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Pat Townsend & Joan Gebhardt

The Need for Leadership

One of the many interesting consequences of global competition, even if not consciously intended at the outset, has been the quantum leap in interest in leadership. Hand-in-hand with quality, leadership--not "merely management," but leadership--is being recognized as an essential element for any enterprise intent on competing successfully over a prolonged period.

 Life was simpler when organizations only attempted to market their products and services in their immediate locales. Customers had so few choices that whether or not a company operated efficiently really didn't matter, as nobody was trying to break away from the pack and offer truly superior options. The prices were pretty much equal; the choices were quite similar; buying was often done out of tradition (or its predecessor, habit).

 Everything began to change with the advent of the "quality revolution." It's generally agreed that this movement (one that now impacts so much of what happens in large and small marketplaces around the world) began when Japanese companies made their successful attempt to become major players in the American automotive and electronic markets. Suddenly, American consumers had choices-choices based not on minor differences between unexciting possibilities, but on the initially unusual premise that these new options much worked better and cost far less.

 The race was on. If this "quality thing" could work in the electronics and automobile industries, why not in other areas? As trade barriers and transportation costs went down, the concept of making better products and selling them for less money found more and more adherents. And if the corporate bosses hadn't figured it out, their customers had. The Internet only accelerated the process while facilitating the inclusion of service industries.

 An interesting thing happened on the way to quality: leadership. As organizations grappled with how to become the quality alternatives in their particular areas, it became evident that--after a certain point--top-down, authoritarian, "old style" management couldn't yield the needed results. In some industries, and some countries (particularly those that were among the first to be pushed into the pursuit of quality), the sequenceappears to have been, "We need quality. Let's do that. Wait, it appears we need leadership too." In others, it was, "We need leadership. Let's do that. If we do it well, we'll be high-quality organizations."

 In one sense, it doesn't matter which idea first became the central focus in a particular case because the two concepts are, for all intents and purposes, flip-sides of the same coin. It's virtually impossible to maintain an effective quality process for any noteworthy period of time unless leadership is practiced by the managers (i.e., the hierarchical bosses) of the organization. On the other hand, if leadership is present and is combined with technical know-how, quality is all but inevitable.

 So why doesn't everybody just "do leadership" so that they can "do quality" and, thus, be competitive? The primary stumbling block is the simple fact that being a leader is hard. It often requires people in responsible positions to make dramatic changes in how they do their jobs. It means, for instance, "listening down" to employees rather than simply proclaiming decisions down the chain of command. It means being both rational and emotional. It means studying and being self-critical and taking chances. Done as well as it can be done, it means loving others (Leadership is a subset of love, but that is a topic for another day) and, even more difficult, accepting love from others.

 Keep in mind that consumers worldwide don't much care about the level of leadership practiced by the provider of the goods or services they are obtaining with their hard-earned cash; they care about the quality that the leadership has been instrumental in producing. With rare exceptions, consumers check the political policies of the product's country of origin as much as they check the washing instructions (or other instructions and guarantees) that come with a product or service. The quality of leadership is the company's direct concern, not the consumer's. That said, there is one often-overlooked but, nonetheless major, contributor to whether or not a company or the majority of companies within a particular country, is capable of developing the type of leadership that will enable it to compete internationally. And that is the dominant political philosophy of the country.

 Begin by looking at the definition of leadership: "The creation of an environment in which others can self-actualize in the process of completing the job." Then consider how difficult it is to create that empowering environment if the "world" that surrounds the company is diametrically opposed to the idea. How difficult it must be for a well-meaning leader of an organization located in a dictatorship--or a "recovering dictatorship" in which the downward spread of a new citizen-government relationship is uneven and untested--to convince his or her subordinates that in this organization, they have a safe haven where they are considered to be valuable individuals with ideas and hopes. And, further, that those ideas will be listened to and those hopes will be helped toward accomplishment in any way possible. The necessary level of trust, bottom-to-top, will be slow in coming.

 This is, of course, why there have been no major breakthroughs in quality/leadership theory from countries now or recently under dictatorships. There have been refinements of solid technical approaches, top-down measurement systems, praiseworthy rational techniques--but nothing that incorporates emotions. Quality, like leadership is both rational and emotional and no quality system that tries to progress on just the rational will be able to compete for long.

 Today, companies that are based in democracies and have figured out the leadership/quality relationship are flooding the markets of nondemocratic countries (those that will let the goods and services in) and amazing the consumers there. It is no wonder that companies throughout the world are searching for leaders and/or dependable training courses that will help their current employees become leaders. Leadership is seen as the key to quality and quality as the key to success in the marketplace.

 Of course, once an organization establishes itself as a leadership-driven, quality-producing company, it has enormous potential to set in motion a process in which the development of new leaders is part of "what we do around here" and quality becomes habitual.


About the authors

 Pat Townsend and Joan Gebhardt have written more than 200 articles and six books, including Commit to Quality (John Wiley & Sons, 1986); Quality in Action: 93 Lessons in Leadership, Participation, and Measurement (John Wiley & Sons, 1992); Five-Star Leadership: The Art and Strategy of Creating Leaders at Every Level (John Wiley & Sons, 1997); Recognition, Gratitude & Celebration (Crisp Publications, 1997); How Organizations Learn: Investigate, Identify, Institutionalize (Crisp Publications, 1999); and Quality Is Everybody's Business (CRC Press, 1999). Pat Townsend has recently re-entered the corporate world and is now dealing with "leadership.com" issues as a practitioner as well as an observer, writer and speaker. He is now chief quality officer for UICI, a diverse financial services corporation headquartered in the Dallas area. E-mail the authors at ptownsend@qualitydigest.com .

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