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Great leaders need an “attitude of wisdom, a healthy balance between confidence in what you know and distrust in what you know,” IDEO General Manager Tom Kelley said upon accepting the 2009 Kellogg Award for Distinguished Leadership.

Tom Kelley

A force for innovation

IDEO General Manager Tom Kelley receives the Kellogg Award for Distinguished Leadership

By Ed Finkel

5/26/2009 - Tom Kelley says he’s learned from hundreds of chief executive officers — and leaders of all stripes.
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  Tom Kelley, IDEO General Manager
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 “Unless you are asleep at the wheel, you learn from them,” said Kelley, the general manager of IDEO, a Palo Alto, Calif.-based innovation and design firm. “Second-year students, the educational phase of your career is not over.”

Kelley spoke May 19 in the Kellogg School’s Owen L. Coon Forum, where he received the 2009 Kellogg Award for Distinguished Leadership — and honor that, in previous years, has gone to Warren Buffett, Sam Zell and Fred Smith. “I wasn’t positive you had the right leader,” Kelley joked upon accepting it.

Kelley has led IDEO’s business development, marketing, human resources and operations as the firm has grown to more than 550 employees around the world. The company is responsible for Crest’s Neat Squeeze, Tivo’s set-top box and remote control, and Bank of America’s “Keep the Change” program. It has been named fifth on Fast Company magazine’s list of “The World’s 50 Most Innovative Companies.” Kelley is also the author of the The Art of Innovation and The Ten Faces of Innovation, both of which promote a workplace culture of continuous innovation and renewal.

Kellogg Dean Dipak C. Jain said Kelley was chosen on the basis of his commitment to collaboration at IDEO, as well as for his advocacy of innovation in the business environment. Jain said the school tries to think out of the box in choosing recipients for the award, which was established in 2002 to honor leaders whose values are consistent with Kellogg’s ideals. The recipients aren’t always the best-known leaders of large corporations, Jain notes. “I always say, ‘Those are the usual suspects,’” Jain says. “Let’s acknowledge somebody who has really made a difference.”

As he accepted his award, Kelley cited examples of other top leaders who have inspired him. Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf, who led Operation Desert Storm in 1991, is “Mr. Take Charge,” Kelley said. “His definition of leadership is that great leaders have the capacity to do, willingly, things they would otherwise not have the courage or inclination to do. That’s one definition.”

Legendary film director Francis Ford Coppola, meanwhile, is someone who pursues his passion. According to Coppola, when one is leading creative people, “You don’t tell them what to do. You invite them to the party,” Kelley said.

But the “model of 21st century leadership” in Kelley’s eyes is Procter & Gamble CEO and board chairman A.G. Lafley. “He took a company that was already pretty good and made it great,” Kelley said. “He was willing to change the rules.”

Even so, Lafley actively seeks out “reverse mentors” — younger people who are more on the cutting edge of culture and society — when it comes to topics such as blogging and biotechnology, Kelley said.

“Not all trends start with balding, 50-year-old white males,” Kelley said. “It’s not all about pop culture…. Even somebody at that senior a level has things to learn.”

Great leaders need an “attitude of wisdom, a healthy balance between confidence in what you know and distrust in what you know,” Kelley concluded. “If you’re a leader, you want people to be constantly proposing things to you.”