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Leadership in an Age of Uncertainty

10/07/2005 10:30 AM Kresge
Deborah G. Ancona, Seley Distinguished Professor of Management; Faculty Director, MIT Leadership Center; James Parker, Former C.E.O. and Vice-Chairman of the Board, Southwest Airlines Company ; Barbara Stocking, Director General, Oxfam, Great Britain

Description: In some organizations, vision and motivation don't reside exclusively in the top tiers of management, but instead energize all employees, even the most ordinary foot soldiers. All staff become leaders.

At Southwest Airlines, explains James Parker, this means translating the corporate mission up and down the line. The company culture is "defined by deeds, which have to be delivered on a local level." So you'll see a "deadheading pilot helping flight attendants serve peanuts and stowing trash, and flight attendants cleaning up between flights -- employees doing things outside the narrow scope of their job responsibilities, to contribute to the success of overall operations." Southwest employees have secured two goals that seem unattainable by other airlines: low fares and outstanding service, says Parker. It's this "relational competence" that gives Southwest its cost advantage, and employees derive both personal satisfaction and good remuneration including a profit-sharing plan from their labors.

The vast field operations of Oxfam, as well as the nonprofit's engagement in crises, demand that staff working in 70 countries operate very independently from Barbara Stocking. "The only way to do it is by having confidence in (staff) out there. We're dealing with displaced people living in extreme poverty. It can't be broken down into tasks." One example: Oxfam field workers sought a non-medical way to contribute to the HIV/AIDS crisis in southern Africa. Workers on the ground there figured out "we could bring something special -- community support strategies," such as mentoring older children to be parents. "The idea that I could have dreamt that up from Oxford is ridiculous," says Stocking. Developing this kind of distributed and skilled local leadership takes years, and in the case of disasters, requires great flexibility all around. Following the Asian tsunami, Stocking had to convince her Aceh staff that helicopters were the only way to go to deliver aid. "You want imagination and initiative," says Stocking, "but sometimes you have to bring them back."

Host(s): Sloan School of Management, MIT Sloan School of Management

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