community, culture

Save us, General Zinni! Teach us corporate folks some 21st century leadership skills

I happened to catch General Tony Zinni on The Daily Show a few weeks ago. This was the first time I’d seen him talk, and I found him to be an incredibly creative, thoughtful man. So this weekend, I sat down and read his recently published leadership book Leading the Charge: Leadership Lessons from the Battlefield to the Boardroom. If you want to learn more about General Zinni’s long list of accomplishments, both inside and outside the military, there is a really good Wikipedia profile of him here.

leadingchargeIn this book, General Zinni describes an introspective, creative, and rapidly changing American military mindset. After reading, I’m convinced the subtitle should have been something like “Lessons from the New Military for a Corporate America Totally Blowing It.”

This book provides a crisp analysis of the failures of the 20th century leadership model still prevalent in most businesses today. It is an indictment of the post-economic-meltdown-state of American business, which he believes was caused in large part by a systemic failure of this traditional leadership model.

Like a true man of action, General Zinni brings his own ideas and experience of leadership methods that work in the high-pressure, high-risk world of the military to the table. He provides a vision for how we can fix what is broken, and shows what the leadership model for the 21st century organization could be.

I couldn’t help but read this book and see tons of parallels between the ideal leadership model that General Zinni describes and the open source leadership model that I’ve watched become more and more successful over the past 10 years at Red Hat. General Zinni doesn’t mention open source specifically in the book (although I believe he did at one point serve under former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Hugh Shelton, a current Red Hat board member), but I think he’d totally dig the concepts. It would be great fun to swap stories with him.

The basic thesis of the book is something like this: 1) The world has become really, really complex, really, really fast. 2) The traditional top-down hierarchical leadership approach can not scale to match the complexity of the 21st century world. 3) We gotta change.

A few highlights… The General provides a beautiful analysis of how successful 21st century companies will be leadership organizations rather than organizations with leaders:

Today the relationship between leaders and led in successful organizations is, more often than not, close and fully participatory… almost unheard of in the past. Leaders listen to the led. They attempt to get buy-in, commitment, partnerships, and a sense of co-ownership (sometimes literally) with the led… We no longer build a leadership hierarchy in cutting edge modern organizations. Instead we build leadership networks that make the business of leading institutionalized and multidirectional. Leadership is no longer only vertical, working from the top down. It is distributed, pervasive, invited from all members, and instilled in the culture of successful enterprises. We now seek to build leadership organizations as opposed to organizations with leaders.

Some of the words are different, but the idea of a culture of collaboration, participation, openness, transparency, and a meritocracy of ideas are all embedded in this thinking. It’s really compelling for me to see the open source way and the new military way arriving at common principles from totally different points of reference.

On the complexity of the 21st century organization, and what it requires from leaders:

Virtually all organizations are becoming too complex and involved for single, directive approaches to leading. Leading a participatory enterprise is not easy. A participatory approach requires strong leaders, great trust, and more emphasis on developing and judging character and intellect than on hammering out a production line of identically formed people.

General Zinni describes an organization filled with “strategic corporals” empowered to make decisions quickly when and where they are needed. What fuels the ability for strategic decisions to be made lower and lower on the corporate ladder?

According to General Zinni (and I’m totally down with this part), it is having a strong core vision and set of values deeply instilled throughout the organization, then creating a culture and community of trust among smart, engaged people with high moral character.

These people can make good decisions because they deeply understand the mission (both large and small), have been well trained, trust the people around them, and because they simply care a lot.

The open source world is full of examples that prove him right. And what I didn’t realize is that the military is full of these examples too.

I’ve got to tell you, reading this book gave me hope. Maybe before too long the hierarchical model for leadership will be the exception in the business world rather than the rule, and participatory leadership will be the standard everywhere you look.

It can’t happen fast enough for me.

About Chris Grams

Chris Grams is Head of Marketing at Tidelift. He is also the author of The Ad-Free Brand: Secrets to Successful Brand Positioning in a Digital World.


One thought on “Save us, General Zinni! Teach us corporate folks some 21st century leadership skills

  1. Amen, brother!

    Posted by Ron | August 28, 2009, 7:40 am

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