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professor's row

LEADING MAN: Jeswald Salacuse, the Henry J. Braker Professor of Law at the Fletcher School.
Len Rubenstein

Managing Talent

Jeswald Salacuse, the Henry J. Braker Professor of Law at the Fletcher School, recently spoke about his new book, Leading Leaders: How to Manage Smart, Talented, Rich, and Powerful People. A former dean of the Fletcher School and of the Southern Methodist University School of Law, Salacuse draws on his own leadership experiences as well as his research in the corporate, political, academic, and professional worlds. (A condensed version of this interview appears in the print edition of the Spring 2006 issue.)

Talk a bit at how to leverage the expertise of this elite workforce; you acknowledge right up front that employees with a strong sense of independence don’t like to be told what to do.

Or they want to be convinced that what they are being asked to do is the right thing. They are questioning people by nature. Their success has usually been because of their education, intelligence, talents. They have a certain confidence, and therefore they’re not going to give up their autonomy easily, and that’s fine. By nature, they’re not followers, they’re leaders.

That creates a possibility for friction.

There is a possibility for friction if you try to impose your will on them or you’re autocratic. The notion of leadership is the idea of getting people to willingly follow you or follow the direction the leader is pointing. They do it willingly. The word leader comes from the Old English laeden, which means to point the way. Implicit in that term is the idea of people willingly following the leader. It’s not as if you’re driving them from the rear and using force and coercion.

I draw examples from politics—particularly of leaders who didn’t have a legal authority. As an example, I use Lyndon Johnson when he was in the Senate as majority leader and didn’t really have a lot of legal authority. He built his leadership influence over time in diverse ways to become one of the most powerful leaders in Senate history. Before Lyndon Johnson, majority leaders in the Senate hadn’t been terribly successful.

It’s almost like moving forward by going sideways?

Yes. Smart, talented, and powerful people often work in what are called horizontal rather than vertical organizations. That is, organizations without a strong hierarchical structure. My definition of leadership is the ability to cause other people to willingly act in desired ways for the benefit of an organization.

You talk about vision, confidence, and charisma and that these are often stereotypical attributes of a strong leader.

That is one kind of leadership model. I’m amused because it’s often the leaders themselves who are writing that stuff. With the kind of people we’re talking about—talented, rich, powerful people—charisma is not a terribly effective leadership tool. They follow not because of the leader’s charisma but because they understand it’s in their interest and in the interest of the organization.

What do you think is the most important characteristic of a good leader of leaders?

Trust is very important. People will tend to follow you if they trust you. If there’s a sense that you are really just out for yourself, then they’re going to become very defensive. In the book, I talk about the seven daily tasks of leadership, and one of them is to build a trusting relationship between you and the people you lead and also among the people you lead.

You also emphasize listening. That seems like it could be difficult in some cases.

It depends on what you rely on as a leader. If you’re relying on your so-called charisma, or if the image you’re creating is of somebody who is infallible, then I suppose listening is very hard. But you’ve got to get to know people if you want to lead them. I don’t mean you become their shrink. You’ve got to get to know their aspirations, their goals. That information is very valuable in leading them in a direction that you think is useful for the organization. You can’t get that information without listening hard.

It does seem our culture sets up a false structure whereby we kind of expect miracles from leaders.

We love the idea of the leader as the individual triumphant, that the achievements of the organization are all attributable to the leader. I really think that’s a false concept. Organizations that are overly dependent on their leaders in that sense are organizations that are sick. Strong organizations are those where people have talents and they are allowed to use those talents to the fullest extent possible. I talk in the book about Goldman Sachs; it took the partners 12 years to agree upon the vision of becoming a publicly traded company. What the firm leadership realized was that if they tried to impose a view, a lot of the partners would quit, and they’d take their capital with them. In the end, the organization would be harmed. The only way they could decide on a vision was by creating a consensus.

What is your hope for the book?

There is a concern in the country about need for leadership and a recognition that it’s important. That recognition leads us to the question of how we train leaders. I hope that I’ve offered some ideas that will help people become better leaders of leaders.