Q.: In the introduction to your book, you say that leadership is like flying through a thunderstorm. What do you mean?
A.: I’m an active pilot, and one time I actually found myself caught in a thunderstorm. It was too late to turn back; I just had to fly through it. What was so interesting to me, afterwards, was that despite all my years of training and flying, none of it really prepared me for the experience of being in the middle of the storm. All the things that I had ever learned about flying were far from my mind. There were too many things going on at once, too many contingencies that I couldn’t predict or anticipate. Instead, I was consumed by the crisis, operating on instinct, reacting rapidly to the developments of the moment. I think leadership is like that: it can’t be done by the book. Rather, it means having the capacity to respond appropriately in an instant.
Q.: Why is that relevant to business leaders?
A: Much like a pilot flying through a thunderstorm, in today’s economy leaders confront a situation of non-stop turbulence. Technology is constantly changing and innovation is continuous. Globalization is throwing up new competitors who seem to come out of nowhere. And, God knows, since 9/11, business people everywhere are far more aware of the impact of geopolitical turbulence in the form of terrorism, war, or big issues like climate change.
Q.: What are the implications of that turbulence for leadership?
A: It is precisely these forces of increased turbulence that have fueled the growing preoccupation with leadership. In such an environment, leadership isn’t a luxury. It’s a matter of survival! Yet the very forces that make leadership more critical also make teaching it virtually impossible. What it takes to lead an organization through that turbulence isn’t simple or straightforward. There is just too much uncertainty. And it takes personal courage. You don’t really know what you will do at the moment of truth. No matter how much training you have (or how many leadership books you have read), nothing quite prepares you for that moment when you enter the eye of the storm!
Q.: So if leadership can’t be taught, how do you learn how to lead?
A: I think any genuine leader today has to learn leadership the hard way—by doing it. That means embracing turbulence and crisis, not avoiding it. It means “flying through the thunderstorm.” That’s not to say that there are no basic principles to orient you to the challenge. Indeed, I describe some in the book. But there are no simple recipes. Until you have lived it, you don’t really know how to do it. That’s what I mean by “leadership the hard way.”