President Bush, often dismissed as a frat boy who lucked into everything he achieved, became a candidate for a “strange new respect” award after his handling of the crisis following last year’s terrorist attacks. That’s both because he was often underestimated by his foes and he did what many leaders do, rise to the occasion.
Unlike his immediate predecessor, who was often the poster boy for the excesses and self-indulgence that characterize many members of the baby boom generation, Bush has shown a seriousness of purpose.
When journalists and scholars try to explain how people “grow” into leaders, they often resort to excessive psychobabble and do little to explain the influence of broader historical factors.
Geeks & Geezers (Harvard Business School Press, 221 pages, $26.95) tries to remedy that gap and analyzes management and leadership skills by looking at how the events of an era shape the personas and habits of leaders.
The book is billed as the first cross-generational study of leaders. The authors use their interviews with 43 leaders (25 geezers, mostly age 70 and over, and 18 geeks, mostly age 30 and under) to draw a range of conclusions.
“We see era as important, not because it defines individuals, but because it presents them with a shared history and culture and a specific arena in which to act,” write University of Southern California professor Warren G. Bennis and management consultant Robert J. Thomas.
The “geeks” profiled range from Dan Cunningham, who founded several businesses, including an on-line retailer of fresh chocolates, to Wendy Kopp, who founded “Teach For America,” which places young people in teaching positions in poor school districts.
The “geezers” ranged from former congressman and New York University president John Brademas to award-winning architect Frank Gehry.
Bennis and Thomas contend that despite the varied experiences of their subjects, one can draw some conclusions about each generation’s approach to leading.
Unfortunately, the authors don’t sufficiently explain how members of the same generation can have such disparate reactions to the same political and social events.
One could just as easily argue that a person’s socioeconomic, educational and regional background is as good a predictor of his leadership style and qualities as is the generation into which he was born.
For instance, although Presidents Bill Clinton and Lyndon Johnson were a generation apart, they shared personal peccadilloes and an amoral approach to governing. Their similarly modest childhoods in the South and single-minded pursuits of the presidency caused them to see the world similarly.
Because Bennis and Thomas don’t address the influence of social class and economics, their book is the poorer for it.
Instead, the authors use their interviews to draw generation-wide conclusions, some of which show an astounding flare for the obvious.
“Yesterday’s leaders were specialists who sought and trusted answers. Today’s tend to be generalists who know they need to ask the right questions,” they write.
In other instances, the authors hurt their argument by not discussing the negative ramifications of certain traits.
“Today’s society tends to value what Zen Buddhists call the ‘beginner’s mind.’ It implies fresh insight unfettered by experience. In this more contemporary view, the compelling idea is the novel one at an angle to conventional wisdom, itself a phrase that implies a regressive reliance on the status quo,” according to the authors.
Ignoring or being unaware of the past almost guarantees that we will repeat the mistakes of earlier eras. The authors would have done well to point out some of the errors business and political leaders have made when they don’t understand the historical context in which they are making decisions.
In many cases, there is no substitute for the experience of having “been there, done that.”
The baseball playoffs began this week. One of the reasons the New York Yankees are given such a good chance of winning the World Series is that they have been in post-season play so often that they know what to do to rise to the occasion. They often beat other teams that, on paper, are better than they are because the Yankees can draw on the experience of playing in high-pressure games.
Geeks & Geezers is most effective when the authors compile the traits for success that their subjects share and the book becomes a tip sheet for being an effective leader.
Among the attributes are a reverence for learning new things and staying physically and mentally active, the desire to give something back to society and a willingness to push oneself outside a “comfort zone.”
While there are few new recommendations on the list, it is sometimes helpful to reiterate the tried and true. It is helpful to have a compilation of the views of such a disparate group of people together in one place.
That is why Geeks & Geezers is worthwhile as a “how to” book for managers but less effective when Bennis and Thomas try to use their research to make generalizations about leaders of a particular generation.
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