Can Good Leadership Be Learned?

At first glance, I thought that Alan Deutschman's new book, Walk the Walk: The #1 Rule for Real Leaders, was an exercise in belaboring the obvious. Just as Malcolm Gladwell's book Blink can be reduced to "trust your gut," I thought Deutschman's premise that top CEOs and leaders need to "walk the walk, not just talk the talk," was too obvious to warrant repeating, let alone spend 176 pages discussing at length. But after reading both the book and the business section pages over the past few days, I've decided I was wrong. On two fronts.

First, it appears that Deutschman's premise about the importance of management being authentic, honest, and not asking anyone beneath them to meet any standard or make any sacrifice they're not prepared to meet or make themselves is clearly not as obvious or widely understood as I once might have thought. Take yesterday's column by David Carr of the New York Times about the management at the Tribune Company arguing to a bankruptcy court--after leading the company into bankruptcy (in no small part because of a badly-conceived, heavily-leveraged purchase that left the company saddled with debt) and depriving more than 2,000 employees of jobs-- that the managers should be awarded between 45 to 60 million dollars in performance bonuses. The bonuses are necessary, the company's lawyers argued, because getting a company out of bankruptcy is hard work, and "not being rewarded for hard work and hard effort is demotivating."

No kidding. As Carr says, tell that to the 2,000 journalists and other Tribune personnel whose reward for hard work and hard effort was the elimination of their jobs.

The stunning obliviousness of the Tribune management reminds me of a definition I heard a long time ago for "chutzpah": someone who kills his or her parents and then pleads mercy from the court because he or she is an orphan. Run a company into bankruptcy, and then plead with the court that running a bankrupt company is hard, so you need extra money to do it. That takes ... well, chutzpah. Among other things. Not to mention the fact that $60 million (if all the management performance numbers were met) would give every laid-off staff person $30,000 a year. Think of the products the Tribune could actually produce for that amount of money.

Compare that, for a moment, to some of the military and business leaders Deutschman uses as examples--from Alexander the Great, who took more hits on the front line than any of his soldiers, to Norman Schwartzkopf, who insisted that officers in his command eat the same food and meet the same fitness standards as the troops they commanded. Or Bill Hewlett of Hewlett-Packard, who Deutschman says made every employee, including himself and his entire top management team, take every 10th day off without pay, rather than laying off any employees in the recession of 1970.

Another point Deutschman makes is that a great leader has, in the words of Urban Meyer, head football coach at the University of Florida (where Tim Tebow plays), "the ability to make the level of play of everyone else around him better." Again, a seeming statement of the ridiculously obvious. But consider this piece on Bank of America's outgoing CEO (and former chariman) Ken Lewis, who announced last week that he was retiring--although he said he'd stay on through December because a successor wasn't waiting in the wings. And why wasn't a successor waiting in the wings? Because, according to the article's author, Joe Nocera, Lewis "brutally fired many of the firm's most talented executives, seemingly afraid to be surrounded by potential successors."

So, Lewis wasn't well liked, or good at nurturing or inspiring good performers around him. But not every leader has to be liked to be successful, right? Possibly. But they have to be respected, at least. And ... oh yeah, successful. But during Lewis's tenure, he also made a series of less-than profitable business decisions and purchases, including the purchase of the notorious mortgage disaster known as Countrywide Financial, not to mention the Merrill Lynch  mess, that caused the stock to return negative 13 percent while he was in charge.

And yet, Nocera reported, Lewis has taken home $60 million in compensation over the past three years. Clearly, the idea that a good leader--one worth compensating obscenely well-- should be someone who not only exceeds expectations but also inspires better performance in those around him and sacrifices with the troops, is not a patently obvious or well-understood idea at the top levels of Bank of America. Or among executives at any number of other financial institutions and corporations who have spent the last year boggling many people's minds at their capacity for tone-deaf and enduring senses of entitlement. So much so that the entitlement-laden gestures and complaints aren't even eyebrow-raising to many people at this point.

So maybe the more interesting question is: Are these executives beyond hope? Are really great leaders born, and these executives simply don't have what it takes? Or, even if great leadership traits can be learned, are they traits we have to learn in childhood, not at age 55? Or can they be rehabilitated into better behavior and leadership?

Deutschman doesn't get into whether leadership traits are innate or acquired. But he does sketch out, at the end of his book, some traits that he believes are essential in a great "leadership personality": focus; empathy; relentless authenticity; belief not only in themselves, but also in others and in change itself; resilience; and dogged persistence.

Another person's list might differ. But I found the list interesting food for thought. For one thing, "empathetic" isn't generally the first word we hear when Wall Street and corporate titans are described. Brilliant, focused, ruthless, sharply analytic, and relentless, yes. But authentic and empathetic ... not so much. That might explain a lot. (Also ironic to see empathy given such big play in a business book, after all the argument about it in Sonia Sotomayor's confirmation hearings.)

But just for argument's sake, let's say Deutschman is right, and the traits he lists really are the essential pre-requisites for a great executive or leader. Can they be taught in business school, or in a business setting? Or do we simply have to start looking for a different kind of leader in the first place?

Evolutionary psychologists are only beginning to look at how individual personality traits may evolve (as opposed to more basic domains of survival, sexuality, parenting, community, cooperation and aggression). But a recent paper on the subject by David Buss, professor of psychology at the University of Austin, noted that "virtually all personality characteristics ... show heritabilities in the range of 50% and substantial cross-time stability, even over spans of decades."

Which still leaves 50 percent, of course. And education and training can certainly help strengthen or mitigate someone's natural tendencies. After all, belief in a person's ability to change is, itself, one of the traits Deutschman says great leaders possess.

On the other hand, if the traits Deutschman lists as important really do have a significant genetic component, and personality traits have substantial stability over time, then it might not do troubled executives much good to read Deutschman's book. But even if that's the case, it could still prove useful to the rest of us ... if only in underscoring the seemingly obvious fact that we might want to give a little more attention to the personality traits of who we hire to run things. Walking the walk, it turns out, is a lot harder, and rarer, than one might imagine.

Photo Credit: Flickr User lumaxart