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September, 2008, Volume 12, Number 11

Persevering through the Storm: Radian Group's S.A. Ibrahim on Leadership in the Subprime Crisis

By Knowledge@Wharton 

On the Verge of Change: Giving Muslim Women the Confidence to Lead

By Knowledge@Wharton 

Peak Paradigms: Mountain Metaphors of Leadership and Teamwork

By Edwin Bernbaum 

Dispatch from Omaha Beach: How Video Games Can Teach Leadership
 

By Michael Lewis Mayfield-Brown  

Research Brief: Which CEO Characteristics Matter?

By Mark Hanna 

Crowdsourcing: Why the Power of the Crowd is Driving the Future of Business

By Jeff Howe 

K2 Case Study: Leadership on the “Savage” Mountain

From the Leadership Digest editor 

 

PERSEVERING THROUGH THE STORM: Radian Group's S.A. Ibrahim on Leadership in the Subprime Crisis

By Knowledge@Wharton

In June 2007, the stock price of Radian Group was at $64 a share, close to its all-time high and Radian was moving toward a merger with a fellow mortgage insurer that would have created an almost $12 billion company.

One year later, the merger was off, Radian share prices were in steep decline -- tumbling below $1 a share early this month -- and Standard & Poor's had downgraded the group's credit rating from A- to BBB. The sub-prime mortgage crisis had hit hard.

In the midst of this crisis, S.A. Ibrahim, CEO of Radian, a Philadelphia-based credit risk management firm, honored a commitment he had made 12 months ago to speak about leadership at the recent 12th Annual Wharton Leadership Conference. "On reflection," Ibrahim said with a self-deprecating laugh, "What could be more relevant than hearing about leadership from someone in the middle of a multitude of challenges?"

For the complete article, originally published on July 23, 2008, please click here.
 

ON THE VERGE OF CHANGE: Giving Muslim Women the Confidence to Lead

By Knowledge@Wharton

When Zehre Avci, a daughter of Turkish immigrants in Belgium, was nine years old, she was sent to buy a coffin for her grandmother, who had just passed away. "I was crying," she recalled. But she had to go, because "there was no one else to translate." As a young teen, she led Turkish immigrant women with abusive husbands to get help for the same reason: There was no one else taking on the challenge.

Avci, now in her early thirties, said those experiences -- doing what others cannot or will not do -- inspire her current work in Brussels, where she has joined a social services agency dedicated to bridging the religious, social and economic gaps between immigrant women, many of them Muslim, and the wider Belgian population.

Like the more than 20 other Muslim women from around the world who gathered in Washington, D.C., this summer for a law and leadership program, Avci's vision involves both leading her own Muslim community in more egalitarian directions and pushing for a deeper understanding of Muslims by Western society. The group of women received advice from a range of instructors how to realize their ambitious goals in the face of their unique challenges. 

The three-week course, which brought together women of various ages from Belgium, Kyrgyzstan, Nigeria, Saudi Arabia and the U.S., was organized by the Washington, D.C.-based non-profit Karamah: Muslim Women Lawyers for Human Rights.

F or the complete article, originally published August 6, 2008, please click here.
 

PEAK PARADIGMS: Mountain Metaphors of Leadership and Teamwork

By Edwin Bernbaum 

Dynamic, effective leaders know how to inspire others with a vision of where they are going and how to get there. They have the ability to articulate and communicate their visions through vivid metaphors with the power to bring people together to work for common goals. Great leaders even become inspiring metaphors in their own right. During World War II, Winston Churchill, with his heavy jowls and gruff voice, came to embody the bulldog determination of the British people that enabled them to hang on during the German bombing of England and come back to win the war. 

Mountains and mountain climbing provide some of our most dramatic and powerful metaphors for overcoming challenges to attain both personal and corporate objectives. Expeditions to Mount Everest, for example, stand out in modern culture as inspiring models of the initiative and determination needed to achieve the highest goals. For this reason, business corporations frequently hire Everest climbers to give motivational talks to their employees. There is no clearer, more vivid metaphor for a compelling goal than the summit of a mountain peak. 

But there is more to climbing a mountain or succeeding in business than getting to the top. As Ida Hiroshige, the Japanese leader of a Mount Fuji devotional society, puts it, "The most important thing in climbing is the inner strength to help each other, so that not just the strongest but all the members of the group reach the goal." Reaching a summit, or attaining any hard-won objective, helps forge team identity and establish the core values organizations need to endure and thrive where others wither and die. Even just seeing a mountain or visualizing important goal can be important. Whether or not we ever climb it, the view of a distant peak gives us a sense of where we are and where we are going; such clarity of vision also gives a sense of direction and purpose to an enterprise.  

Metaphors involve seeing and experiencing one thing in terms of another. Powerful metaphors, such as the idea that “life is a journey,” operate at a deep level to structure how we think and act. They shape how we envision our goals and the steps we must take to reach them, and the choice of metaphor can lead to different outcomes. If, for example, we view business through the prism of warfare, we will be more likely to regard others as either enemies or allies and to think in terms of battlefield tactics and strategy. If we see business as a game, we will focus on finding the underlying rules and developing the skills to play by them more effectively. 

Mountain metaphors have a number of advantages over the sports metaphors of baseball and football commonly used in business today. As we have noted, the summit of a peak is one of the clearest and most powerful symbols for attaining a goal or objective. The flexibility of mountain metaphors makes it easier to formulate win-win approaches to cooperative business ventures. Although climbers can compete with each other or the mountain, they don’t have to; everyone can get to the top and win without one side having to lose, as is a must in football or baseball. Instead of regarding each other as implacable enemies, management and unions, for example, can work together on pension plans that benefit both sides. A mountaineering expedition emphasizes team efforts, but also allows scope for individual initiative and leadership; one or two people go out in front to establish the route for others to follow. Climbing takes place not on an artificial, neatly controlled playing field but in the natural, unpredictable setting of mountains, mirroring the uncertainties of the real world where unexpected events, such as the recent sub-prime mortgage meltdown, can sweep financial markets like storms and avalanches, catching almost everyone by surprise. 

The usual mountain-climbing metaphors of leadership and teamwork, which focus on attaining a goal, can be broadened if we look at the significance of mountains around the world. As the highest and most dramatic features of the landscape, mountains tend to become associated with people’s highest and most central values and aspirations, revealing what inspires and motivates them at the deepest levels—precisely what a leader needs to tap into in order to galvanize a team or organization. Mount Sinai occupies a special place in the Bible as the sacred site where Moses received the Ten Commandments, the basis of law and ethics in Western civilization. The remote Himalayan peak of Mount Kailas, rising aloof above the Tibetan Plateau, directs the minds of millions of Hindus and Buddhists toward the utmost attainments of spiritual liberation. For many in the modern world, Mount Everest symbolizes the highest levels of human achievement. In other words, there is more than one way to see a mountain.  

By exploring the varied ways people around the world relate to mountains, we can improve our own leadership skills, opening ourselves up to different ways of approaching tasks and, in the process, becoming more flexible. In particular, this investigation can help us work with people of different cultural backgrounds within our own organizations and do business across cultures.  

In subsequent issues of the Wharton Leadership Digest, we will use well-known peaks from different parts of the world as paradigms—or exemplary models—to identify and develop the key aspects of leadership and teamwork needed to succeed in today’s world of rapid change and cultural diversity. 

Mount Everest will highlight various ways of setting and attaining goals that stretch members of a team to do their utmost. Mount Sinai will focus our attention on the inspirational power of cultivating a sense of calling and service, while Mount Fuji will stress the need to develop and maintain strong corporate cultures. Other mountains and mountain ranges, such as Mount Kailas in Tibet and the Sierra Nevada in California, will serve as paradigms for implementing core competencies and providing opportunities for inspiration and renewal. 

Author’s Note: Edwin Bernbaum is an author, scholar, climber, and authority on mountains as sources of inspiration and meaning around the world. He has co-designed and organized Himalayan leadership programs for Wharton Leadership Ventures and lectures widely on leadership to corporate audiences. For inquiries about his presentations, contact the Leigh Bureau at info@leighbureau.com or 908 253-8600. He can be reached at ebernbaum@mountain.org.
 

DISPATCH FROM OMAHA BEACH: How Video Games Can Teach Leadership

 

By Michael Lewis Mayfield-Brown

The day this summer when I visited the beaches in Normandy, France, the site of the D-Day invasion, the skies were clear, the water was blue and nothing about the place looked like a war zone. Our group of 100 or so American teenagers, all taking part in a week-long trip to England and France with the Orlando, Fla.-based Student Leadership University, had just heard from Will Cavanaugh, an expert tour guide and instructor for the U.S. Army’s European staff ride program, about the battle at Point du Hoc, a spit of land between Omaha beach and Utah beach.  

Point du Hoc

Cavanaugh explained how a U.S. Ranger battalion scaled the cliffs of Point du Hoc with the mission of eliminating the large German guns stationed there. Unbeknownst to the Americans, the Germans had removed the guns several days before, although the Nazi forces still fought the Americans from fortifications atop the cliffs. As I walked along the dramatic cliffside, I said to my friend, “I have a strange feeling of having been here before.” He nodded and answered, “Yeah, I remember running through here, and the soldiers running back, yelling, ‘The guns aren’t there! The guns aren’t there!’”

You might wonder if we both imagining some previous life as World War II soldiers. In fact, both of us are major video-game fans, and through playing the popular game, Call of Duty 2, which includes D-Day and other World War II battles, we had already walked this landscape long before we ever arrived in Normandy. To me, this is just one example of how video games are helping my generation learn about leadership – something that older generations don’t always get.

I have been fooling around with video games for as long as I can remember. My parents bought a Nintendo when I was four, and I was an instant fan.  Some of my fondest memories come from playing Treasure MathStorm! with my friends in kindergarten. As I grew older, a cousin introduced me to some real classics, from fantasy titles like Ocarina of Time to more mature games like Killer Instinct. It was then that my parents grew concerned with my obsessive interest in games and comic books. With school shootings in the news, they thought they should put an end to the time I spent playing video games.

What my parents didn't realize then was that I wasn't just into playing games, though that was fun. I was into the game industry as a whole. It was a window for me into the worlds of business, computer engineering, industrial design and product marketing. Through high school, I fed my interest with gaming and technology magazines and regularly attended game conventions, where I tested out new games and shared my interests with others. I watched as my favorite game company, SEGA, rose to the heights of success and then fell to a shadow of its former glory. The experience helped me see that it’s not enough to have a good product, and that winning a cult following is no guarantee of future success: You have to constantly think ahead. When my parents slowly realized I was getting more out of the game scene than just sore thumbs from hours of play, they began to accept my interest. My father even rushed out to get me an upgrade for my old Nintendo.

I’m 18 now, and although I just started college this fall, I still live at home. I sometimes ask myself: How can I be a leader? How can any teenager be a leader? My involvement with the Student Leadership University for the past three years has helped me realize that we can all be leaders in our own way, and that our temperaments affect our leadership styles. As someone who is naturally introverted, my leadership style may not look like everyone else’s. But I also realize that my best opportunities for leadership may come from doing the thing I love most: in this case, playing games.

In my own lifetime, the quality and depth of video games has expanded in all directions. Games can now immerse you in real experiences and evoke emotional responses. It was the excitement and intensity of playing Call of Duty 2 that burned into my mind, and the mind of my friend, the outlines of that battle in Normandy. I want to do a lot of things after college, and one of those things is to make my own video game. I want to create something entertaining that teaches history and leadership skills and leaves a lasting impression. This won’t be a bold new endeavor, however. As I discovered in Normandy, it’s already happening.

Author’s Note: Michael Lewis Mayfield-Brown is a freshman at Northern Virginia Community College. He also works with a government contractor to produce proposals involving game technology. He can be reached at: digitaldevmike@gmail.com
 

RESEARCH BRIEF: Which CEO Characteristics Matter?

By Mark Hanna 

CEOs are a diverse lot. They are men and women, young and old, self-made and born to privilege. Most attend college and major in conventional fields like marketing, engineering, or finance, while others pursue more offbeat interests, like Carly Fiorina, former CEO of Hewlett Packard, who majored in medieval history and philosophy as a Stanford undergraduate, while still others, like Bill Gates, are college drop outs. It takes all kinds. 

But whatever their interests, or education, or backgrounds, all successful CEOs have some mysterious inner quality that makes them truly great leaders. A working paper issued by the National Bureau of Economic Research in July, 2008, attempts to shed some light on that mysterious inner quality.  

In Which CEO Characteristics and Abilities Matter?, authors Steven N. Kaplan, Mark M. Klebanov, and Morten Sorensen argue that what counts most for successful CEO performance outcomes, even more than “soft” team-related people skills, is the “hard” skill of getting the right things done. 

The Study 

The authors were interested in seeing how the characteristics and abilities of CEO candidates for positions in firms funded by private-equity investors correlated with three outcomes: whether the CEO candidate is hired; the private equity firm invests in the firm; and the CEO who is hired succeeds. 

The sample consisted of 316 candidates for the CEO position in firms funded by private-equity investors, consisting of both venture capital (VC) and leveraged buy-out (LBO) investors. Of these 316 candidates, 224 were eventually hired. 

The CEO pre-assessments were performed from 2000 to 2006 by ghSMART, a Chicago-based company that specializes in leadership testing. A report on a given CEO candidate typically ranged between 20 and 40 pages of detailed information. The assessments classified the CEO candidates on 30 dimensions in five different areas: “leadership,” “personal,” “intellectual,” “motivational,” and “interpersonal.” Assessments were made by highly qualified interviewers with a high degree of inter-rater consistency. These data were fairly clean and straightforward. 

The post-assessment information (“CEO candidate hired,” “private equity firm invests in firm,” and “CEO hired succeeds”) was acquired through both direct and indirect means. The direct method consisted of going to the private-equity firm and asking them for the information. The indirect method consisted of going to publicly available sources (Lexis-Nexis, public web sites, etc.) to cross-check the information. The authors described their performance data as “coarse” and “potentially noisy.” 

Findings 

Once the data were collected, they were analyzed using descriptive statistics, simple correlations, and factor analyses.  

Here is what the authors found: “The [30] abilities are highly correlated; a factor analysis suggests there are two primary factors with intuitive characterizations – one for general ability and one that contrasts team-related, interpersonal skills with execution skills.”  It should be noted that the execution skills factor included items like “aggressive,” “fast mover,” “persistent,” and “proactive,” The team-skills factor included items like “teamwork,” “listening skills,” “open to criticism,” and “treats people with respect.” The authors go on to say that: 

Both LBO and VC firms are more likely to hire and invest in CEOs with greater general abilities, both execution- and team-related. Success, however, is more strongly related to execution skills than to team-related skills. Success is, at best, only marginally related to incumbency, holding observable talent and ability constant.” 

Conclusion 

The authors make the following observation, drawing on Peter Drucker’s famous 1967 book, The Effective Executive: 

According to Drucker, effective executives “differ widely in their personalities, strengths, weaknesses, values, and beliefs. All they have in common is they get the right things done.” To get things done, effective executives: “utilize time efficiently”; “focus on contribution”; “make strengths productive”; “do first things first”; and “make effective decisions.” These appear to be the execution-related skills we find are most correlated with success. 

The authors also warn that based on their limited sample scope of buyout and venture-capital funded company CEOs, the “results may not generalize to CEOs of other firms, particularly public companies,” but their findings certainly corroborate Drucker’s observations, which were based on executives in many kinds of firms.  

One take-away, then, is that success comes in many packages, but that it depends primarily on the ability to get the right things done. 

Author’s Note:  Mark Hanna is a freelance business researcher and writer based in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. He can be reached at markhanna@mchsi.com.
 

CROWDSOURCING: Why the Power of the Crowd is Driving the Future of Business

By Jeff Howe 

Journalist Jeff Howe’s 2006 article for Wired magazine about the idea of “crowdsourcing” caught the attention of many trend-watchers. His newly minted term suddenly became ubiquitous, used by many to describe Internet-based phenomenon that rely on the mobilization of skilled workers – for free. In the introduction to his new book, Crowdsourcing: Why the Power of the Crowd is Driving the Future of Business, Howe tells the stories of Threadless.com, a successful t-shirt company based around the concept of amateur designers submitting their own designs, and iStockphoto, an online service for sharing and selling stock photo images – at a fraction of the price of regular stock photo outlets – that was acquired by Getty Images in 2006. An excerpt follows: 

Threadless and iStockphoto aren’t novelty acts. They are a part of the first wave of a business and cultural revolution that will change how we think about the Internet, commerce, and, most importantly, ourselves. Over the past several years people from around the world have begun exhibiting an almost totally unprecedented social behavior: they are coming together to perform tasks, usually for little or no money, that were once the sole province of employees. This phenomenon – which is sweeping through industries ranging from professional photography to journalist to the sciences – has come to be called crowdsourcing. 

Crowdsourcing had its genesis in the open source movement in software. The development of the Linux operating system proved that a community of like-minded peers was capable of creating a better product than a corporate behemoth like Microsoft. Open source software revealed a fundamental truth about humans that had gone largely unnoticed until the connectivity of the Internet brought it into high relief: labor can be organized more efficiently in the context of community than it can in the context of a corporation. The best person to do a job is the one who most wants to do that job; and the best people to evaluate their performance are their friends and peers who, by the way, will enthusiastically pitch in to improve the final product, simply for the sheer pleasure of helping one another and creating something beautiful from which they all will benefit.  

There’s nothing theoretical about this. Open source efforts haven’t merely equaled the best efforts of some of the largest corporations in the world, they have exceeded them, which explains why IBM has pumped a billion dollars into open source development. Analysts at IBM know that open source produces results. From the Linux operating system to Apache server software to the Firefox Web browser, much of the infrastructure of the information economy was built by teams of self-organizing volunteers. And now that model of production is migrating to fields far and wide. […]

Despite their obvious differences, Threadless, iStockphoto and P&G all have one thing in common. They articulate a central truth that was first articulated by Bill Joy, cofounder of Sun Microsystems. “No matter who you are,” Joy once said, “most of the smartest people work for someone else.” That, in a nutshell, is what this whole book is about. Given the right set of conditions, the crowd will almost always outperform any number of employees – a fact that companies are becoming aware of and are increasingly attempting to exploit.  

Note: The above passage is an excerpted from the Introduction of Crowdsourcing: Why the Power of the Crowd is Driving the Future of Business, with permission from Crown Business, @ 2008, All Rights Reserved. Further information about the book is available at the book’s website: http://crowdsourcing.typepad.com.
 

K2 CASE STUDY: Leadership on the “Savage” Mountain

From the Leadership Digest editor 

On August 13, 1996, at 9:30 a.m., four members of a Chilean climbing team reached the summit of K2. The environment above 8,000 meters is so inhospitable that the human body begins to physically deteriorate from dehydration and lack of oxygen. In their oxygen-deprived state, the team decided to celebrate with a glass of Chilean wine while the clock was ticking off fateful minutes. The team had been climbing for nearly 16 hours. On mountains like K2, the difference between coming home alive and not coming home at all were made up of a series of small decisions with potentially devastating results. Base camp, the expedition control center located low on the mountain at 5,000 meters, received a dreadful call at 2 p.m., shortly after the team left the summit: “Miguel is exhausted. He sat down and he does not want to continue walking.” The summit team faced its most serious challenge of the climb. 

This case considers the leadership capacities, strategies and decisions applied to this expedition on K2 and was prepared by  Rodrigo Jordan, founding director of Vertical S.A., a leadership consulting firm based in Santiago, Chile; Mark Davidson of Global HR Program Deployment, Juniper Networks; and Michael Useem.

Note: To obtain permission to teach or review a copy of this case, please contact coursematerials@wharton.upenn.edu.

Copyright 1996-2008, Wharton Center for Leadership and Change Management
 University of Pennsylvania

 

 
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