Book Of The Week: Madonna and Einstein show way to the top
Wednesday 15 September 1999
By John Viney
(Bloomsbury, pounds 16.99)
EVERY CHIEF executive is the regular recipient of books full of instant panaceas and offers of advice from consultants. Most offer the answers to those problems and issues that lie between today's reality and the perfection at the end of the rainbow. Fortunately, John Viney's approach is different. Drive does not concern itself with how would-be leaders might attain the coveted positions, it simply identifies signposts along the way.
The author brings plenty of colour and stimulation to a world of corporate uniformity. He has already contributed a most lively and thoughtful book, The Culture Wars, which explored the affection and disaffection towards business in the US and Europe.
One of his theses was that in the US, business was the natural destination for top talent, but in Europe business was historically seen as inferior to the professions. Viney devoted himself to trying to remedy this instinctive bias in his work as the European chairman of Heidrick & Struggles, a global headhunter. I know of no other headhunter who combines degrees in physics and music with a doctorate in astrophysics - but don't worry, his book isn't a dry, academic tome.
He quotes from sources as varied as Philip Larkin and Albert Einstein, using the life experience and careers of people from Oprah Winfrey to Saddam Hussein and Madonna to illustrate his arguments. The book draws on the author's experience of 20 years in headhunting, while retaining a keen interest in history, politics, anthropology and psychology.
One of the ironies of corporate leadership Viney identifies is that people who are sufficiently well-balanced and broad-shouldered to take on a role leading a corporation are often too well-balanced to want to do so. The key to headhunting is to identify the few exceptions to the rule.
One of Drive's theses is that exemplary leaders demonstrate remarkable similarities of early experience. The first is an above-average experience of hardship or adversity in youth. The loss of a parent or a sibling is a consistent element of leadership in many spheres, or an accident which sets the child at such a disadvantage that they drive themselves to overcome it. Being first-born also helps, and probably supports a preference for hierarchical large organisations with defined rules. Education is less of a guide. In the "nurture vs nature" debate, Drive proposes that nurture is a pointer but nature decides who makes it.
And what must nature have supplied by way of personality? Successful leaders with an unshakeable faith in the business they represent will combine a more than normal appetite for courage and high risks, prodigious energy levels and remorseless self-belief. They will tend to be introverts, human, but a little distant for all that. Drive suggests that, for true success, leaders should also feel a personal difference from the prevailing culture, by geography, ethnicity, or through thinking differently.
The difference between leadership and management is constantly covered in business literature. The tendency is to make a simplistic differentiation between charismatic, intuitive "leadership" (which is highly desirable), and rational analytical "management" (perhaps far less good, but necessary). Drive reminds us you can't have one without the other. Leadership should be valued, but not at the expense of management; they are complementary. One of the issues facing corporations is how to develop people with both skills.
One of the marks of a great leader and chief executive is the time and energy they devote to identifying and building talent within an organisation. In modern management Jack Welch reigns supreme - six top chief executives in the US today grew under Welch's tutelage at General Electric.
Drive also highlights the importance of the senior mentor, the person whose influence, experience and insights can help someone to develop by leaps and bounds. I can identify a couple of mentors who were a big influence on my development and without whom I wouldn't be where I am. Encouraging mentoring is an important element to an organisation's long-term success.
Simplicity is the core of successful leadership. A good leader makes the complex seem simple. Drive rightly looks with admiration at what Lou Gerstner has achieved in a lifetime - massive turnarounds of American Express, RJR Nabisco and finally, IBM - all through a consistent approach of simplicity based on debate, empowerment and eradication of all barriers to inefficiency.
How much of Drive's arguments ring true? Based on my 25 years in commerce and industry, a great deal. Balance isn't a quality much observed at the top of large organisations. Successful business leaders and chief executives can lack balance in their lives - work becomes an all-consuming passion.
They are people energised by business, who get pleasure from it, who feel a visceral satisfaction from the achievement of corporate ambitions.
When they do get the time, Drive is a fascinating read, which teases out the behaviour needed to succeed, and allows nods in recognition as the author deftly analyses behaviour patterns, actions and drives we recognise in our colleagues. Even in ourselves.
The reviewer is the chief executive of Imperial Chemical Industries
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