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On Leadership, By Dr. Sidney Harman

Excerpted from the book MIND YOUR OWN BUSINESS by Sidney Harman, a Currency Book published by Doubleday, a division of Random House, Inc.

Leading an organization is vitally important because so many people and their families are directly influenced by the leader’s direction. These are the important keys to leadership as I’ve learned them over the last sixty years:

The leader leads. He (or she) is not a caretaker. He is obliged to set the targets, the standards, and the example.

The leader defines the company. He should do so explicitly. Its purpose, its goals, and its processes are his responsibility.

The leader inspires. People want work to be more than drudgery. They want to see meaning in their jobs that justifies and warrants the hours they devote to them. Inspiration promises something beyond wages-a sense that the company has a greater meaning, its own values, and its own reason for existence. A leader must find the way to deliver that message and keep on delivering it.

The leader should be the evangelist. Believing in the mission, committing to honorable, ethical conduct, and wishing for creative products in marketing are not enough. The leader must sell those views restlessly and relentlessly. My colleagues and their subordinates must sometimes weary of me. I have often seen that “there he goes again” look. But I have also often seen my influence rewarded, and in turn it inspires me.

The leader must see the company as a coherent whole. It is not enough to be a marketing guru, or a manufacturing or financial star. A leader must see the interrelatedness and interdependence of those disciplines, and must promote the whole of it. Nothing stirs me more than when Frank Meredith, our chief financial officer, embraces an exciting marketing program, or when Bernie Girod, the chief executive officer, engages the central manufacturing functions.

The leader must know that there is no better way to create a family in the workplace than to encourage the family at home. When I initiated a major, new anti-domestic violence program in the company, it was not only constructive in itself, it also enhanced the employees’ view of Harman as a caring company, a good place to work.

The leader should never underestimate the value of disciplined, hard work. I am not talking about clocking hours. Years ago, Gary Player, the great South African professional golfer, known for his unmatched diligence, met with journalists after winning a major tournament. Amiably, a reporter commented, “You were very lucky today, Gary.” His equable reply: “I notice that the harder I work, the better I play, and the better I play, the luckier I get.”

The leader empowers subordinates to do their jobs. He does not insert himself unnecessarily or capriciously. He does not cause uncertainty and indecision, borne of fear of being second-guessed. The leader stays in touch, provides guidance, and, where required, teaching. He empowers, but he does not desert. Dele-gating authority empowers, but ignoring the delegatee thereafter abandons leadership.

The leader promotes closure. It is important that matters of consequence be driven to constructive conclusion. Many otherwise skilled executives have difficulty making a decision, closing the deal, wrapping the matter up, and moving on. Business leadership includes the ability to recognize that the moment is right, the time has come. If the moment is right, get it done. Finish the job. Wrap it up. The purpose of a search is to find-not just to search. The purpose of a presentation is to sell and get the order, not just to present. The purpose of a meeting is to reach a conclusion, not just to meet or plan another meeting.

The leader knows what he doesn’t know. No one knows everything, and the willingness of a leader to acknowledge that he does not know everything is a great attribute. Many outrageous errors are made in industry by people who barge ahead, failing to recognize that they are out of their depth, in an arena for which they are not properly equipped, or because they are unwilling to acknowledge that they don’t even understand the vocabulary. In February 1977, only days after I had arrived at the Department of Commerce, I found myself chairing a series of high-level meetings for which I had had no preparation. Those meetings dealt with the decision by the government to expand the 12-mile fishing zone around our borders to the current 200 miles. The meetings engaged flag rank members of the Navy and the Coast Guard and numbers of self-important bureaucrats. I found myself totally bewildered and intimidated by a vocabulary I did not understand. Then the moment came when, suspecting that my inexperience was being exploited, I responded to a presentation by saying, “That was most impressive, Admiral. I wonder, however, whether in formulating your plan, you considered the ADL factor?”

He replied, “Mr. Secretary, that’s a splendid question and yes, we considered it thoroughly.” I learned an important lesson in that moment. I did not know whether the ADL factor referred to the Anti-Defamation League or to the consulting firm Arthur D. Little. Neither did he. What I did know was that the admiral had been snowing me, and that up until that moment I had permitted a strange vocabulary to intimidate me. Never again. Anytime I do not understand what the other fellow is saying, I ask for clarification. I know that I know a fair amount about a fair number of things, but I never hesitate to admit ignorance, lack of knowledge, or the inability to understand what somebody has said to me. It is surprising how, almost without exception, that declaration leads to a very good conclusion.

The leader knows the meaning of two minutes. I use that as a metaphor. Respecting his own time and respecting the time of associates is important. I have been turned off time and again when someone who has been asked to speak briefly goes on endlessly, indifferent to the fact that there are other speakers or that the audience has its own time limitations.

When I served as deputy secretary of commerce, I was asked to address the Association of Higher Education on the last day of its annual convention in Chicago. I had a very large audience, well over two thousand, and nearly everyone had luggage near at hand, ready to bolt when the session had ended. I shared the platform with the Hon. Willard Wirtz, the former secretary of labor. Each of us was to make an address. I would follow Willard. He started well, but never stopped. As he continued, the crowd grew increasingly restless, and I, increasingly frustrated. When at long last he brought his comments to a conclusion, the hall sweated with impatience. Finally, I was introduced and I told the audience, “Please be at ease. I have a short story to tell you, and then we will adjourn.”

Emanuel Celler, I told them, had served in Congress for forty years and loved to tell of his very first year. He had rented the local armory in Brooklyn to report to his constituents. A crowd of some two hundred assembled, and the new congressman began his report. Celler recalled that he became so totally engrossed in what he was saying that “the hours slipped away.” When finally the congressman brought his remarks to a conclusion, only one person remained. Celler raced to the man and embraced him. “I thank you for your patience. I thank you for your indulgence. I thank you for your support.” “My patience, my indulgence, my support —your ass! I’m the next speaker.”

I then sat down. And the hall erupted in the most prolonged applause I have ever heard. Those two thousand attendees cleared the hall in minutes.

The leader teaches. There is no more important responsibility than the development of those around him. There are of course many ways to teach, but the leader must find his way and exercise it constantly.

Above all, the leader develops others. This in my mind is the singular distinction of a handful of great leaders. Lao Tzu, in the Tao Te Ching, suggested that “the leader, having accomplished great things, the people all feel they did it themselves.”

Mahatma Gandhi is said to have called to his people, “Wait for me, I’m your leader.” Gandhi saw the leader as one who promotes the development of others and is always ready to subordinate himself to that purpose. I have known U.S. presidents and others who were downright great when measured against other criteria of leadership, but who failed seriously in this respect. Most leaders think a great deal about their legacy. What greater legacy than a group of followers or colleagues who carry on, inspired, informed, and grown because of the relationship with their leader?

The very best leaders go beyond the mere setting of example. The best leaders are catalysts who prompt others to reach beyond their most natural abilities to find something they had previously thought beyond their reach. The routine leader causes nothing to emerge from a meeting except those ideas which the participants brought with them. The catalyst/leader will frequently cause a leap of imagination-a leap of faith, the discovery of something no one had brought to the meeting.

The leader recognizes that people are often at their very best the moment they have been let go. That used to puzzle me. Have I made an error in judgment? How can this fellow look this good and yet have persuaded me that he cannot cut it? With enough experience, I have come to realize that people frequently do badly because they hate the work or are overwhelmed by the responsibility, or because they are terrified because they do not understand how the whole thing works. They are released from that dreadful struggle at the moment of dismissal, and with that release, are free to perform at their very best. It took more than one experience for me to realize that it should not seduce me into changing my mind. Each time I did, I was soon obliged to act all over again.

Copyright © 2003 by Sidney Harman. Reprinted with permission.

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