Stew Friedman Interview

Stew Friedman is Practice Professor of Management at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania.  He trained as an organisational psychologist, was founding director of the Wharton Leadership Program and is also founding director of Wharton’s Work/Life Integration Project.  He is the creator of the concept of Total Leadership and author of Total Leadership: Be a Better Leader, Have a Richer Life.

Leadership has become a heavy industry, but when you started out it was barely recognised as worthy of serious study.  How did you come to look at leadership?

My dissertation research 30 years ago at the University of Michigan was about how executives are prepared and selected for their positions in large companies.  That led to my work on executive development, succession planning, CEO succession and leadership development systems. In 1991 I started the Wharton Leadership Program. That was when Wharton did a major revamping of our whole curriculum. One of the critical elements of that work was to ensure that our students – over 800 first-year MBAs – had real-world experience working together in teams and providing feedback on leading in a team environment. We created learning teams which, at that time, was innovative in an MBA curriculum.

It was really in the 1980s that leadership took off.

Of course, people have been thinking about and struggling with the issue of how you develop future leaders since Plato.  This is not a new issue.  But in the 1980s it took off in the modern business world.

Although there had been an emerging literature bubbling up through the 1960s and 1970s, the watershed book was Tom Peters and Robert Waterman’s In Search of Excellence.  They were the first to shine a bright light on the whole issue of culture and leadership, and the role of leadership in organisational performance.

The whole human potential movement was another important precursor to a focus on quality of life, on taking account of the whole person and seeing leadership as something that was available to everyone – and not just an executive role in a hierarchy but a person’s capacity to contribute to some larger social mission or cause.

What’s really interesting in your work is the link between work/life integration and leadership.

I have pursued the idea that the solution to the work/life dilemma is leadership and that the heart of leadership is really the whole person.

I have, I hope, demonstrated and brought to life the idea that you can advance your leadership capacity, performance, and results at work and elsewhere by bringing together the different parts of your life; integrating them in an intelligent way that works for you.  Behind this is the notion that each person can emerge as more of a leader than he or she currently is.  And that leadership can be learned, practiced, and developed, like any performing art or a sport, even if it cannot be taught.

The work/life debate is often polarised as a gender issue. You take a very different perspective.

While it has often and unfortunately been characterised thus, the work/life dilemma is certainly not a woman’s issue – it’s a social, human and economic issue. What I was intentionally, and subversively, trying to accomplish with the idea of Total Leadership was to create a language that enabled men to access these principles and methods and to use them to better integrate their lives and for it to be legitimate for them to do so.

So it’s about leadership, performance, and measurable results, in all parts of life – work, home, community, and the private self (mind, body, spirit) – what I call “four-way wins.” That’s something that a man, as well as a woman, can get excited about pursuing and, perhaps more importantly, can feel comfortable pursuing.

The genesis of many of these ideas can be traced back to your time working with Ford, starting in 1999.

Yes, that absolutely transformed my thinking about just about everything.  My world was completely turned around by my experience as a senior executive in that incredible company for that two and a half year period.  The first thing that I would say about that experience, reflecting back now almost 15 years ago, is how humbled I was by the challenge of trying to get anything done in a large social system.

I came away with a profoundly different kind of respect and admiration for people who spend their adult lives leading organisations and trying to get important things done in them.  It’s so much harder than it looks from the outside in.

You were running their Leadership Development Center, a 50-person, $25 million operation.  How did that come about?

When Jac Nasser became CEO of Ford, he was looking to transform the culture of the company and to change the mindset of employees to focus more on the consumer and less on the manufacturing side. He wanted everyone in the company to be outwardly facing and to really take in the environment and to see themselves as leaders in all the different parts of their lives.

Interviewing for the job, I told Jac that what I’m going to do here, if he were to hire me, is to make leadership development be about the whole person, and not just about business.  And when he said, “Great, I love it!” that sealed the deal for me.

It’s still counter to what a lot of people think companies should be worrying about.  But we have come a long way.  It’s amazing to reflect on how different the world is today with respect to the legitimacy and value of leadership development. It’s definitely an idea that is now fully embraced.  It’s also heartening to see how men are now much more comfortable talking about work/life dilemmas and seeing leadership from the point of view of the whole person.

And yet people still complain that there’s a shortage of leaders.

Yes, that’s true.  We have a long way to go in terms of how we think about the centrality of developing leadership capacity and giving people the sense of confidence and competence in creating meaningful and sustainable change in their lives – a primary goal of the Total Leadership approach.  There’s still so much wasted effort and talent as a result of our not taking this issue seriously enough. But that’s not to say we haven’t made a lot of progress.

What is your current research looking at?

One question I get asked a lot is this: “A whole person view of leadership sounds good in theory, Stew, but in the real world you can’t really do anything great unless you’re completely and fully dedicated to it, right?”  I have been asking students and others to write short biographies of people they admire and who exemplify the principles of Total Leadership, who have figured out for themselves what it means for them to be real (to act with authenticity by clarifying what matters to them), to be whole (to act with integrity by respecting the whole person), and to be innovative (to act with creativity by continually experimenting with how things get done).  These are people who have achieved greatness in the world not in spite of their commitments to other parts of their lives, but because of how their work benefits from their investments in family, community, and the private self.

The mythology is that you have to trade off the rest of your life in order to have success as a leader in the world and, of course, you always have to make sacrifices at some point.  But, there are many examples of people who have drawn power, wisdom, and support from their families, from their communities, and from their emotional and spiritual lives in order to achieve great things in their professional lives by finding mutual value among the different parts of life.  Indeed this is the story I tell in my forthcoming book, Great Leaders, Good Lives (Harvard Business Review Press).

The Total Leadership message is to have a systematic and disciplined approach to focusing on what matters most to you and to the people around you and then experimenting with ways of creating what I call four-way wins.  We have identified a set of skills that bring to life the three main principles of being real, being whole, and being innovative.   Great Leaders, Good Lives will feature six great leaders who’ve lived good lives and an analysis of the skills they’ve used to do so. It will show how anyone can practice those skills.

You are also still leading Wharton’s Work/Life Integration Project.

The Work/Life Integration Project started in 1991 and had two primary missions.  One was to bring together thought leaders in business, academia, and the public sector and to have them discover and share best practices in integrating the different parts of life, at the individual level, executive level, organisation and societal level.

The other part of the project was research on the lives and careers of Wharton students and alumni.  The first product of that was the book, Work and Family – Allies or Enemies? (Oxford University Press, 2000).  In 1992 we gathered in-depth survey data from the graduating class and 20 years later we administered the same survey to the graduates of the class of 2012. Then we went back to the class of 1992 and asked them further questions about their lives, careers, achievements, and future aspirations.  And we asked about how they deal with work/life challenges, their views on dual career relationships, how their work has evolved, how technology has affected them, and so on.

One of the questions we asked of both classes was do you plan to have children? And in 1992, 79 per cent men and women said yes.  And in 2012, 42 per cent said yes.  Another book I’m writing now, to be published this Fall, is called Baby Bust (Wharton Digital Press), which looks at how the past two decades have seen enormous changes in both work and family life. I describe why and how things have changed, and in very different ways for men and for women.  For example, the reasons why fewer men are planning to have children are not the same as the reasons that fewer women are planning to have children.

The good news is that there is a growing convergence between men and women about their attitudes and values about both work and family life.  And the ideas and methods in the Total Leadership program can help them create a new social order.  That is, among the key takeaways from the Total Leadership program is that people learn to recognize that they have a lot more power and discretion to create change and to harness that power.  This enables them to attend to the things that matter most to them and to make a greater contribution to the world, in ways that work for them and for the people around them.

What’s so exciting about this moment in history is that we’re taking the idea of human liberation one step further.  Earlier in my life, in the 1960s, there was an explosion of interest in liberating the human spirit.  The next phase of our evolution is underway. There’s so much experimentation now with the way that families live their lives, with many young people questioning what’s possible and acceptable. And, of course, the advent of the digital revolution has accelerated everything. There are going to be a lot more options available to people, men and women, in how they choose to work and how they contribute.

Do you think of yourself as a leader?

I want everyone to think of themselves as a leader and certainly that applies to me too.  My main conception of what leaders do is that they bring people together, they mobilise people, to accomplish some valued goal.  And for it to be valuable the goal has to make things better for other people.  So that’s my mission through my work and that’s an idea that I’m trying my best to help cultivate wherever I go – with our students at Wharton and beyond.  Each of us is ourselves in whatever sphere we’re in – at work, at home, in the community, and alone with our private thoughts.  We need to bring ourselves in full to all the important domains in our lives to make the world better.

There is a powerful strain of optimism in your work.

Well, I’m glad that you picked that up, because that is, to me, the hallmark of what leaders have to do; to convert the harsh realities of today into a hopeful path to make the world a little better.  It is about looking at reality as clearly as you can and then creatively, and in concert with other people, trying to figure out ways to improve the human condition.

Who were the key influencers of your thinking?

I had two co-chairs to my dissertation, one of them was Noel Tichy, an innovator modern thinking about leadership, and the other was Robert Kahn, who wrote the seminal work on the social psychology of organisations.  Later In Search of Excellence really shook my world when I read it as a graduate student with its very hopeful and energetic way of thinking about the possibilities of leadership and change.

I have been very fortunate to have had great teachers.  There are so many from whom I’ve learned and who have inspired me, including, to name just a few, Richard Hackman, Denise Rousseau, Bob Sutton, Dan Denison, Roger Schwarz, David Thomas, Ellen Galinsky, and Joel DeLuca.

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