The Washington Post

Joel Kurtzman’s ‘Common Purpose’

Author: Joel Kurtzman

Publisher: Jossey-Bass, 2010

ISBN-13: 978-0470490099, 240 pages


Renowned business thinker Joel Kurtzman offers an excellent primer on modern-day leadership. Kurtzman, a senior fellow at the Milken Institute and former editor in chief of Harvard Business Review, dramatically illustrates that the aloof, insular, condescending leader is a dinosaur from an unenlightened past. To foster organizations that thrive, leaders must guide and empower, not command and control, as Kurtzman explains with precepts you can put directly into action. His thoroughly researched book is packed with case studies of prominent leaders – both the good and the bad. These fascinating, sometimes chatty stories entertain and instruct at the same time. getAbstract highly recommends Kurtzman’s illuminating, clearly written book.

Western Union: A lesson in poor leadership

Companies suffer when their leaders insulate themselves from new ideas. Western Union is a prime example. By 1865, the year the U.S. Civil War ended, Western Union had become America’s biggest communications company. With its vast infrastructure of telegraph wires spanning the nation, Western Union was a commercial powerhouse and one of the first stocks listed in the Dow Jones Industrial Average. However, the company had two glaring problems: It was rigidly hierarchical and its leaders strongly distrusted fresh or innovative thinking. These deficiencies proved to be its downfall. In 1879, Western Union leaders dismissed Alexander Graham Bell’s telephone as an insignificant invention and refused to partner with Bell to transform their company into a national telephone provider. In the decades that followed, Western Union also passed on radio, television, the Internet and cellphones. The company, bought and sold many times, is now in abject decline and swimming in debt. In fact, “Western Union’s leadership never missed an opportunity to miss an opportunity.”

This cautionary tale illustrates an important lesson: The leaders you have determine the business results you get. Superior leaders make good companies great. Bad leaders drive good companies into the ground. The best leaders do not hold themselves aloof from the people within their companies. Rather, they are the mortar that keeps their organizations intact. With their every action, such leaders promote “common purpose,” the “feeling that we’re all in this together and that we all know and understand what to do, why we’re here and what we stand for.” These leaders work hard to provide genuine leadership because they believe success centers on what they do, not on who they are. Shivan Subramaniam, CEO of the insurance company FM Global, is a model common-purpose leader. His leadership style: “guide, advise and recommend.”

“Us versus them”

Common purpose is behind all successful organizations. It is how NASA put a man on the moon, how Google became a dominant force on the Internet and how the Obama campaign engaged followers to win the U.S. presidential election in 2008. However, common purpose must be a positive, not a negative, force. It must never devolve into “us versus them.”

Employees at Microsoft shared a common purpose: to become the dominant high-tech company. But the firm’s aggressive “we are smarter than you” attitude toward every other competitor ultimately hurt the company. It resulted in “lawsuits, Justice Department inquiries” and “threats of breakup.” Microsoft operated in such a fiercely competitive manner that it made bitter enemies on all fronts…

Click here to read on and receive a free summary of this book courtesy of getAbstract, the world's largest online library of business book summaries. (Available through June 29, 2011.)

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