Graduate Management News

2004 GMAC™ Annual Industry Conference Recap: Two “Leaders in Concert” Speak of Humility, Passion, and Vision

Jim Collins Inspires Schools to Be and Create Great Leaders

“Embrace the noble cause of business schools,” said Jim Collins, one of two keynote speakers at the 2004 GMAC Annual Industry Conference.

“Business schools provide the toolkit for living in a free, democratic, capitalist society.”

Collins is a former faculty member of the Stanford University Graduate School of Business and is familiar to many in graduate management education as the author of Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap . . . and Others Don't (HarperCollins, 2001) and the coauthor, with Jerry F. Porras, of Built to Last: Successful Habits of Visionary Companies (HarperCollins, 1994), two books that analyze the keys to corporate success and staying power.

At the 2004 GMAC Annual Industry Conference in June, Collins challenged the audience of business school professionals on two fronts: to make their schools great institutions and to prepare their students to lead institutions to greatness and manage them with passion, discipline, and humility.

Collins has spent years studying how companies progress from being good to being great. The most important prerequisite for a transformation to greatness, he said, is people. Great companies, he found, are run by “Level 5 leaders,” characterized not only by skill but by ferocious ambition to do something great for a cause, a company, or the greater good—but never for themselves. However, Level 5 leaders cannot be effective without the right employees. A company’s employees, Collins said, are even more important than its strategy.

“Think first about ‘who,’ then about ‘what,’” said Collins. For in building a great institution, “people are your most important asset.”

For business schools, focusing on the “who” means ensuring that faculty, administration, and staff at all levels are the right people to support the school’s mission, vision, and strategy. But it also means admitting the right students.

Students, Collins argued, define the quality of a business school to an even greater extent than faculty. This premise puts admissions professionals in a crucial role as gatekeepers who are ultimately entrusted with a school’s future.

To shape students into the kind of leaders who will serve companies well, Collins advised schools to encourage them to define success—both for themselves and for their companies—as an ability to make progress while adhering to a set of core values.

Business school students often define success first and foremost in terms of economics (which goes a long way toward explaining the recent spate of major corporate scandals). But Collins posited economics as only the tertiary element in a viable plan for success; such a plan is an “intelligent, consistent vision of what you are passionate about, what you can be great at, and what your economic engine will be.” The formula works for institutions, companies, and individuals finding their career direction.

To foster leadership of the highest order, Collins recommended three specific approaches for business schools:

  • Inspire students with real-life examples of exemplary leadership by bringing Level 5 leaders into the classroom and lecture hall.
  • Arm students with a realistic understanding of what it takes to achieve greatness—disciplined thought, people, and action, and a sustained effort over time. Deemphasizing the case method in favor of matched-pair analyses and other comparisons of companies would help students gain an appreciation for the driving factors behind corporate success and the time it takes to achieve it.
  • Abandon the institution of academic tenure. Tenure, Collins argued, was designed to safeguard the core value of freedom of inquiry, but it does not encourage inquiry or progress or intellectual growth.

The last recommendation may be a tough sell for academic institutions, but if business schools truly want to produce the most capable leaders and the most progressive and effective approaches to management, they might be wise to consider this radical change. After all, how successful would companies be without incentives for growth and high performance?

Benjamin Zander Encourages Us to Lead with Creativity, Passion, and a Sense of Possibility

The second keynote speaker at the conference was Benjamin Zander, conductor of the Boston Philharmonic and coauthor, with his wife, Rosamund Stone Zander, of The Art of Possibility: Transforming Professional and Personal Life (Harvard Business School Press, 2000).

Zander characterized true leaders as those who believe passionately in possibility and awaken that belief in others.

To gauge success, he encouraged leaders to ask their employees for feedback and remind them that they have a stake in the overall success of their enterprise. “How are we doing?” and “What can we do to make you more successful?” are useful and powerful questions for leaders to ask. (These questions are also appropriate for business schools to ask their students.)

Zander encouraged the audience to approach problem solving with an open mind: “There is no problem that cannot be solved if you create a new framework for it,” he said.

Zander said that creativity is the most appropriate response to the market forces that dominate our society. When people fixate on power struggles, the quest for wealth, and other externally imposed constructs of success, he argued, they actually limit the parameters of success. Rather than chase artificial measures of success, Zander said, people should assume from the start that they will succeed, then approach the problem at hand. That way, they start out ahead and can feel free to determine the most innovative solution to the problem.

To achieve the best creative solutions, Zander said, one must reflect on each challenge. He suggested stimulating the best thinking by asking oneself, “What assumptions am I making that I don’t know I’m making?” and “What can I invent that can make things better?”

Zander masterfully integrated music into his presentation, illustrating how discipline and passion combined can transform performance from satisfactory to sublime. Whether playing Chopin’s Prelude or coaching a young cello student whom he had invited to perform at the event, Zander certainly struck the right chord with his audience.

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