"Your old road is rapidly aging," Bob Dylan proclaimed to the powers that be in 1964. "Please get out of the new one if you can't lend your hand." Recent experiences have left me thinking often of that now-iconic line over the past few days; in this post, I want to encourage you to think about whether you are either standing in the way or offering a hand to those coming after you.
In the last couple of weeks, I've listened to Bill Clinton give a commencement speech to my eldest child and his classmates; done a half-day session on leadership with ten GE company officers, followed by dinner with CEO Jeff Immelt; and led a meeting with the dozen or so physicians who constitute the senior executive corps of the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine. I can't stop thinking of Dylan's song and wondering how we're doing on developing the generation of leaders.
Hard as it might be for old folks in positions of power to see the world in a new light and embrace it, these senior people with whom I've been spending some time are trying their best to lend a hand to the next generation as they roll down a new road. Smart seniors who want to leave a positive legacy will pay attention to these and other examples, learn from them, and follow suit in a way that works in their world.
For decades GE has been, and remains, the most prolific net exporter of leadership talent in the corporate world, because it has a tradition — a strongly-held cultural belief — supported by the tangible commitment of time and money, for developing people. The Business Week article about GE's efforts a few months back got it wrong in describing the current state of GE's leadership development system as out of step with these digital times. You need not look any further than my visit to corporate headquarters for some evidence. The expressed intent of my purpose was to stimulate dialogue and raise provocative questions about what leadership means today and what it should mean in the future. With the full backing, even prodding, I felt from Chief Learning Officer Susan Peters, I encountered a readiness to challenge the status quo — to look at leadership from the perspective of not just work but of the whole person, including family and community and personal life (mind, body, and spirit) — that was as refreshing as it was inspiring. Taking time "to address the soul," as one attendee put it, is not how things would've been done at GE back in the day; but, in 2010, knowing that the world has evolved and that a new leadership model is necessary for the people who will run GE in 2020, the current executives of this visionary company are taking important steps to critically evaluate, and so revise, their approach.
The University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine is the site of an NIH-funded study of the impact of a series of interventions — including, full disclosure, my Total Leadership program — on the careers and lives of talented up-and-coming women faculty in academic medicine. This first-of-its kind project is an extension of remarkable efforts led by the FOCUS program, a unique initiative dedicated to advancing the careers of women faculty. We get underway in earnest later this year, and our meeting a few weeks ago was a briefing for the top team on what we are undertaking, and why. Here, in one of the most tradition-bound fields, senior executives were engaging actively in a practical discussion about the nitty-gritty of what it would take to provide support for the next generation to succeed in experimenting with new ways to get things done that are in synch with the demands of their lives beyond work; to do nothing less, in other words, than re-think the culture of academic medicine.
President Clinton aimed one of his rhetorical arrows at this same target: To his audience of fresh-faced grads he declared that you, the rising generation, must focus on creating change that is sustainable, devising new ways to live and work that fit with the needs and interests not only of your work and your families, but of your spirit, of our society, and of our intricately interconnected world.
Tomorrow's executive leaders need all the help we can give them. Fortunately, there are some wise men and women who know this and are dedicating serious effort to exploring innovative ways to prepare them. I have seen and heard them first-hand struggling to figure out a way forward on the new road, and I'm happy to report that my impressions lead me to be optimistic, despite the enormous resistance inherent in the status quo and the difficulties of successfully inventing new forms of organization that will work better than what we have now.
Is my hope warranted? It depends in part on whether you and your organization choose to help or hinder. How are you re-making leadership development so that future leaders are ready for the world they'll live in, not for the one we've known?
Stewart D. Friedman is Practice Professor of Management at the Wharton School. The former head of Ford Motor's Leadership Development Center, he is the author of Total Leadership: Be a Better Leader, Have a Richer Life. For more, visit totalleadership.org and his archive of posts for HBR.org