The Spirit of Leadership

By Harari, Oren | Management Review, April 1999 | Go to article overview

The Spirit of Leadership


Harari, Oren, Management Review


After mourning the loss of the familiar, true leaders move on to embrace change and mobilize others to do the same.

In 1455, the Gutenberg Bible was produced on a crude printing press, which signaled a momen-tous shift in society and in history.

The invention of movable type gradually precipitated a wide-spread availability of books to the masses, and it ultimately led to the de-mocratization of information.

Yet as James O'Donnell, professor of classic studies at the University of Pennsyl-vania, has noted, not everyone was ini-tially thrilled with this new technology.

Many took the position expressed by Ves-pasiano de Bisticci, who wrote in 1490 that in his library, "All books were superla-tively good and written with the pen; had there been one printed book, it would have been ashamed in such company."

Perhaps the most vociferous criticisms came from Benedictine monks, many of whom were scribes who took pride in writing books by hand. The patron saint of these critics, according to O'Donnell, was the abbot Johannes Tithemius, who argued the following: Printed books, which use paper, won't last nearly as long as manuscripts prepared on skin.

* Print is uglier than the beauty and art gracing the pages of illuminated manuscripts.

* Printers make more errors than do scribes, so print is more defective.

Tithemius' criticisms were articulate, reasonable and valid. But they were also irrelevant. The new technology un-leashed a momentous force that had a life of its own; others capitalized on this force and took it to new heights. The world would never be the same again.

My colleague Stanley Nel, dean of arts and sciences at the University of San Francisco, believes that Tithemius was not simply expressing his own opinion as a union shop steward or a corporate pro-tectionist about the impact of the new technology on the livelihood of the Benedictines. "At a much deeper level, he was mourning the passing of an age and a way of life," Nel says.

IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE

I believe Nel is correct, and that the same issue is germane today.

In response to the convulsive changes in today's marketplace, all of us can and perhaps should mourn the passing of an age that we are knowledgeable about and comfortable in-an age that holds wonderful memories for us. Still, as Nel points out, we are then left with one of two choices: "We can fight to protect our privilege and keep our comforts. Or we can give thanks that we will be able to participate in the coming revolution."

The latter sentiment, I believe, under-lies the spirit of a true leader. Leaders mobilize us to capitalize on forces as mo-mentous as those faced by the Bene-dictines.

And, using Nel's sentiment, they empower us to do so with gratitude and grace. This is no hyperbole. The forces managers face today are profound, and the "revolution" that Nel correctly al-ludes to is already here. Retiring EDS Chairman Les Alberthal notes that "the rate of change is occurring faster than we can comprehend." We can't delay the changes, hold back the tide or build a fortress against inevitabilities.

Real leaders approach these realities with gusto. But too often we see resis-tance to change among both "leaders" and "followers," even in organizations that desperately need change. In last month's column, with the assistance of Dan Sweeney, vice president of IBM's re-tail consultancy group, I noted a number of reasons why people in organizations resist change. Now, I want to invite Dan to help me again, this time in proposing five straightforward ways that you (no doubt a real leader) can view change optimistically and deal with it effectively. As I did last month, I will scribe Dan's insights and follow each with my commentary.

CHANGE IS ONLY NATURAL

First, argues Sweeney: "Purge the as-sumption of stability from your view of the world. …

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