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Inspiring others through resonant leadership

Richard Boyatzis and Annie McKee examine one leader’s practice of what they call resonant leadership, an ability – among many others ...

By Richard Boyatzis and Annie McKee . 01 June 2006

Richard Boyatzis and Annie McKee examine one leader’s practice of what they call resonant leadership, an ability – among many others – to inspire people, in this case, even in the face of adversity.
Inspiring others through resonant leadershipFor those bold enough to lead in this age of uncertainty, the challenges are immense indeed. Our world is a new world, and it requires a new kind of leadership. Across the globe, just look at what leaders are up against: a world that is more unstable, more dangerous than it was even a few years ago. Social systems in place for ages no longer meet the needs of families, communities or nations. The changes baffle our sense of reason and ignite panic and anger, as well as impulsive, ineffective responses. Indeed, we have seen that global conflicts now touch us personally, striking fear in our hearts even as we go about our daily routines.

Let’s look at one leader who consistently meets today’s challenges. He saved hundreds of people from injury facing the fury of Hurricane Katrina, the worst natural disaster in the history of the US, as well as saving thousands of jobs for displaced people. Who would think this kind of courageous leadership would come from a university president? Whether cheering his basketball team toward a Division One title or walking in the student union, Scott Cowen exudes enthusiasm. His path to being the inspirational president of Tulane University was the football field, covert operations as a US Army infantry officer, a doctorate, and then, becoming an accounting professor and dean at Case Western Reserve University.

Scott revealed a talent for motivating leaders to emerge from the ranks of research professors at the Weatherhead School of Management at Case. He spent hours talking to executives about their future challenges. Then, he looked for people studying topics that held promise for these coming needs. He searched in doctoral programmes, research institutes, and consulting companies.

Once found, he enticed these far-sighted individuals to join the faculty by talking about possible research discoveries and programmes. He wanted to understand their passion for their work and let them know others would share their enthusiasm at Case. Meanwhile, Scott encouraged existing faculty to create concepts for research centres and development programmes. He listened for insight and fed excitement about innovations. What followed was not a sink-or-swim approach; he asked people to develop the concepts with colleagues in ever-increasing circles of dialogue and debate. While Scott guided them through the minefields of academic politics, they took the visible lead.

In a little over eight years, Scott Cowen inspired more than 15 faculty members (who were 20 per cent of the faculty at the time) to become leaders of programmes that created new markets for the school. They served regional economic development and generated top-ranked programmes. Some faculty rejuvenated existing programmes and departments to become ranked in the top twenty nationally, like the undergraduate programme and Executive MBA. Others ignited departments, garnering distinctive international recognition.

The magic started in Scott’s early conversations with faculty and faculty candidates. Scott questioned them and pulled their ideas, then shared his excitement about the possibilities. The feelings and thoughts aroused by Scott were a powerful force inspiring change. These conversations often stimulated individual creativity and renewal – stirring new ideas in the faculty and a feeling that evolving innovation was alive in the school.

Scott’s excellent leadership continues. Today, in the midst of recovering from the horrors of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, he has the unique reputation of having moved everyone out of Tulane University and transferred to safety at least twelve hours before the hurricane struck. Five months later, Tulane opened its doors to 90 per cent of the former undergraduates. Although it sustained several hundred million dollars in damage, Scott used the time from October to January to inspire hope among the faculty and staff and compassion with their neighbours in the communities of New Orleans. Scott Cowen is a resonant leader.


Sustaining resonant leadership


The men and women we call resonant leaders are stepping up, charting paths through unfamiliar territory, and inspiring people in their organisations, institutions, and communities. They are finding new opportunities within today’s challenges, creating hope in the face of fear and despair. These leaders are moving people – powerfully, passionately, and purposefully. And they do so while managing the inevitable sacrifices inherent in their roles. They give of themselves, in the service of the cause, while also caring for themselves, engaging in renewal, to ensure they can sustain resonance over time. These resonant leaders are inspiring their organisations and communities to reach for dreams that even a few years ago were impossible.

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