service while reducing the company´s debt by 60 percent.
- Andrea Jung of Avon was also passed over by the appointment of a board member who came from Duracell, the battery company. In just twenty months the Avon board recognized its mistake and replaced him with Jung. Jung quickly changed the company´s mission to “the empowerment of women” and built her organization from 1.5 million to 5.5 million people, the largest in the world.
- The board of Hewlett-Packard recruited the highly charismatic Carly Fiorina as its CEO. Fiorina hit the top of Fortune´s “Most Powerful Women” lists several times, just as the company´s performance was tanking and its organization imploding. To replace Fiorina, the H-P board recruited Mark Hurd, another highly competent, but not charismatic, leader. In less than two years, Hurd has put H-P back on track, as it regains lost market leadership and its original culture.
Some of today´s top leaders were simply recognized for their competence – and have demonstrated it time and again, while building great organizations capable of sustaining growth:
- Steve Reinemund led PepsiCo to great heights for six years before deciding to focus on his family and teenage twins.
- Bob Ulrich took over the reins of Target from a failing leader a dozen years ago and has quietly transformed the company into the retail powerhouse with its great values for consumers with fashion-forward merchandise.
- Doug Conant has transformed Campbell´s Soup into a growth company once again by developing competent, authentic leaders throughout his organization.
There are many more examples of competent leaders who are emerging as the giants of the 21st century: Dick Kovacevich of Wells Fargo, Jeff Immelt of GE, Rex Tillerson of ExxonMobil, Sam Palmisano of IBM, Ken Lewis of Bank of America, Lloyd Blankfein of Goldman Sachs, John Mack of Morgan Stanley, Ken Chenault of American Express, and Dan Vasella of Novartis. All of them give priority to building leadership in the marketplace and authentic leadership in their organizations over publicity for themselves. They all have well controlled egos and are focused entirely on building great organizations.
Isn´t it time for corporate boards to abandon the needless search for charismatic leaders and simply promote the competent, authentic leaders right in front of them? These new leaders may not impress Wall Street by hyping the company´s stock, but in the long-run they will create far greater shareholder value by building authentic growth organizations that stay focused on their True North.