William Cohen is especially well-qualified to discuss leadership, given his background that includes graduating from the United States Military Academy at West Point, being the first of Peter Drucker’s students to earn a Ph.D. degree in business, rising to the rank of major general in the U.S. Air Force Reserve, serving as president of two universities, writing several books (notably The Art of the Leader, A Class with Drucker, and Drucker on Leadership) and serving now as president of the Institute of Leader Arts.
In this volume, he identifies and discusses what he characterizes as The Eight Universal Laws of Heroic Leadership in Part One, The Eight Basic Influence Tools in Part Two, and then The Eight Competencies of Heroic Leadership in Part Three. He devotes a separate chapter to each of the 24. None is a head-snapping revelation, nor does Cohen make any such claim. They offer great value, however, when he cites correlations and implications between and among them. Throughout his lively and eloquent narrative, he inserts dozens of real-world examples of heroic leadership both on the battlefield and in the business world.
Those who pursue what Jim Collins calls BHAGs (i.e. Big Hairy Audacious Goals) require great leadership by men or women who maintain absolute integrity, know their stuff, make their expectations crystal clear, demonstrate their own commitment to the given enterprise, expect positive results and ultimate success, meanwhile take care of those entrusted to their care, put duty before self, and “get out in front” – and stay there — to show the way.
Cohen wrote this book for those who aspire to be great leaders in all domains of human experience: in the business world, in the military, and in public service, to be sure, but also in the classroom and on the playing field. The information, observations, caveats, and suggestions he offers comprise what could be described as a leader’s “tool box.” His advice includes inspiring others to motivating themselves, communicating more effectively, strengthening teamwork, increasing engagement (as opposed to passive involvement), and of special importance, helping others to become more effective leaders.
It is also clear to me that he believes that heroic qualities can be developed in almost anyone, and, that there are many different forms of heroism. For example, speaking to power. Great leaders insist on it. It should also be noted that, in The Divine Comedy, Dante reserved the last (and worst) ring in hell for those who, in a moral crisis, preserve their neutrality. Many of those who read this book will not “learn” how to become an heroic leader by completing checklists of aphorisms to consider or tasks to complete; rather, Cohen will help them to discover the potential capabilities they already possess…and will help them, also, to develop those capabilities in ways and to an extent they may now consider unattainable.
What we have in this volume is a wealth of Cohen’s memories of the years (from 1975 until 1979) when he was a student at – and the first graduate of – “probably the first executive PhD program in management in academic history” at Claremont Graduate School. His classroom teacher, mentor, and friend was Peter Drucker. “I have tried to come close to capturing his actual words, but in any case, I believe I achieved the spirit of what he said and how he said it. My aim is to put the reader in the classroom as if he were there with me at the time hearing Drucker and participating in every interaction I had with him.” Cohen succeeds brilliantly in achieving these and other objectives.
Among the several lessons that Cohen learned and shares, these are the ones that caught my eye:
“The first task of any business management is to decide what business it was in.”
“What everyone `knows’ is frequently wrong.”
“Outstanding performance is inconsistent with fear of failure.”
“Selling and marketing are neither synonymous nor complementary. One could consider them adversarial in some cases. There is no doubt that if marketing were done perfectly, selling, in the actual sense of the word, would be unnecessary.”
“The first systematic book on leadership [i.e. Kyropaidaia] was written by Xenophon more than 2,000 years ago, and it is still the best.”
To them I presume to add my own personal favorite, from an article published in the Harvard Business Review years in 1963: “There is surely nothing quite so useless as doing with great efficiency what should not be done at all.”
Cohen notes that Drucker once asked two questions of Jack Welch that then guided and informed his leadership of GE after he succeeded Reggie Jones as its new CEO. “If you weren’t already in the business, would you enter it today?” followed by a second, more difficult question, “What are you going to do about it?” Today, other CEOs should carefully consider the importance of these questions, answer them, and then proceed accordingly. “Drucker taught what to do. He was very specific about this. However, he did not teach how to do it.” One of this book’s substantial value-added benefits is that, throughout his narrative, Cohen offers his own observations and suggestions as to how to achieve the various business objectives that Drucker recommends, accompanied by dozens of relevant examples to illustrate key points. Those who share my high regard for Peter Drucker’s life and work will be as appreciative as I am of what William Cohen shares in this volume.