Kellogg World Alumni Magazine, Winter 2002Kellogg School of Management
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  Prof. Robert Neuschel
Prof. Robert Neuschel circa WWII
“Serve your troops first”
The best leaders share power, insists Kellogg expert

Robert Neuschel, Kellogg School professor of corporate governance and associate dean for advisory board relations, credits the U.S. military with his foremost leadership lesson: sharing power is essential for success in any endeavor.

Neuschel, who served the United States in World War II, seeing action in both the New Guinea and Philippine campaigns in the Southwest Pacific, recalls how different companies regularly would become separated in combat.

“As they get separated, the thing that’s interesting is the lieutenant and the captain, running the company out there alone, can function because they’ve each been taught to lead,” he says. “This is what I call ‘unleashing the power of your people down the line.’”

From ancient warriors to early captains of industry, leaders have struggled with the issue of how much power to share with others — and how to share it gracefully, Neuschel says.

More than 60 years later, he still remembers the words of a wise general who told a group of newly commissioned officers — including Neuschel — to “serve your troops first so that you can then lead them better.”

It’s a message the longtime leadership theorist still emphasizes to his students today.

In the late-1940s, when Neuschel entered the business world after the war, firms tended to be smaller and have less complicated organizational structures. Companies also were more likely to have one person running the show.

Throughout a 30-year career as a management consultant at McKinsey & Co., during which time he worked with 65 Fortune 500 companies, Neuschel saw more firms adopt a shared power structure.

“Back in the early days, the leader of an organization tended to be all-powerful and made many of the decisions,” Neuschel says. “What has happened now is what I call ‘the democratization of society.’ People want to rise up — they want to grow, develop and advance. Our society is better educated and people down the ranks know more, have more ideas on how things should operate.”

As a consequence, Neuschel says that the model of leadership has changed from one where power is consolidated among a few senior executives who tend to dominate the organization to one where responsibility and authority are distributed among many people in the firm.

But sharing the power — an idea Neuschel develops in his 1998 book The Servant Leader: Unleashing the Power of Your People — is about more than delegating tough decisions to subordinates.

So-called servant leaders need to be tender — and tough. They need to have big-picture vision, but must also be capable of slogging through gritty details to implement their plan.

Instead of making leadership simpler, sharing decision-making power makes it more complex, Neuschel explains.

“When more people share leadership around the organization, the important task is knitting it all together to make it cohesive,” he says. “There’s got to be an overall strategy laid out.”

— Kari Richardson

©2002 Kellogg School of Management, Northwestern University