Leadership & Management

Leadership Is Responsibility, Not Power

Stanford GSB Dean Robert L. Joss delivers the year's last View From The Top lecture. He plans to continue teaching after leaving the dean's office.

May 01, 2009

| by Dave Murphy


Robert L. Joss remembers the not-exactly-official organizational chart he received when he was hired as Stanford GSB Dean 10 years ago. The box representing the Dean’s job was at the bottom, not the top, connected with boxes representing alumni, faculty, students, staff and the advisory council. Beneath the diagram was a four-word note: “And everything runs downhill.”

“Just because your job sits at the top of an organization chart, there’s a reality to how groups work that is often a surprise to people,” the soon-to-be-departing Dean said May 28 in the final program of this year’s student-sponsored View from the Top Series. “In all leadership roles, there is an informal dependence on other people that is in many ways much more important and more powerful than the power or the authority that is implied by an organization chart that puts your job at the top.”

Responsibility Not Power

Too many leaders get caught up in thinking about power rather than their responsibility to those they lead, said Joss, who plans to continue teaching and work in a variety of advisory jobs once he leaves the Dean’s office. He recalled the words of former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher: “Being powerful is like being a lady. If you have to say you are, you aren’t.”

Along with getting the most out of subordinates, though, a leader does have to get the group focused, even if specific goals are unclear, Joss said. He quoted technology leader Michael Dell: “You have to show that you know the way, even if you have no idea what to do.”

Joss said that when he came to Stanford, he felt the Business School could do a better job of preparing people for global leadership, but still needed to figure out how. When he took over as chief executive officer of Westpac Banking in Australia in the 1990s, he called on his years of experience with Wells Fargo to give him a general sense of direction.

Strategy and Specifics

“A group needs a strategy,” Joss said. “It needs a framework.”

Joss said managers can take steps to improve planning, staffing and organizing, but those aren’t enough.

“They help you push the group in the right direction; they bring a discipline and a focus to the organization that’s extremely valuable. They have a lot to do with how the group acts, but they have very little to do with how it thinks or how it feels. To do that, you’ve got to pull the group along, and that takes communication — a lot of communication.”

Leaders need to explain their vision with specifics rather than buzzwords, he said. “It’s no good talking about being a great school if it’s too general, and not giving people some sense of direction. It’s better to talk about the three C’s of a new curriculum, a new collaboration or a new campus.”

Earning Trust

Earning trust and respect is crucial, Joss said. “You have to enlist followers when you’re in a role at the top, and you’re very dependent on those followers. What you want are people who are inspired, who are committed, who are motivated. It’s your job to instill confidence in them.”

He isn’t talking about sycophants. “When you’re at the top,” Joss said, “people don’t always tell you what you need to hear. Indeed, that’s probably the single biggest blind spot or difficulty.”

Joss found that sometimes asking the right questions can help a leader more than dictating policy, such as, “Why do we do it that way?” When he went to an early meeting at Westpac, the conference room was full of men. “Where are all the women?” Joss asked.

Invite Open Criticism

“You have to invite open criticism,” he said. “You have to be willing to invite open criticism.” That can be done by using such techniques as town hall meetings, confidential surveys or even simply walking around and talking with employees, Joss said. At Westpac, he had a hot line from 9 to 10am the first Friday of each month, when anyone could pick up the phone and call the CEO.

“If two or three people referred to a similar problem,” the dean said, “you could pretty much be sure it was a problem.”

It’s Not About You

He said leaders need to set a tone, a feeling brought home to him when a Westpac staff member in New Zealand was shot and killed in a bank holdup. Joss thought he would be intruding on the family’s grief to go to the funeral, but changed his mind and followed the advice of a human resources leader.

Joss didn’t regret it. He discovered how much having the CEO at the funeral meant symbolically, not only to the family, but to Westpac’s employees.

“It’s not about you,” he said. “It’s about them. It’s about a relationship between you and them.”

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