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The Wharton Center for Leadership and Change Management
The Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania
3730 Walnut Street, Suite G47
Philadelphia, PA  19104

A Recap

2012 Wharton Leadership Conference: Leading in a World of Conflict

By Kristi Ringen

On June 20, an audience of some 300 attended the 16th Wharton Leadership Conference in Philadelphia to learn more about the leadership capabilities essential for success in a world of intensifying conflicts.  Amid news reports of political divide in the US, sovereign debt in Greece and government upheavals in Egypt, Conference attendees looked to an author, an award-winning professor, a NASA astronaut, and accomplished leaders from both the corporate and civic sector, for their views on the topic.  A key lesson:  Conflict, if managed correctly, can actually be a benefit to a business’ long-term success.

Adam Bryant: Conflict builds battle-hardened confidence.
For his New York Times column “The Corner Office,” Adam Bryant has spent the last three years interviewing CEOs as leaders rather than strategists.  In doing so, he identified a set of factors that he believes help move people toward the corner office:  passion and curiosity, a willingness to take chances, team smarts, the ability to distill data into what really matters, and battle hardened confidence. 

Bryant defined battle hardened confidence as “experience in facing adversity so you know what you can handle,” and highlighted its long-term benefits.  “A lot of CEOs have been through those horrible times where it is as bad as you can ever imagine,” said Bryant. “They came through it stronger because they learned so much about themselves.”

Honorable Dr. Joseph W. Westphal:  Conflict builds simple, integrated, and open processes for the future.
Dr. Westphal characterized the US Army, for which he serves as Under Secretary, in business terms: a holding company of the Department of Defense and the equivalent of the fifth largest Fortune 500 enterprise of the United States.  Westphal noted that the Army, like all corporations, is challenged by the current fiscal, regulatory, political and global environment.

He described how he has helped build confidence and sustainable success for his organization.  He compared and contrasted two processes – one very complex where employees only understood their own small part, and a far more simplified version that he developed to focus on the Army's overarching goals of planning, programming, budgeting and executing.  “Confidence comes from open and integrated processes,” said Westphal.  “By integrating our business functions we will, I believe, attain greater readiness at less cost over time.”  

John Luke: Conflict hones leadership skills and develops a leader’s capacity.
John Luke, chairman and CEO of MeadWestvaco (MWV), believes leadership and conflict are fundamentally inseparable.  He came to this belief in the late 1990s when he transformed MWV from a large printing paper business to a leader in the global packaging market.  Luke cited the following actions as fundamental for good leadership:  confront reality and determining how to address it; deal with conflicts that exist outside of the organization; and recognize that volatility is a way of life since some form of external challenge will always exist, or be on the horizon. 

“At the core of good leadership is the capacity to think and act in a way that continually integrates internal and external environments,” said Luke.  “Conflict hones these skills and develops a leader’s capacity. It does this by sharpening their capacity to think critically and strategically, to anticipate risk. It helps leaders recognize and understand the implication of actions on a team or organization.”    

William Pelster:  A leap of faith during times of conflict can lead to long term success.
William Pelster, managing principal of Talent Development for Deloitte, described his firm’s journey to build Deloitte University, a $300-million facility.   The new university now annually delivers a million hours of training focused on leadership, the development of high-potential employees, and creation of a future succession pool. 

Pelster recalled a meeting in 2008 when Deloitte partners voted on whether to build Deloitte University during the financial crisis.  “In the middle of that downturn, the partners looked beyond their short-term paycheck and stood behind" the university plan, said Pelster.” “Leadership training is a little bit of a leap of faith, and if you look at it as a cost, you will never get there.  You need to look at it as opportunity to create value for the long term.”

Jeff Ashby and John Kanengieter:  Success during times of conflict requires active followers.
Astronaut Jeff Ashby and mountain climber John Kanengieter described their separate but successful ventures at leveraging the strengths of active followers, those who “support leadership during times of uncertainty and conflicting options."  Ashby docked a space shuttle with the international space station while both were traveling 18,000 miles per hour -- despite grave technical difficulties -- because he empowered his crew to help complete the $500M mission manually when an automatic guidance system failed.  

During a climb of India’s Panwali Dwar, Kanengieter served as an active follower and advised his team leader to abort an 18,000-foot climb when Kanengieter came to appreciate an avalanche threat that his leader could not see.   

Both speakers emphasized building active followers, and for that clarity of mission, mutual trust and intense communication were vital.   Read more.

Adam Grant: During times of conflict, leaders may want to consider the benefits of quiet leadership.
Wharton Professor Adam Grant presented data on extroversion among business leaders and its impact on their leadership.  Grant and his colleagues found that most American business leaders are extroverts, but that they prove more successful when they actively partner with good followers, especially in difficult times.  “The more unpredictable and uncertain the economy is, the more we need proactive people in our organizations," found Grant, yet there are times when extroverts are also wise to lead in a more introverted manner.  That could include giving a significant fraction of their time to doing the work of employees, and making a commitment to listen to subordinates as much as talking to them. 

Jane Hertzmark Hudis:  Some conflict can be controlled.  
Jane Hertzmark Hudis, Global Brand President for Estée Lauder cosmetics, was challenged with breathing new life into one of the world’s most recognized brands during a time of change and challenge in the company. The family-run business had recently hired a new CEO from the outside; the brand's image had lost some of its luster; and the line’s growth had slowed.  Hudis agreed to accept the challenge with one request of William Lauder, the executive chair, who had asked her to take on the challenge: “Treat us like a winner and we will be a winner.”

Today, Estée Lauder is one of the largest, fastest growing brands within the industry.  Hudis credits the success to leadership lessons she learned along the way, including the importance of listening, knowing your vision, building a strong team, engaging and partnering with the entire team, building relationships that last, and remembering that even the best strategies are not meant to last a lifetime.

Steve Girsky:  Conflict can lead the way to improvement.
Steve Girsky, vice chairman of General Motors, credits the following factors for the successful turnaround of the automotive giant: a strong board of directors willing to challenge the status quo, a new management team, and greater diversity in the ways in which the company earns money.  Girsky stressed several principles in leading GM's comeback from bankruptcy: 1) focus on and understand customers and the competitors; 2) look for opportunities to partner; 3) do not micromanage; and 4) start with the facts and recognize that new ways of doing business are required. “These changes may be painful but they are better than continuing to lose money or compromising the fate of the enterprise," said Girsky.

To read an interview with Mr. Girsky conducted by Wharton Professor John Paul MacDuffie at the time of the Leadership Conference, click here.