Leadership Challenges in a Management World


By Thomas S. Momiyama, SEF ‘1981

I read one of the most refreshing, astute, and relevant reflections on the modern view of leadership by Christopher H. Johnson, a retired U.S. Navy captain recently in the  Naval War College Review. Johnson observed that the United States “does not understand the meaning of the word” leadership and instead “embraces management as the new ideal.”

Johnson differentiated leadership and management in terms of innovation versus skill in the conduct of business. His basic notion is: “Management is the science of creating and controlling an organization with tried-and-true methodologies for organized pursuit of everyday achievement and success,” while “leadership looks beyond every day for igniting an organization to achieve something new. (emphasis added)” He argued that from time to time change is necessary from the management-driven approach. He adds that leadership has been a unique hallmark of American culture that has challenged and bypassed conventional thinking.

I agree with Johnson’s disciplined use of the word leadership for extraordinary innovation, particularly in the current hype of management efficiency and strategy.

Leadership is an intrinsic, creative and intellectually unyielding character of an individual, not an assigned or designated organizational position in management. Leadership is born—if not biologically inherited—or instilled and nurtured within an individual, with one’s own conscious or subconscious intention. Daniel Goleman, in an article in this summer’s Harvard Business Review, calls this self-awaking process: “emotional intelligence” and “the sine qua non of leadership.”

Leadership is unique to individuals. Life’s experiences—cultural heritage, family upbringing, education, people met, and occasions encountered—shape one’s own leadership and life-long growth of that leadership. Residing within the naturally unique personality of every individual, one’s leadership is a deeper-rooted essence of creativity and the will to effectuate it when one faces a task in common or conjunction with others. This call to work with others immediately puts a mandate on the leadership of an individual to extend that self-awareness to include an awareness of the leadership of others. That is not necessarily to agree with or yield to others’ respective innovative ideas but to understand, respect, and cooperate with them. Mutual respect and cooperation would enhance the success of all the leaderships met on common ground. That is why one needs to strive to instill within oneself one of the most important qualities of leadership character: humility—accompanied by sound self-confidence.

Leadership cannot be taught en masse for planned or structured purposes—as pursued in the prevalent management training courses to “mass produce” skilled leaders. “Master’s degree” in vernacular might forecast a capable leader but not necessarily warrant a leadership that will “ignite” (Johnson’s word) or innovate, a new approach for the organization. Since the effect of leadership is in a “new” approach, leadership may be detected or seen only when or after the leadership is exercised in ideas or manifested in real life. It would likely even have to take a leader with an accomplished leadership of his/her own to foresee or predict a new leadership in development. This then would extend to a need and possibility by the able leadership at higher level to support, most importantly, and to encourage the growth of leadership of able subordinates.

The word “leadership” is colloquially used to denote those in management and control hierarchy of an organization. This generic identification causes those in the chain of command below to obligingly yield to directions, guidance or “demands” of those leaders. It matters not whether the particular leaders possess or practice deserving levels of their own intrinsic leadership in steering the organization toward innovation. The practice sometimes causes emotional murmur of criticizing the apparently lacking leadership of the hierarchical “leaderships.”

The modern leaders have had to develop means for inculcating better interfaces among various levels of individual leaderships. Group dynamics is a key in this effort. An example—and a successful one—has been to regard an organization a “community” of committed individuals, or even a “culture” of equally motivated minds, to own up to.

Disconnects of leaderships in the chain of command do happen, sometimes at history-changing levels of strategic policy. A revealing story of the clash of leaderships at high command ranks of the Imperial Japanese Navy leading up to the Pearl Harbor attack. As Angelo N. Caravaggio described in his recent article entitled “Winning’ the Pacific War” in theNaval War College Review, Pearl Harbor is a case study in conflicting leadership. Caravaggio described that Commander in chief of the Combined Fleet Isoroku Yamamoto was ordered against his better leadership judgment to wage war against the United States. He “innovated” a preemptive attack on Pearl Harbor—for a wishful possible U.S. compromise on the destined major war. Yamamoto’s equally innovative aid, Commander Minoru Genda (whose leadership eventually led him to head the post-war Japanese Self-Defense Force) expanded Yamamoto’s master plan to add  the then-unimaginable invasion of Hawaii by the Japanese ground forces. But the Yamamoto-Genda plans were thrashed by the conservative Naval General Staff-backed Vice Admiral Nagumo who was, in Caravaggio’s words “unprepared to go beyond his doctrine and comfort zone to make the conceptual leap that Genda’s plan envisioned.” The Pacific war might have seen a different history, even if the final outcome of the war may not have changed.

The skill and leadership of the heads of nations have never been challenged as much as in the current exasperating world-wide stand-offs. With the nation retaining its status as leader of the free world, the current crises around the world critically challenge the leaderships of all in the government, military services and business concerns across the board.

To confront these challenges, we may need the wisely cogitated cultivation of a culture of leadership within the gathered professionals. Instead of the “embracement of management as the new ideal” (a la Johnson), leadership can develop the innovation and ignition to creatively address pressing global problems. Rather than a focus on hierarchal structures and formal authority, leadership—even if it cannot be formally structured—may hold the hopes to our solving current global challenges.

Thomas S. Momiyama is a retired Navy Department SES (Senior Executive Service), last serving as Naval Air Systems Command’s Director of Aircraft Science & Technology Programs to complete the 38 years of Civil Service career. His graduate studies were in psychology and political science, and he is an alum of Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government Senior Executive Fellows (SEF) Program. He currently provides independent advisory work on Technology and Policy to Services and aviation community. 

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *