Thursday, January 12, 2012

What Makes A Better Business Leaders ?

Drucker (2008, p288) defines a leader as an individual who is capable of ‘lifting a person’s vision to higher sights, the raising of a person’s performance to higher standards, and the building of personality beyond its normal limitations’. A number of models have been proposed that aim to define the attributes of a leader.

Trait Theory proposed that leaders are born and not made (Robbins, 2004) and attempted to investigate if specific traits such as charisma, courage, passion and enthusiasm led to a better leader. However, many deficiencies in such a proposition were identified and found that ‘some traits increase the likelihood of success as a leader, but none guarantee success’ (Robbins, 2004, p339).

Trait Theory gave way behavioral theories such as those tested in the Ohio and Michigan State studies. These focused on the belief that Initiating Structure and Consideration were vital for effective leadership (Fleischman, 1953). Such beliefs provided a structure for the separation of leadership into personal and professional leadership (George, Sims, McLean, & Mayer, 2007). However, Bartol et al (2004, p403-404) believe that the idea of a “high-high” leader is a myth and that ‘situational elements such as subordinate expectations and task nature’ underpin better leadership behaviors.

A better business leader will be able to modify their leadership style based on specific situations. Path-Goal and Situational Leadership theory proposed that better leaders select a leadership style that takes into account the willingness of the sub-ordinates to follow (Hershey & Blanchard, 1982), the characteristics of the sub-ordinates and environmental factors (House, 1971). In doing so, a better business leader will more easily engage co-operators who willingly contribute their efforts to realize better business outcomes (Mastrangelo, Eddy, & Lorenzet, 2004)

It is shown that better business leaders are able to genuinely earn the trust and respect of their followers, demonstrate consistency of values, morals and integrity and understand that they alone cannot achieve greatness – it is their ability to motivate and inspire the power and ability of the collective that will define their success as a better business leader.

The question of what makes a “better” business leader is the topic of continual academic research and hypothesis. Over the past 50 years over 1,000 studies (George, Sims, McLean, & Mayer, 2007) have explored why business leadership is important, what skills, attributes and traits define a leader and the impacts of the leader on subordinates and peers. Whilst the research supports no single definition or answer to these questions there is a commonly accepted hypothesis that a person is not born a great leader (Durcker, 2008) though through the application of leadership theory in demonstrable behaviors, beliefs, processes and practices one can be considered a great leader by their peers and subordinates.

Leadership theory developed and matured with evolving technology, business practices and global events. The Rational Goal (1900-1925),  Internal Process (1900-1925), Human Relations (1926-195), Open Systems (1971-1975) and The Integrated Approach (1975) models all provide varying levels of effectiveness, emphasis and role definition. As there is no one size fits all approach to leadership, the acknowledgement that traits, behaviors and motivations vary for each individual and the ability to capitalize on these (Buckingham, 2005) unique attributes in varying situations is key to better leadership.

This paper contends that individuals with good self-awareness and understanding that beneficial business outcomes are more readily achieved by organizations whose employees demonstrate leadership that inspire staff toward honest, willing and committed participation in the activities of the business make better business leaders. This is further bettered by converting awareness of leadership theory, life experiences and values into specific behaviors and actions (George, Sims, McLean, & Mayer, 2007) that transform the peer/subordinate relationship from one of management to one of the more desired leadership.

Within this contention, we seek to understand what makes a better business leader. One may question better compared to what and how is one leader “better” than another ? The Cambridge dictionary defines “better” as “comparative of good; of a higher standard, or more suitable, pleasing or effective than other things or people”. For the purpose of this contention, we shall imply that a better business leader is one who is more effective and efficient at achieving business outcomes than another.

This contention is explored through a literature review focusing on fundamental management models (Taylor, Fayol and Weber, Mayo, Rothslinger, McGregor, Maslow, Herzberg, Katz and Khan et. al), genuine and authentic leadership (Buckingham, 2005), and The Theory of The Business  (Durcker, 2008). Supported by evidence taken from case studies, research and personal experience it will be shown that better business leaders are able to develop a deep and personal integration of these theories and demonstrate this through actions and behaviors, ultimately proven by improved business outcomes.

No single approach to leadership can be clearly identified as the “right” approach. Studies have been undertaken from a number of perspectives (Mastrangelo, Eddy, & Lorenzet, 2004) in an attempt to validate and prove a number of hypotheses; from the Open Systems Model (Katz & Kahn, 1966) and the Integrated Model (Goleman, Boyatzis, & McKee, 2002) to situational theory (Hershey & Blanchard, 1982) and The Theory Of The Business (Durcker, 2008). No definition, traits, attributes, values and/or behaviors have been identified that definitively encompass what it is that makes a better business leader. However, these theories support the contention in as much as collectively they highlight the importance of self-awareness, staff engagement and willingness in leadership.

In 2004, Robbins proposed that ‘leaders are born, rather than created’. This proposition would render the contention invalid as it would be impossible to make a better business leader. Over time and through the maturing of leadership theory, specific traits and qualities were attached to leadership in an effort to distinguish good and poor leadership. However, the realization that some traits improve the likely outcome of leadership, though “none guarantee success” (Robbins, 2004) lead to significant limitations of trait theory. The contention is non-specific in relation to its breadth of applicability. Specifically, the one-size fits all approach, especially that of trait theory, failed to consider that differing management situations and characteristics that may give the perception of leadership rather than a measure of actual performance and the possible “elitist” concept of leadership may discourage those without obvious leadership traits from pursuing leadership positions. As such trait theory fails to support the contention as it doesn’t take into account situational leadership which is an essential capability of a better business leader.

As leaders cannot succeed on their own (George, Sims, McLean, & Mayer, 2007) it is important that they balance concern for people (relationships) and concern for tasks (production). The Ohio state studies explored definition and structure of work and implied that a better business leader would be able to structure their role and the role of their subordinates in an effort to attain a goal (Fleischman, 1953). Additionally, to have relationships defined by mutual trust, respect for sub-ordinate ideas and regards for their feelings (Fleischman, 1953). This study lends weight to the contention by validating the importance of specific values such as trust and respect in better business leadership.

Similarly, the Michigan study further explored task and relationship oriented behaviors and suggested that there are three types of leader behaviors; Autocratic – unilateral decision making, punitive feedback; Democratic – Participative decision making, feedback for coaching and support; and Laissez-faire – gives complete freedom, avoids feedback (Likert, 1961). It is reasonable to conclude from these studies that an individual who can balance both task and relationship behaviors will be a better business leader. The contention implies a better business leader must have a strong understanding of both the theory of the business and the impact of relationship behaviors and as such the outcomes of the Michigan studies lend further weight and validation to the contention.

Blake and Mouton (1964) suggested that a leadership grid (see Figure 1) integrating both the Ohio and Michigan studies could classify leadership based on specific behaviors rather than specific traits. This led to the concept that there is a “best” way to lead people (Blake & Mouton, 1964) – commonly called the 9,9 way.

The Blake and Mouton’s model came into question as it failed to clarify whether a single leadership behavior was adequate to derive maximum benefit in all situations. A better business leader within the context of the contention should be able to adapt their leadership style based on the situation. Path-Goal and Situational Leadership theory proposed that leaders should select a leadership style that takes into account the willingness of the sub-ordinates to follow (Hershey & Blanchard, 1982), the characteristics of the sub-ordinates and environmental factors (House, 1971). In doing so, a better business leader will more easily engage co-operators who willingly contribute their efforts to realize better business outcomes (Mastrangelo, Eddy, & Lorenzet, 2004). Hershey and Blanchard support the contention by confirming that a better business leader must understand the skill and experience of their employees and select the most appropriate leadership style suitable for them and the specific situation.

Evans (1970, p277) proposes that “the individual’s perception of how his action or behavior (path) may be related to the individual’s idiosyncratic outcomes (goals)” allowing Path-Goal theory to cater for individuality in the peer/sub-ordinate and provides a model that links leadership behaviors, situational factors to a desired end result. However, such a model does not take into consideration the benefits of emotional awareness .According to Goleman (1998), emotional intelligence and awareness enhances the likelihood of being a better business leader. Such emotional awareness is said to lead to six leadership styles (Goleman, Boyatzis, & McKee, 2002) 1) Visionary 2) Coaching 3) Affiliative 4) Democratic 5) Pacesetting 6) Commanding. The contention is in agreement with Goleman who supports the position that a better business leader should be able to determine the appropriate style based on the situation.

The literature reinforces the contention is as much as those who are in tune with themselves, with others and with their environment/situation make better business leaders. However, as suggested by Druker (1994) too many people work in ways that are not their natural style and this “almost always leads to nonperformance” (Durcker, 2008).  George, Sims, McLean and Mayer understood this and proposed that leaders are primarily driven by intrinsic and extrinsic motivations. These motivations are underpinned by a sense of meaning to life and measurement of success against outside world parameters (George, Sims, McLean, & Mayer, 2007). Therefore, in agreement with the contention, a better business leader would be “authentic”, demonstrate a passion for their purpose, consistently practice their values and lead with their hearts as well as their heads. (George, Sims, McLean, & Mayer, 2007).

In 2004, Mastrangelo, Eddy and Lorenzet proposed that effective leaders engage in both professional and personal leadership behaviors. Further, they suggest that personal leadership “mediates” the relationship between professional leadership and willing co-operation.

This is reflected in the contention and is best supported by Kouzes and Posner who propose that “excellent” leaders exhibit these behaviors in at least 5 practices; 1) Challenge the process – take risks and learn from success and failure 2) Inspire a shared vision – communicate a vision and persuade others to commit to it 3) Enable others to act – foster collaboration and get people to work together 4) Model the way – act as a role model and set people up for success 5) Encourage the heart – reward individual contribution and celebrate group success (Kouzes & Posner, 1987). Each of these behaviors are implicit in the contention further strengthening that argument that better business leadership requires awareness of leadership theory, life experiences and values into specific behaviors and actions.

Whilst, personal leadership may carry the professional message, the leader must be intimately familiar with the assumptions on which the organization is based (Durcker, 2008). Mastrangelo, Eddy and Lorenzet suggest that professional leadership is positively related to willing co-operation. This would support the contention that better leaders must cater for both the heart and the head.

Darling (1999) articulated this in his “Model of Keys to Success and Leadership Strategies” in which four leadership strategies were identified 1) Attention Through Vision 2) Meaning Through Communication 3) Confidence Through Respect 4) Trust Through Positioning. Such strategies are in agreement with the visionary style of leadership identified by Goleman (2002), Kouzes and Posners concept of “Model The Way” and the importance of authenticity (George, Sims, McLean, & Mayer, 2007).

The implied behaviors and actions within the stated contention require the consistent demonstration of authentic and trustworthy behaviors (rather than traits) that connect to their peers and sub-ordinates in a meaningful and “human” way. Such a connection provides a medium that carries the professional message (George, Sims, McLean, & Mayer, 2007), vision and common purpose to such an extent that unknowingly the peer/subordinate becomes a willing participant in the actions that fulfill the goals of the business.

Though the literature supports varying models, interpretations and definitions, one may reasonably conclude that there is sufficient literary evidence to robustly support the stated contention.

There is no doubt that the financial turn around of Continental Airlines during the period 1994 to 1997 was remarkable. However, one cannot overlook the critical role leadership took in achieving such an outstanding result. Facing almost certain financial ruin, Brenneman and George Bethune (CEO) devised a “Go Forward Plan” to save Continental. Whilst the financial and commercial aspects of this plan are interesting, it is clear that the link between leadership behaviors, actions and business outcomes are a central theme in the ultimate successful application of the strategy.

Coming from a middle class background, Greg Brenneman had little operational experience when appointed Chief Operating Officer in 1994. By no means would Brenneman be considered a “born leader”, however, from the outset he knew that Continental would fail unless everyone in the company pulled together (Brenneman, 1998). He achieved this by creating a “go forward plan” which at its core inspired a shared vision. Supported by the concepts of Kouzes and Posner the intent of this vision was to ensure that every employee was heading in the same direction. However, Brenneman was aware that the staff needed to “buy-in” to this vision and plan, and as such he sold it to them with “energetic zeal” (Brenneman, 1998, p. 168). He also understood that the success of the plan needed to be “tracked relentlessly” (Brenneman, 1998, p. 168) developing a sense of shared accountability for the outcomes.

Such an approach is in agreement with the proposition that better business leaders are able to address both professional and personal leadership (Mastrangelo, Eddy, & Lorenzet, 2004). By coupling the shared vision with strong performance metric monitoring, Brenneman understood that the customers of Continental would experience an improved product and Continental would become an airline of choice (Brenneman, 1998). This in turn, would yield improved business outcomes for staff and shareholders.

Through the “Go Forward Plan” a new corporate culture was created. By restoring employee confidence in management and the establishment of a co-operative atmosphere between working groups a results oriented work environment was built. This was achieved through a top-down ethos of teamwork, dignity, respect and collaboration. The demonstration of these personal leadership behaviors led to the willing co-operation of staff which ultimately (though not solely) made a major contribution to the successful turn-around.

Though Brenneman undertook many complex and difficult professional leadership actions including down sizing, refinancing debt and restructuring the organization, one could conclude that his personal awareness and understanding of the situation was a key factor in his success. The development and execution of the strategy was of paramount importance (Nohria, Joyce, & Robertson, 2003), though by identifying the most appropriate leadership style for the situation Brenneman was able to engage his staff and his customers. This is highlighted by his “listening to the customer in seat 9C” example, where after understanding the needs of the customer he employed the innovation, consultation and democratic styles across the business to ensure the customers needs were met – “when the customers won, the employees did too” (Brenneman, 1998, p. 174)

Brenneman refers to many intimate emotions and feelings ranging from painful, embarrassed, humbling and confession, demonstrating his deep understanding that “strong leadership is imperative” (Brenneman, 1998, p. 176) and personal. He further acknowledges that the most important job of the leader is to cultivate honesty, trust, dignity and respect (Brenneman, 1998) – “they all go together; they reinforce one another” (Brenneman, 1998, p. 176).

Brenneman unknowingly used a deep and personal integration of leadership theory to drive his actions and behaviors. The success of which was ultimately proven by the financial outcomes of the company.

One can never be confident that they are a better business leader and surely could never place themselves in the same realm as true business leaders like Jack Welch, John Chambers, Richard Branson or Steve Jobs. However, one can only do their best to honor and respect the effort, passion and energy of their staff and peers.

Personal experience has led me to believe that being a better business leader is not achieved by being smarter, faster or “better” than my peers and competitors – it is achieved by energizing, exciting and empowering those around me, by focusing their efforts on a common goal and together relentlessly striving for continual better outcomes.

In my various roles at senior levels in the telecommunications industry both locally in Australia and overseas I have led technical organizations through mergers and acquisitions, initial public offerings and through insolvency – the one common thread across all situations is the unwavering needs of my staff to believe in the “end game” and to trust in their leadership to “win” this game. In my younger years, I found it confusing that even facing adversity, provided there was a clear goal and honest and open communication, staff would be committed and willingly engage their energy to the fulfillment of the goals. On reflection, this is in alignment with Kouzes and Posners “encourage the heart” and “create a shared vision”.

I have learnt over the years, through observation, painful lessons and heartwarming experiences, that leadership is about people, listening, showing respect and understanding that your colleagues experience feelings and emotions in response to each word, each action and each decision taken by their leaders, managers and peers. I have concluded that there is no single management or leadership theory that will make the best business leader – though by understanding, integrating and demonstrating consistent values, morals and integrity, one can strive to be a “better” business leader. Through my experiences I propose that the stated contention is valid.

It has been shown that a better business leader is one who achieves better business outcomes by selecting the most appropriate leadership model depending on the situation and the needs of their follower. It is clear that there is no right or wrong answer to what makes a better business leader, however, specific behaviors and actions are more likely to solicit willing co-operation from peers and sub-ordinates. These behaviors and actions are underpinned by a consistent and moral value system based on trust, integrity, caring, sharing and honesty.

Drucker said “A person is not born a great leader and traits such as charisma have little bearing on one’s success in a leadership role” (Durcker, 2008, p. 147). As shown by Brenneman of Continental Airlines when a leader shows “leadership” behaviors such as trust, integrity, caring, sharing and honesty with authenticity and discipline, better business outcomes are more easily achieved – personal traits and characteristics are not significant factors in being a better business leader.

A better business leader is a leader who is able to genuinely earn the trust and respect of their followers, is able to demonstrate consistency of values, morals and integrity and understand that they alone cannot achieve greatness – it is their ability to motivate and inspire the power and ability of the collective that will define their success as a better business leader.


Blake, R., & Mouton, J. (1964). The Management Grid. Houston, Texas, USA: Gulf Publishing.
Brenneman, G. (1998). Right Away and All at Once: How We Saved Continental. Harvard Business Review , 76 (5), 162-164.
Buckingham, M. (2005). What Great Managers Do. Harvard Business Review .
Durcker, P. (2008). Management (Revised Edition). 280-291.
Evans, M. (1970). The Efficiency of Supervisory Behaviors on the Path-Goal Relationship, Organisational Behavior and Human Performance.
Fleischman, E. (1953). The Description of Supervisory Behaviour. Personnel Psychology , 37, pp. 1-6.
George, B., Sims, P., McLean, A., & Mayer, D. (2007). Discovering your authentic leadership. Hardvard Business Review .
Goleman, D., Boyatzis, R., & McKee, A. (2002). The New Leaders (Vol. Ch.4). London, The United Kingdom: Little Brown.
Hershey, P., & Blanchard, K. (1982). Management of Behavior: Utilizing Human Resources (4th ed.). Englewood Cliffs, NJ, USA: Prentice Hall.
House, R. (1971). A Path-Goal Theory of Leader Effectiveness. Administrative Science Quarterly , 16, pp. 321-339.
Katz, D., & Kahn, R. (1966). The Social Psychology of Organizations. New York, NYC, USA: Wiley.
Kouzes, J., & B, P. (1987). The Leadership Challenge. San Francisco, CA, USA: Jossey-Bass.
Likert, R. (1961). New Patterns of Management. New York, NYC, USA: McGraw-Hill.
Mastrangelo, A., Eddy, E., & Lorenzet, S. (2004). The importance of personal and professonal leadership. The leadership & organisational development journal , 25 (5), 435-451.
Nohria, N., Joyce, W., & Robertson, B. (2003, July). What Really Works. Harvard Business Review , 43-52.
Robbins, S. (2004). Organization Behavior (11th ed.). New Jersey, USA: Prentice Hall.

[1] Adapted from (Kouzes & B, 1987) and (Mastrangelo, Eddy, & Lorenzet, 2004)

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Thought Leadership and Innovation

Thinking about innovation
simply isnt enough
No single holistic and complete definition of what defines business leader has been identified. Numerous studies have explored the traits, behaviors, actions and beliefs in an attempt to build a model that defines leadership. Traditional ideas of leadership such as those by Drucker define a leader as an individual who is capable of ‘lifting a person’s vision to higher sights, the raising of a person’s performance to higher standards, and the building of personality beyond its normal limitations’ (Durcker, 2008). However, little association is made to thought leadership: the concept that organizational differentiation, value and uniqueness stems from the few whose passion, knowledge and authenticity allows them to innovate and create completely new ideas and concepts.
This post the concepts of thought leadership, the attributes of a thought leader, the relationship to innovation and through case studies demonstrates how organizational design, culture and values encourage thought leadership. Comparisons to traditional leadership theory will be used to highlight how thought leadership can positively impact an organization, its customers and ultimately its financial outcomes.
Organizations produce large amounts of various content. However, one has to question the genesis of this content. Thought-leadership introduces the opposing concept of content creation and content collation. Content creation is considered the generation of new, original, forward-thinking perspectives on critical industry challenges (Boday & Thiel, 2011). Conversely, content collation is simply the rearrangement of this content to address specific contexts. Collation does not generate intrinsic value, fails to add new perspectives and does not contribute to innovation.
Extending the idea that successful companies differentiate themselves based on the way they think as much as by the products and services they sell, this paper contends that the ultimate goal of thought leadership from the perspective of innovation, is to fuel an organizations public relations strategy through new innovative ways of thinking and unique, original perspectives.
Literature Review
Many authors have proposed a number of definitions of thought leadership. McCrimmon proposes that thought leaders are individuals who completely engross themselves in their area of expertise in a search to discover new ways of articulating concepts and arguments in such a way as to add value to their organizations (McCrimmon, Thought Leadership, 2011). Such a definition supports the position of Craig Bading who defined a seven-step process (named by acronym START IP) designed to achieve thought leadership through consumer brand awareness. Specifically, that thought leadership should be founded on specific issues that face an industry, and should be articulated through conversation rather than through “broadcast” messaging (Bading, 2009). 
Fiona Czerniawska proposes that thought leadership can be found in the ‘white space’ between the ‘noise’ of your competitors and truly new innovative ideas (Czerniawska, 2007). In later works she added that for a customer to consider concepts borne of thought leadership they must instantly be able to recognize the concept as relevant and valuable to their work (Source Information Services, 2007). An example of this idea was highlighted by Sandra Richtermeyer who pointed out that both academics and practitioners appreciate the benefits of thought leadership when the proposed concepts and thoughts create opportunities for them (Richtermeyer, 2011). McCrimmon takes this one step further and argues that though thought leadership is the initiation of new directions and categorizes the implementation of these ideas as managerial activity (McCrimmon, Thought Leadership, 2011).
Kouzes and Posner believe that leadership is a journey – the leader sells his idea and leaves those around him/her to reach the destination (Kouzes & Posner, The Leadership Challenge, 1987). Such a view of leadership relies on personal credibility and the ability of the leader to influence their followers. Conversely, McCrimmon argues that thought leaders are different to traditional leaders and have a more competitive edge. They don’t rely on motivation or influence, rather a deep; heart felt conviction that they know better than anyone else in the organization (McCrimmon, Thought Leadership, 2011). However, in a 2006 interview, Brian Carroll, stated that thought leadership is “not about trying to pontificate on how great you are, or trying to edify yourself” (Carroll, 2006). Whilst, it would seem that the literature and practical evidence are yet to settle on the specific attributes of a thought leader, there is a general acceptance that thought leadership and both traditional and top down management have little in common (McCrimmon, Thought Leadership, 2011).
Kouzes and Posner, however, support the concept of challenging the status quo. One of their five key leadership principles is “challenge the way”. As such this highlights the generally accepted principle that thinking outside the box (McCrimmon, Thought Leadership: a radical departure from traditional, positional leadership, 2005) is a key essential element of thought leadership (Kouzes & Posner, The Leadership Challenge, 2002)
Many have attempted to define the attributes and traits of a thought leader. Clark questions how one becomes “the” singular expert and doesn’t just participate in a conversation but drives it (Clark, 2010). Buday and Thiel suggest four attributes 1) unique insights into the problem at hand; 2) experience in solving such problem with clients; 3) integration of the results of those experiences (learning from the past); and 4) a unique and novel approach to doing the work (Boday & Thiel, 2011). Bading offers a trait based view, arguing that a thought leader “must” have these traits – 1) trustworthiness; 2) respectfulness; 3) perseverance; 4) benevolence; 5) ability to lead by example; 6) ability to inspire and influence; and 7) intelligence (Bading, 2009). Ryan Zuk offers a similar, though more succinct list of traits; 1) knowledgeable; 2) aware; 3) interesting; 4) innovative; 5) engaged; and 6) accessible (Zuk, 2009).  It would seem that there is a general consensus in the literature that at least knowledge, innovative thinking and the ability to inspire and influence are the crucial attributes of a thought leader.
Thought Leadership and the “Innovators Dilemma”
Modern companies, specifically those in the technology sector are exposed to the continual tidal wave of disruptive innovations. Clayton Christensens seminal book “The Innovators Dilemma”  called this the  “technological mudslide theory” (Chrsitensen, 1997) and outlines how disruptive innovations drive industry transformation and market creation (Chrsitensen, 1997). Thought leadership clearly plays a role in ensuring that a company continues to stay in the drivers seat of its industry.
Xerox and Polaroid were once known as both industry and thought leaders. Today neither company is a driving force in their respective industries. One may argue that they failed to address the innovators dilemma. As new technologies and industries grew around new technological capabilities they failed to maintain their thought leadership, they lost the driving seat and over time as their once leading technologies become mature, incremental improvements in products become increasingly less impactful, less differentiated and eventually, fundamentally new "disruptive" shifts in technology occur. This is highlighted by the failure of Xerox to address the innovations in personal computing, and by Polaroid to foresee the impact of digital photography.
It is reasonable to argue that without thought leadership, a company is only capable of incremental innovation. Though leadership provides a company with the foresight, passion and know-how to avoid the innovators dilemma and bring to market technologies, concepts and ideas that truly transform an industry.
Thought leadership is the tool that allows a company to create disruption, profit from the industry turmoil it creates, deliver value to its customers and maintain leadership, avoiding being swept up in the disruptive innovation of others.
Thought Leadership In The Work Place
The genesis of many companies is that of a start-up. Characterized by shoe-string budgets, innovation was necessity – the need to deliver as much as possible with as little resources as possible. The need to listen to customers and deliver on their wishes was paramount to success. Often demonstrating a “youthful rebelliousness” (McCrimmon, Thought Leadership, 2011) start-ups demand a different way of thinking and execution in an environment where traditional top down management models are ineffective. Nowhere has this approach been more obvious than with Apple Computer who in 1997 re-invigorated itself with the slogan “think different”, effectively re-instating the start-up mindset and culture, ultimately resulting in Apple becoming the clear industry thought leader.
One may question the role of culture, organization design, and company values in the fostering of thought leadership. The characteristics and attributes of those companies who both produce and attract thought leaders are not clearly defined. Transcending the relationship between organization and customer, companies who truly embrace thought leadership provide their staff a platform for demonstrating the unique value of the company to current and future customers. These companies allow their staff to publicly demonstrate their expertise (Carroll, 2006), they believe the reputation of their staff is a reflection of the company itself. As such they build a culture and value system that takes this belief into account.
Companies with a belief in the value of thought leadership promote their brand through their thought leaders (Bading, 2009).  They want their thought leaders to set the agenda of the industry, be publically recognized and be praised for their innovation (Clark, 2010). A number of interviews with senior executives highlighted key activities that are critical success factors when a company is promoting thought leadership (Clark, 2010) (Carroll, 2006) (Bading, 2009): 1) creation of a robust online presence; 2) use of high quality contacts and networks; 3) public speaking engagements; 4) television appearances; 5) publishing of peer reviewed articles; 6) publishing of industry related books; and 7) Winning of reputable awards.
The following case studies explore two different companies and how their culture, values, organization design and leadership support the development of thought leadership. By focusing on these aspects, a more robust argument for the identification of those organizational attributes that foster thought leadership can be constructed.
Case Study 1: Uecomm Pty. Ltd
Uecomm was formed in 1996 as a subsidiary of United Energy. From the outset, Uecomm was focused on thought leadership and innovation. Becoming the first utility to obtain a telecommunications license Uecomm deployed a national fibre optic network.
Being a young, vibrant and well funded, Uecomm was able to attract enthusiastic, talented and knowledgeable staff. This was specifically evident in the area of network engineering quickly becoming widely known for its talent and thought leadership.
Early on Uecomm understood the concepts outlined by Czerniawska, identifying ‘white space’ (Czerniawska, 2007). This white space was both a mix of market opportunity and technology advanced. Pioneering Ethernet as a low cost wide area network transport technology they quickly gained market share and became a major driving force in the global standardization of Ethernet technologies. Such an outcome is that proposed by Clark (2010) allowing Uecomm to drive the industry discussion, rather than participate in it.
Their market dominance was under pinned by widely held belief that their knowledge was superior to that of other providers. By making time for staff to promote their knowledge, attend conferences, publish press releases and author global standards, Uecomm promoted its brand as a knowledgeable, low cost alternative to Telstra and Optus. From the outset this mindset separated Uecomm from its competitors, from manning the network operations center with highly skilled and trained engineers to industry participation and technology advocacy, Uecomm and its employees won many industry awards.
Uecomm focused heavily on organizational culture. Recently, their slogan was “listen, create, deliver” – demonstrating their commitment to the customer. From a management perspective, this slogan also applied to the employees in their everyday roles. They were listened to, allowed to create and encouraged to deliver on their ideas and creativity. Such an approach aligns with the propositions of Boday, Bading and Zuk (Bading, 2009) (Boday & Thiel, 2011) (Zuk, 2009).
The Uecomm personal development program includes a specific target for technology and thought leadership for all its engineering staff. This target is designed to re-enforce the importance of leading the industry and maintaining its strong brand reputation. Such an approach is also seen by management as mechanism for linking the development of technical staff to the availability of resources and funding for activities such as training, article publication, authoring of standards and speaking engagements.
Today the Uecomm culture of innovation, leadership and thinking outside the box continues to grow and strengthen. Recently, implementing a comprehensive innovation program, Uecomm maintains it commitment to thought leadership allowing all staff to spend 20% of their time on an industry advancement that they feel valuable. Though in its infancy, this program is specifically aimed at ensuring Uecomm and its staff remain at the forefront of their industry and maintain their strong brand reputation for thought leadership.
Case Study 2: Cisco Systems
Cisco started life as a start-up in 1984 based in San-Francisco, taking its name from its home town. Cisco designed and built multi protocol routers[1], whilst not the first company to sell routers (Cringley, 2005) Cisco was the first to successfully commercialize multi-protocol routers for both the enterprise and service provider markets. Today Cisco's brand in networking is analogous to what Xerox and Polaroid were to their respective industries. Thought leadership played a major role in their success.
From its inception, Cisco was renowned for its thought leadership. Specifically, the establishment and participation in emerging global standards bodies that ultimately defined and specified the fundamental technologies that evolved to underpin the Internet. Early on Cisco understood the importance of setting its thought leaders apart and developed its Fellow and Distinguished Engineer Program.
Distinguished Engineers and Fellows exhibit superior leadership, responsibility and accomplishment in technical and strategic areas critical to Cisco's success. Fellows have additionally achieved high levels of industry and internal recognition. The accomplishments of both have led to significant changes in the networking industry. Such a definition cuts across the majority of theoretical understanding of thought leadership.
Cisco not only provides time, funding and support for its thought leaders, it actively encourages the pursuit of thought leadership through career progression programs, mentoring and coaching. The use of technology to deliver the messages of thought leadership are well defined and broadly used. One such example is that of “The Platform”, a blog site specifically designed to deliver and re-enforce the messages of the companies thought leadership. In 2010 Marie Hatter, Senior Vice President of Marketing commented “So for those of you who are trying to shape and influence in the business world, rethink what you know about your target audience and always remember that by today’s standards, the medium is—more than ever—the message.” (Hattar, 2010).
The continued investment in, and fostering of thought leadership within Cisco is not only built into the companies DNA, it is a necessity for survival. As new technologies mature and commoditize, companies such as Cisco lean heavily on its thought leaders to deliver new exciting and innovative technologies and strategies. Without thought leadership, Cisco would become disconnected from emerging standards, irrelevant to its customers and ultimately unable to influence the markets.
Organizational Traits For Thought Leadership
Both Cisco and Uecomm have proud histories of thought leadership. Whilst on different scales, both have been leaders, setting the agenda for an entire industry.
Based on the case studies above the following organizational traits have been identified as critical to achieve and maintain thought leadership.
1)    Top down commitment– The senior leadership of both companies believe that thought leadership is a significant asset. As such they continually drive a culture that fosters and develops thought leaders, ensuring sufficient resources are made available and embed systems and processes that set thought leaders apart from other employees. Appropriate reward and recognition programs are also set in place to ensure thought leaders are continually rewarded for their passion, commitment and leadership.
2)  An appetite for risk– To identify “white space” and allocate resources to filling the space has a number on inherent risks. None more so than getting it wrong – both Cisco and Uecomm have demonstrated their ability to take risks. In the case of Uecomm to bring to market a new innovative use of low cost Ethernet technology and in the case of Cisco the development of multi-protocol routers. In either scenario, it was a risk to challenge the status quo, to invest time and money into new markets. However, history has shown that both Cisco and Uecomm have taken risks based on their belief that they knew better than anyone else and earlier than the competition how to disrupt the industry to build profitable models from this disruption.
3)    Belief that the organization can shape an industry – It may be argued that the belief that a company can shape an entire industry is borne from arrogance. Both Cisco and Uecomm have proven this is not the case. They have shown this belief is an artifact of the organizational DNA, a trait based in their culture dictating that they must shape an industry to be sustainable. The case studies have shown, this is an essential element required for thought leadership to flourish within a company.
4)    Use of technology as a tool– Cisco, more so than Uecomm makes good use of technology as a tool for the delivery of their thought leadership messaging. Blogging and twitter is common place and thought leaders are encouraged to publicly express their thoughts and continually communicate their ideas both online and through industry forms, standards bodies and the media.
The literature review, case studies, theory and research all point to thought leadership as a critical element to the long-term success of any company. It is clear that organizational differentiation, value and uniqueness stem from the few whose passion, knowledge and authenticity allows them to innovate and create completely new ideas and concepts.
Such an outcome is important for all companies that desire to achieve or maintain an industry leading position. Thought leadership is the key to avoiding the innovators dilemma and provides a mechanism by which sufficient foresight can be obtained in order to avoid being forced into irrelevance through disruptive change.
The two case studies provided show two different approaches to thought leadership though provide a common cross section of organizational traits that are required to build, develop and foster thought leadership.
Thought leadership is not something that simply happens. It is a conscious choice by the leadership of the company to drive an industry. It underpins a culture of external communication and messaging and embraces professional development in the belief that thought leadership will set the company apart from its competitors and deliver real, sustainable advantage to its customers and stakeholders.
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[1]A device used to transmit data between networks using different protocols.