Are the Best Leaders Revolutionaries?
In 1970, Dov Frohman was a young electrical engineer working for a relatively unknown 100-person company called Intel. While troubleshooting a problem with an Intel product one day, Frohman stumbled upon a radically new way to record memory on a semiconductor. Frohman's invention would ultimately become the "erasable programmable read only memory" (EPROM), the basis of which is still used in today's Flash drives.
After a few years teaching electrical engineering in Ghana, Frohman would later go back to found Intel Israel, which he helped run for nearly 20 years until his retirement in 2001. Cradled in a hot-bed of political unrest, Frohman's strong-armed leadership kept Intel Israel open through intense times, including the first Gulf War, and put him in the international spotlight for his work in innovation and leadership. In 2008, Frohman won the IEEE Edison Medal, whose previous winners include George Westinghouse, Nikola Tesla, and Alexander Graham Bell, and the following year was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame.
Frohman's unique leadership style and thoughts on innovation culminated in the boldly titled Leadership the Hard Way: Why Leadership Can't Be Taught—and How You Can Learn It Anyway, a book he co-authored and released in 2008. Frohman believes that to achieve innovation, leaders must go against the grain, invoking a revolutionary spirit Frohman himself picked up while in grad school in Berkley during the mid-1960's. Inc.com's Eric Markowitz spoke with Frohman from his home in Jerusalem, Israel.
In your book, Leadership the Hard Way, you say that 50 percent of a manager's time should be unscheduled. What do you mean by that?
In Western culture today, we live under the premise that 'I'm busy' means 'I'm efficient,' and if you're not busy, that's seen as a big, big problem. If you look at the calendars of most leaders and managers, you see that there is no space for reflection, no space for reevaluating failures, no space for daydreaming, which to me, is an essential part of leadership, because just about every one of my breakthroughs were results of daydreams, including EPROM. You need time, not only to daydream, but to develop the vision and strategy for the company.
Sounds idealistic, but when can you actually do that daydreaming other than the drive to and from work?
You do the thinking while the presentations are going on. (laughs) You fit it in. I think that this is much more a serious problem than it appears. The fast pace of technology really harbors in it the seeds of slowing down innovation, ironically, to a large extent, because with all the gadgets and Facebook, people don't have time for reflection or thinking anymore. By the way, the more we use computers, the amount of 'different thinking' we insert in this process is limited.
You talk about 'different thinking' or 'alternative thinking' quite a bit. Do you think it takes somewhat of a revolutionary to be a great leader?
Yes. Going against the grain is synonymous with different thinking. My leadership experiences taught me that if you don't go against the current, you don't take risks, and you can't make significant change. If you want a breakthrough in operations or an invention, you need to go against the current.
What is it about Israel that has made it such a tech powerhouse? Is it partly because of the influence of the Israel army?
I happen not to subscribe to Start-up Nation idea that it's the army. It's from the survival instinct, but it goes back a few hundred years. It's the fact that we're a frontier culture. Israeli goals are based on security threats. Innovation, when you have a security threat, is a hell of a lot more pronounced and necessary. I think it is the security threat that makes us much more ready to improvise, but at the same time it makes us very difficult to discipline, which is why execution is sometimes a problem.
The book opens with an anecdote of you flying through a thunderstorm. Why did you choose this analogy for leadership?
I happen to be a pilot. Flying through the storm to me was one of the triggers for the book. I was taught how to fly and I already had about 120 hours and I decided to take a trip with my family to Italy. It was very comfortable; it was fine. But that's the way things happen. Crises are never projected in advance; they always happen as a surprise. It's like the turkey for Thanksgiving. For 1,000 days the turkey is very happy, but on the 1,001 day, it's not very lucky for the turkey. I was aware of the weather storm, but it was far away. Like any crises, you generally can't turn around. All of a sudden you're in a situation where you must rely on your instincts.
And what were your instincts there?
I remembered two principles: fly the plane and keep the wings level. In an organization, you have to do the same thing. You must survive. You try to balance the situation, and keep it afloat, and give it some direction. Based on the principles I learned, intuitively, I let the plane go up and down. If I forced it, the plane might have broken under the forces of the storm. So you let it go up and down, you keep the wings level. Mainly, that experience crystallized in me that while you can teach someone how to fly, you cannot teach them how to handle a crisis. It's by trial and error. You practice on whatever organization lets you.