Zeitgeist Leadership

Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts, United States
Harvard business review (Impact Factor: 1.27). 11/2005; 83(10):45-60, 156.
Source: PubMed


Companies and leaders don't succeed or fail in a vacuum. When it comes to longterm success, the ability to understand and adapt to changing business conditions is at least as important as any particular personality trait or competency. A clear picture of how powerful the zeitgeist can be emerges from the authors' comprehensive study of the way the business landscape in the United States evolved, decade by decade, throughout the twentieth century. Six contextual factors in particular, they found, most affected the prospects for business: the level of government intervention in business, global events, demographics, shifts in social mores, developments in technology, and the strength or weakness of the labor movement. A lack of contextual sensitivity can trip up even the most brilliant executive. No less a luminary than Alfred P. Sloan was relieved of GM's day-to-day management in the 1930s because he was unwilling to meet with the new UAW. Conversely, an understanding of the zeitgeist can play a crucial but unheralded role in business performance. Jack Welch is widely credited with GE's remarkable success during the 1980s and 1990s, for example, but far less attention has been paid to his predecessor, the statesmanlike and prudent Reginald Jones, who sustained strong revenue and profit growth during the heavily regulated stagflation of the 1970s. To better understand this connection between business performance and context, the authors studied 1,000 great U.S. business leaders of the twentieth century and identified three distinct archetypes: Entrepreneurs, often ahead of their time, overcame dire challenges to build something new. Managers excelled at reading and exploiting the existing zeitgeist to grow their businesses. Leaders defied context to identify latent potential in businesses others considered mature, stagnant, or in decline. In every decade, all three archetypes were vital. It is the ongoing regeneration of this pattern in the business life cycle that ultimately sustains development and progress.

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