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University of Massachusetts Amherst

Family Business Center

Leadership is "Poetry and Plumbing"

by Shel Horowitz

"Leadership is about poetry and plumbing: capturing people's hearts, to want something different." In other words, you have to inspire—and you have to design the organization to deliver..

With this provocative thought, Allan R. Cohen, Dean of the Graduate School/ Distinguished Professor of Global Leadership at Babson College and author of several books, launched his talk at the Family Business Center's May gathering.

Both those pieces are important, he believes. If your leadership doesn't inspire your employees, you will fail. "If you really want to screw up an organization, just make sure everybody does exactly what they're told. Labor unions could bring an organization to a halt with work-to-rule. A lot of things require judgment, and you need people who are in it because they want to be in it."

Cohen grew up in a family business and speaks from personal experience. "In our family business, nothing was ever written down. My uncle was a very difficult man: 'Bring me a rock, no, that's not what I wanted, bring me another one.' I was fired at least 30 times a day. Every time I got in a fight with my uncle, my mother would say, 'you should respect him.' My answer always was, 'when he earns my respect, he gets it.'" This same attitude occasionally carries over into Cohen's consulting practice. In one case, "my help as a consultant ended when I encouraged a son to tell the father" what he really felt—and it wasn't what dad wanted to hear.

Family dynamics play a big part in his work, in fact. Nonparticipating family member stakeholders "complicate how you can talk to each other. And then all these things about family cultures. How do you deal with conflict? Or is the unspoken rule that you never embarrass other family members? Every family has some idea about that, it's usually not written in a document.

"Every family has some taboo subjects. Are you allowed to talk about competence? Can you say to the next generation, 'I don't think you belong in the business?’ There are families that can talk like that, and others where you wouldn't say that in a thousand years. In the Yankee tradition, you don't talk about money. Ambition, what are you afraid of, what are you worried about—those things will shape how you can lead.”

"I'd argue that the more you can talk about anything, the more the chance of resolving it well. If not, you may have to skirt around the very heart" of any conflicts."

Still, Cohen is hopeful. "You can break the pattern from above or below, or from sibling to sibling. Either side can initiate it. It can break the problems when you've gotten very familiar with each other, and you can't stand it but you can't talk about it."

And this can influence such issues as succession struggles. "I talk to a lot of family businesses where people say, 'I never want to have the owner so mad at me that they'll never let go of it.' And that cuts you off from what is really going on. Nobody is going to tell you what you need to know.

"There are some people who have to fight with anybody who has power. That doesn't usually lead to good results. There are some people who don't dare say what's on their minds because they're sure they're going to get the axe.

"Power is what people perceive it to be. Even if it isn't true that the owner would fire people who talk straight, people will wonder, 'who has the owner's ear? I'd better stay on their good side.' It may or may not be true, but if it's perceived, that person's got power.

Meanwhile, subordinates are afraid to take initiative, leaving executives frustrated that they can't get good people, and thus are even less willing to delegate.

And sometimes, the internal culture is at odds with the goals and/or perceptions of those powerful people. "Some owners want their kids to be toughened up," even if the family operates from within a culture that assumes family members have to be protected). Changing the lens, successor generation members can get frustrated when they deal with "someone who thinks of him/herself as a benevolent, open, responsive person—and they're not."

Cohen once asked a client in India, "What should a son do if the father gives wrong advice?" But the father responded, "'fathers don't give wrong advice.' That's extreme, but if you carry the beliefs, it shapes how you can react." Yet, focusing on internal political intrigues takes a lot of energy, and raises the question of who's getting the company's actual work done.

"We saw a pattern: the assumption that leaders have to be heroes, are supposed to know everything, control everything. The problem is that drives behavior that actually gets in the way of getting the people below to do their best. We've just been through a presidency where Bush was asked whether he'd made mistakes, and there was a long silence. [Bush's] model is familiar: you don't show vulnerability or weaknesses. But as the world gets more complicated, bosses can't know everything."

Heroic leadership can be a kingmaker—or a deal breaker, sometimes embodied in the same person at the same company. "We know great leaders after the fact. If you turn out to be right despite resistance, they call you a visionary. If you're wrong, you're a pig-headed idiot. The hard stuff is that nobody tells you in advance. You can't know, you might have a good idea. But you can't wait till all the data's in; the problem will have overrun you or the opportunity will have passed you.

"When Dr. EdwinLand invented the Polaroid camera, he thought Kodak or camera makers would be the obvious customers. But "they all said 'nobody needs pictures in a minute.'" So he went into business for himself and created a multibillion dollar company." But his next idea was instant movies. "$300 million later, he turned out to be wrong. The same brilliant man, the same leadership. There are no guarantees." And had he done the movies first, he never could have developed his instant camera.

A more effective model, he says, is not feeling responsible for everything, but getting your team to share the responsibility. And then you have a chance to excel: "You need to get the people excited, passionate. That's what entrepreneurs are supposed to do, with minimal resources—preferably other people's money. If everybody's thinking that way, you get a lot further, faster.

Ultimately, Cohen wants a more collaborative pattern. And he warns leaders not to come to meetings with their minds made up, not to pretend to solicit input when really all you want is acknowledgement that you've made the right choice. "I've come to think of heroic leadership as Dracula. Nobody can put a stake through its heart."

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