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1947 and All That

The subject of leadership has been studied to death. Entire forests have succumbed to this subject, which inspires volume upon forgettable volume purporting to show its true nature. And to think after all this thinking and writing the conclusions are, well, as inconclusive as ever. Former Coca-Cola president Don Keough has written a gem of …

The subject of leadership has been studied to death. Entire forests have succumbed to this subject, which inspires volume upon forgettable volume purporting to show its true nature. And to think after all this thinking and writing the conclusions are, well, as inconclusive as ever. Former Coca-Cola president Don Keough has written a gem of what I call an anti-leadership book, “The Ten Commandments for Business Failure,”

because it doesn’t pretend to tell you anything more than what happens when events go off the rails. Instead of a how-to, Keough, who has seen his share of failure in his 60-year career, has written a how-not-to book. In it he recalls a sociology professor who had spent his entire academic life studying leadership. He followed the careers of 2,000 students who had gone through his classes. After all his research he concluded that the only way to identify a leader was to look behind him or her and see if anyone is following.

I am reminded of how this relates to this year’s Chief Executive of the Year, Anne Mulcahy, CEO of Xerox (see cover story, page 26). The one thing that kept her going from 2001 to 2004, during the dark time of her company’s turnaround-apart from black coffee-was the fact that the folks in the trenches were solidly behind her. On paper, Mulcahy was perhaps the least-prepared leader to head a turnaround. But then, Joan of Arc didn’t have the benefit of attending West Point or Sandhurst, but managed to restore France‘s King Charles VII to the throne, anyway.

One of Keough’s homilies is the consequence of not taking risks. In fact, he draws on the storied Xerox, known at its 1906 founding as the Haloid Company, as a prime case. Chester Carlson, an obscure inventor from Queens, tried to interest people in “electrophotographic” copying. Twenty companies, including IBM and GE, turned him down. In 1947, Haloid took a great risk and adopted Carlson’s technology. By 1959, the first 914 rolled out of the Rochester, N.Y.-based manufacturing plant in battleship beige; Xerox became a noun and then a verb. It was the iPod of its generation. But by the 1990s, the company had lost its leadership despite the fact that its famed PARC researchers in Palo Alto all but invented the personal computer with graphics icons and something called a mouse.

A proud company built on high innovation had, in Keough’s words, “completely failed to take a risk on new opportunities springing up within its ranks.” Thanks to this year’s CEO of the Year and those who shared her vision, Xerox is still with us, having reinvented itself by rediscovering its true self.

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