Is leadership an immutable endeavor in which we learn as much from Alexander the Great and the Bhagavad Gita as from GM’s Mary Barra or Apple’s Tim Cook? Or does the role of the business leader change with the changing times? This ageless question formed the starting point for a wide-ranging discussion at a recent meeting of advisors to McKinsey’s Leadership Development Practice. The group included Helen Alexander, former CEO of The Economist Group; Robert Kegan, the developmental psychologist and author, from Harvard University; Nadir Mohamed, former CEO of Rogers Communications; and McKinsey partners Claudio Feser, Mary Meaney, and Tim Welsh. Quarterly editor in chief Allen Webb moderated the discussion. While conclusive answers may have been elusive, the conversation generated insights into a number of key aspects of leadership, including the effect of success on leaders, the benefits of failure in developing resilience, and the role of maturity and self-awareness.
The Quarterly: Is leadership timeless? This is one of those issues where it is easy to say both yes and no, so Claudio and Tim are going to kick things off by staking out relatively extreme positions.
Claudio Feser: The case for leadership being a timeless endeavor, in my opinion, rests on the fact that the ability to lead is strongly linked to personality and character. Several studies suggest that open-minded, conscientious people who are emotionally tuned to take charge tend to be stronger leaders than people who aren’t.1 And while leadership skills can be learned, personality and character are pretty much given by the time you enter the workforce and don’t change much over time. In this sense, one could say that some people are more predisposed to lead than others, and that hasn’t changed in the past 50 or 100 or 1,000 years.
Having said so, we all can lead better by developing a better understanding of ourselves, so we can make the best of what we have. Our research suggests that leaders who are self-aware—who know themselves or, as we put it, are “centered”—are up to four times more effective in managing change than people who aren’t.