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Are you a strong leader or a servant leader?

A recent blog post, sparked by Yahoo!s reversal of a long-standing policy to insist that employees work at the office instead of at home, examined whether companies should aim for collaboration or productivity. The debate is relevant because many of Social Business benefits revolve around increased collaboration. Proponents argue that Social Business improves effectiveness, but left unstated is it's potential negative effect on efficiency.

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A similar debate has emerged with the recent firing of Ronald Johnson as CEO of J.C. Penney (JCP) after only 17 months at the helm. Johnson was hired to turn around the 111-year-old US retailer, who was flailing in the face of competition from Walmart and Target.

Johnson was every headhunters dream. BA from Stanford. Harvard MBA. Years spent with Apples Steve Jobs. Credited with developing and rolling out the Apple stores, which created a new standard in experiential marketing and helped build Apple from a supplier into a retail powerhouse. Personable and hard-working.

So why did Johnson crash-and-burn so quickly?

The main reason, according to this excellent New York Times article by Stephane Clifford, was he attempted to be a strong authoritarian leader in an environment that had to balance competing demands from retail stores, suppliers and consumers torn between cost and style. Such an environment demands collaboration; the retail supply chain and industry is so complex that it only works if all the players work or at least listen to one another.

Examples of his strong leadership are numerous. He unilaterally brought in his own team, who, like Johnson, declined to move to JCP headquarters in Plano, Texas. He threw a lavish party, featuring light shows, fake snow and lots of liquor, to celebrate his hiring and his plans. Such an ego-driven party likely did not go over well with employees in Texas or store managers everywhere.

Other changes we're less symbolic. He ended JCPs habit of frequent coupons and sales to boost retail traffic without input from customer research or store managers. He established in-store boutiques based on his tastes, killing frumpy departments like maternity wear in favor of clothes with slim European styling. More than 400 brands we're eliminated. He signed up Martha Stewart despite her exclusive alliance with a competitor and even ran a high-profile ad campaign telling customers they deserve to look better. Sales data was limited to top executives. All this and more with little staff input.

Its easy to see the influence of Jobs, who was famous for bad-mouthing market research, and who purposely kept employees working in need-to-know silos.

The result: A 25% drop in revenue in 2012. No wonder he was fired, and a former JCP executive brought in to clean up the mess.

Why did someone so personable and with such talents fail so badly? The main reason is he tried to be a strong leader in an environment that demanded a servant leader. A strong leader uses a top-down approach to drive the organization toward it's goals. Yes, such leadership can work; Steve Jobs, GEs Jack Welch and other frequent BusinessWeek cover stars prove it can. But such leaders are rare, and will likely become even rarer in the Social Economy, where empowered customers, not companies, control brands.

By contrast, a servant leader is defined as someone who moves away from authoritarian leadership to someone who achieves authority by demonstrating empathy, listening and stewardship. Servant leaders help others achieve their goals. They depend on collaboration instead of demanding that followers march behind in lockstep. Servant leaders motivate by emphasizing our way instead of my way or the highway. They command, not by fiat, but because people have faith in them.

Social Business gives such servant leaders the tools they need to succeed. With it's focus on collaboration and interactive involvement by employees, customers and partners, Social Business provides a listening post into stakeholder requirements, synthesizes the best ideas and helps achieve the consensus that drives unified actions.

Strong leaders are sometimes needed when circumstances are especially dire (Jobs was brought in when Apple was days from bankruptcy). Strong leaders can also produce short-term results. But for long-term results in todays Social Economy, servant leadership, enabled by Social Business tools, is the winning model.

Are you a strong leader or a servant leader? If you aspire to be a servant leader, are you a Social Business?

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Posted in IT services Post Date 01/19/2015


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