Day Two of this year’s World Business Forum featured Gary Hamel speaking about management innovation.  The content of his talk was familiar to us—he spoke of the need for management itself to change, away from the traditional, top-down model of the past 100 years and toward a tapping of the creative potential of all employees.  He pointed to the flat structure at materials company W.L. Gore as exemplary in this regard.  The company does not have titles; rather, people are asked to be “leaders” by their co-workers. 

Traditional management had dealt with answering questions such as “how to turn fractious humans into semi-programmable robots,” Hamel said, with the suggestion that we have moved on from the need for this sort of management.  This turned us back to Patrick Lencioni’s talk on Day One of the forum, on leading successful teams.  Fractious humans were very much present in that talk—not in the sense of people stubbornly refusing to lift their loads, say, but in the sense of interpersonal conflict in teams.  Lencioni put much truck in the importance of leaders in solving such issues, through communication, trust-building, and role-modeling.  He characterized good leadership as the willingness to confront issues rather than gloss over them.

The innovation literature makes a big point of the significance of leadership, a matter we’ve been mulling over recently.  Why are leaders so important to innovation?  Why is leadership always assumed to be a given?  Are leaders important because of their greater power and access to resources—if so, that suggests the hierarchical mold that Hamel argues impedes innovation.  The importance of leadership therein is a necessary evil, a lever within a flawed overall system.  Or was Frederick Taylor right, and managers have to flog employees to get a creative idea out of them?

A forum attendee suggested that leaders are important because people do not want to stick their necks out and take responsibility.  A number of the speakers at the forum had suggested that there had been an abdication of responsibility on the part of leaders in the run-up to the current crisis. 

The forum was closed by Bill Clinton, who was asked his opinion on leadership.  He suggested that leaders are needed for the proportionally small number of cases when the right answer to an issue is not clear.  All a leader can do is listen and, based on past experience and intuition, make the best decision possible, and if that decision turns out to be wrong, change it. 

Completing the trio of oft-invoked essential characteristics of leadership (in addition to conflict resolution and crisis handling) is establishing a “vision.”  All of these leadership characteristics are important for innovation.  In interviews in recent days about his new book, Managing, however, Henry Mintzberg has pointed to an overemphasis in business circles of leadership over management, which in his opinion has led to a situation in which too many companies are being overled and undermanaged.  Hamel’s call for a move away from an overreliance on hierarchy is a positive one for innovation, but one wonders whether he isn’t making a similar disconnect between management and leadership—calling for a scrapping of the former and throwing out the baby with the bath water.