Video Transcript

00:09 Robert Kaplan: Good to be here. Let me give you a little... I'll give you a little background, which may give you a little context for what I'm about to talk about. So, as Eric mentioned, I was at Goldman Sachs... I'm from Kansas, by the way. I don't know if there is anybody here from Kansas City.

00:23 Audience Member: Woo!

00:24 Kaplan: Go, Jayhawks! Okay. So, I went to the University of Kansas. I went to Harvard Business School. And then I went to that beloved firm, Goldman Sachs in the early 80s, and I was there for 22 years. And so, I ran many businesses including Asia-Pacific, Corporate Finance, and then I ran Investment Banking Globally, and then Investment Banking and Investment Management. And I took a leave of absence in the fall of 2005 to teach leadership at Harvard Business School. And that's what I teach today.

00:53 Kaplan: And I had left my office at the firm, thought I'd be gone for three months, but I realized, after I got extricated myself from the firm for three months, that there was a big, broad world out there, and as exciting as investment banking might have been, and it was great for 22 years, there were many other strategic leadership issues and different types of businesses and business problems that I wanted to be involved in, as well as non-profit leadership.

01:22 Kaplan: And so, I decided, if there was ever a time to leave, it was then. And so, I left in the beginning of 2006, and I've been teaching at Harvard Business School ever since. First as an instructor, and then I got a permanent appointment to be a Professor of Management Practice. And in the middle of all that, during the economic crisis, the University endowment had its problems. So, I got sucked back into the financial world for what was supposed to be three months, and I wound up living at Harvard endowment for a year-and-a-half sorting through all their issues. And then I joined the Board of it. Pulled myself back out.

02:01 Kaplan: But just to give you an idea, I teach MBAs. So, I teach Leadership, Leadership and Corporate Accountability, but I teach about a thousand owner-presidents, entrepreneurs every year. We have... Every two months, we have a class of 180 owner-presidents that come to Harvard Business School. And for me, it's the only executive class I make sure to teach every one of. Because the problems, as you all know, that entrepreneurs face are unique and, in particular, I've learned that... And I know this from experience, an entrepreneur and the person leading the business, it can be a very lonely job where you feel like you've got the weight of the world on your shoulders.

02:46 Kaplan: So, I actually wrote an article about three years ago called, "What to Ask the Person in the Mirror?" And I've written a book now that came out last year called "What to Ask the Person in the Mirror?" And what I'm gonna do in this discussion is I'm gonna talk for the next 20, 25 minutes, that's it, and then we're gonna leave at least some time for questions.

03:07 Kaplan: But here's the premise of this book, and basically, my philosophy for the last 20, 25 years. Leadership, unfortunately, is a very confusing thing to people and that if I did a survey in this room, we all use the term leadership, we throw it around, left, right, all know what that is, right? No. I've learned. Actually, if we did a survey in this room and asked each of you to define what leadership is, we'd get 150 different definitions. Yet, we're all supposed to be leaders. How is it possible that if we're all supposed to be leaders, we actually don't know what it is. Our conception is different. Where do we get our conception? From role models, the movies maybe, John Wayne. Who knows? President of the United States is another conception. And so, I've realized over the last 25 years, there's enormous confusion about what a leader is supposed to do. And here's the most important thing I have learned.

04:09 Kaplan: Leadership, particularly for you, is not about having all the answers. Many people think leadership is about, "I need to have the answer." We had a President of the United States who said, "I'm the decider." Remember that? "I'm gonna have the answers." The fact of the matter is, leadership is sometimes about having the answers. But more importantly, what makes the difference between good leaders and great leaders is being willing to ask a question.

04:40 Kaplan: And when you work on it, you realize, asking the right questions is actually a very difficult thing to do. But what it does, what leadership, if you ask the right questions, what it does is allow you to engage others and figure out how to step back, re-assess, and then move forward. And many leaders are loathe to do that. Now, a lot of people say to me, and when I first talked to my friends in New York City and told them I was teaching at Harvard Business School, they asked me what I was teaching, and I said, "I'm teaching leadership." And they would sort of politely say, "I don't think you can teach that." Or "What a shame, I don't see how you can teach that."

05:27 Kaplan: And what I've learned is, not only can leadership be learned and taught, but more than that, I would argue I have not yet met a successful leader who didn't have to learn. And the more talented you are, and the smarter you are, and the more gifted you are, I have learned the more trouble you're going to have. Why would you ever delegate to someone else? Why would you ever do that if you're the smartest person in the room? Why would you ever do that?

06:01 Kaplan: And so, a lot of the things that you need to learn as a leader, asking questions, seeking advice, framing issues do not come naturally to highly talented people. And so, I 've spent my entire career, and I spend a great portion of my time with entrepreneurs trying to get them to stop and jarring them a little bit. And I'm not trying to help them get the answer, but I am trying to help them reorient their approach and think about how to ask the two, or three, or four key questions. And I've learned that if they'd step back and ask the right questions, they're very likely to get themselves back on track.

Published on: Aug 30, 2012