Having been the founder and CEO of USA Networks for more than two decades, I was quite used to leading from the front, as many CEO’s do. We know we have to set the vision, establish values, set strategy, build a team and achieve results. Like many of the CEO’s I grew up with, I was quite used to leading from the front.
So, shortly after I became Chairman of the Board of Liz Claiborne (now Fifth & Pacific), it was a surprise to learn that leading from the front was not what was required, or even expected. I was Chairman of the Board, a member like every other board member. I had some special duties: to set meeting agendas, organize committees, communicate with the CEO, make sure the company met all of its public company obligations and of course, make sure it met financial expectations.
It was 2007 and the company needed to adjust its strategy and execution to contend with market realities. Department stores were consolidating, and apparel companies were getting their margins squeezed. After more than a decade of rapid acquisitions, Liz Claiborne had too many brands. They desperately needed to be streamlined. I pushed an agenda forward with a rapid timetable to completion.
Apparently, in my zeal to move forward quickly, I stepped on a few committee members' toes. I realized I was making a mistake. During a critical discussion, I decided to drop back and let other board members take the lead. It is important to get all opinions on the table and it is essential to know who will be most likely to lead.
To my delight, dropping back to lead from the middle produced a very solid and executable plan. This became my method of leading through some very difficult years that followed during the most acute global financial crisis since the great depression.
This also recalls a reasoning I read in the book The Art of Possibility by Ben Zander, conductor of the Boston Philharmonic Orchestra. He reminds us all that a conductor plays no instrument, but needs to get every other member of the orchestra to play perfectly on tune and in tempo to make beautiful music.