What Makes Great Leadership?

imi chen 艾米
5 min readJan 22, 2022

A hunger for innovation a willingness to take risks, vision, integrity, perseverance, courage…What are other element of the alloy we cal “leadership”?

In building their list of the 20th century’s top business leaders, Harvard Business School professors Anthony J. Mayo and Nitin Nohria have unearthed an immutable attribute that’s shared by all of the giant of business : an innate ability to read the forces that shaped the times in which they lived — and to seize the resulting opportunities.

These brilliant bosses fall basically into three types : the entrepreneur, the manager and the charismatic. Whatever their style, they all possess an acute sensitivity to the social, political, technological and demographic contexts of their eras, and adapt their enterprises to capitalize on what they see.

“We’ve always treated the historical context of a particular time as a kind of sidebar to any discussion about business leadership,” says Nohria. “But we’ve found that context is far more salient than we ever imagined.”

At the turn of the last century, C. W. Post was an itinerant salesman who traveled throughout Michigan, where Henry Ford had just put car manufacturing on the assembly line. Entrepreneurship was in the air. Post sensed a growing interest in healthful eating that created the possibility for a new business opportunity.

In response, he developed a caffeine-free health drink, Postum, and a ready-to eat cold cereal, Grape-Nuts. Having been a door-to-door salesman, Post knew how to market products. He broke through the competition by offering free samples to customers of general stores throughout the Midwest. Post used product sampling — a practice that was unheard of at the time- to connect directly with the end consumer. That not only made his products a success, but also set the stage for a new business practice in the retail sector.

C.W. Post’s real genius lay in his ability to sense that a new, national consumer was emerging in America. He saw that as the nation was becoming increasingly industrialized and as women entered the workforce, time itself was becoming increasingly valuable. People were willing to pay for convenience.

Post used these changing demographics to launch his food products among the first that were nationally advertised, nationally distributed and nationally consumed. He was one of the first to recognize the power of a national brand.

The Leader as Manager: Louis B. Neumiller

Louis B. Neumiller rose through the ranks of Caterpillar, manufacturer of heavy earth-moving equipment, and became its chief executive in 1941. Two months later, Japan attacked Pearl Harbor. Neumiller seized on the massive geopolitical event that was World War II to build Caterpillar into a global organization.

Soon after the country was plunged into war, the U.S. military called on Caterpillar to retool its operations for artillery production. But Neumiller feared that when the war ended, the company would be left with the challenge of reconverting itself back to producing its prewar equipment. He convinced the Army that it was better served by letting Caterpillar continue to manufacture bulldozers and tractors. In the end, his steadfast strategy paid off.

Neumiller volunteered to deliver Caterpillar equipment to all the different theaters of engagement. He believed that when the war ended and battered countries set about rebuilding, Asia and Europe would become markets for Caterpillar equipment. He was right. Caterpillar established dealerships and service centers in these areas for maintenance of the old equipment and, more important, for new purchases. Neumiller took this fledgling infrastructure and used it to build an international presence for Caterpillar in almost every corner of the world.

The charismatic leader : Lee Iacocca

Our fascination with the CEO as a celebrity leader dates back to Lee Iacocca. He captured the moment because he saw and seized on a series of secular changes that crept up almost unnoticeably.

By the early 1970s, the major U.S. carmakers seemed unassailable. Then came the OPEC oil embargo and the energy crisis that followed. This geopolitical event revealed a larger set of coalescent forces that allowed foreign carmakers to erode Detroit’s dominance. By 1980, Japan had become the world’s largest automobile producer and all of the major U.S. automobile companies had lost money. The biggest was Chrysler, which posted a record loss of $1.7 billion.

Then comes this larger-than-life figure, Iacocaca. He was the first modern leader to use the force of his persona to turn around an American company. Iacocca pledged that he would take an annual salary of $1 until he returned Chrysler to profitability. He persuaded the government to authorize a $1.5 billion loan guarantee using taxpayers’ dollars, but he knew he couldn’t keep going back for more government loans. So Iacocca seized on three forces that were reshaping the American business landscape and yoked them to his afvantage.

First, there was technology. Iacocca understood that the Japanese threat stemmed from a fundamentally more productive way of managing manufacturing, which he’d have to mimic. Then came labor. Iacocca was among the first to recognize that there needed to be a more cooperative compact between labor and management. And finally, Iacocca leveraged America’s radically changing demographics. His genius was to see that the baby boomers were starting families, so he bet Chrysler’s immediate future on the minivan. Ultimately, Iacocca succeeded at turning around Chrysler because he acted on all three fronts simultaneously.

Like Post, Neumiller and Iacocca, really great leaders of the 21st century have an outsized ability to read their times and shape their enterprises to best respond.

  • demographic 人口分布狀況
  • geopolitical 地緣政治的
  • artillery 大砲
  • bulldozer 堆土機
  • tractor 拖拉機
  • OPEC oil embargo 石油輸出國家組織的石油禁運行動
  • embargo : an order to temporarily stop something, especially trading or giving information
  • compact 正式協議;契約
  • alloy : a metal that is made by mixing two or more metals, or a metal and another substance 合金
  • sidebar : a narrow area at the side of a page on a website, giving extra information or links (網頁上的)側邊欄
  • salient : The salient facts about something or qualities of something are the most important things about them 顯著的,突出的
  • theater : an area or place in which important military events happen
  • battered : damaged and hurt from being repeatedly hit
  • fledgling : new and without experience
  • coalescent : growing together to from one thing or sustem
  • persona : the particular type of character that a person seems to have and that is often different from their real or private character (與本人真實品格不一致的)表面形象,外表性格
  • mimic : to copy the way in which a particular thing is done
  • leverage : to use in order to make gains or improvements