Peter Senge

Managerial Effectiveness and Leadership

By Jenn Director Knudsen
May 16, 2000

Key points:

  • People in managerial positions are not automatically good leaders.
  • Listening skills are essential to effective leadership.
  • If we believe great leaders are born, we’re in trouble.
  • Leadership requires a balance of advocacy and inquiry.

Peter Senge, renowned professor, author and thinker on the topic of leadership, began a recent lecture entitled “Managerial Effectiveness and Leadership” by posing a question to the audience.

“What makes a natural leader?” Senge asked the group of about 100, which consisted of students in the SDM and LFM graduate programs and members of the MIT community. Among the responses: “Passion. Honesty. Durability. Excellent listening skills. Patience. Persistence.”

“Are you surprised at what you’ve heard in the last five minutes?” Senge asked the crowd, to which it responded with a resounding “no.”

Nor was the content of Senge’s talk surprising. But few students, faculty and others filled the lecture hall knowing they would spend 90 minutes prompted by Senge to think deeply about what makes a top leader and how to apply his ideas to their professional and personal lives.

“Every time I hear Peter, he offers practical wisdom that I feel I can use for a lifetime,” said Mike Vander Wel, LFM’s ’01, after the lecture.

Added Sara Metcalf, Vander Wel’s LFM peer: “I was very impressed with how he led the discussion without really seeming to lead it.”

Senge, author of “The Fifth Discipline,” and founder of MIT’s Society for Organizational Learning, guided his audience through a discussion that included redefining the word leader, introducing the concept of the servant leader and exploring what being a good listener really means.

Senge said that in most American companies, employees call their leader “boss” This is frequently a person who, by virtue of his title, is in a position of authority. The word leader has become a synonym for top manager, but I would argue we have no definition for leader at all. None. Zero.”

People in managerial positions are not automatically good leaders, nor should their subordinates necessarily view them as authority figures,” Senge said. “If the name of the game is to please your boss, you’ve lost all perspective on the higher purpose of the enterprise.”

Senge contends that one must distinguish authority from leadership. Rethinking leadership in this way points to the concept of the servant leader – an authority figure who cares first for those under him or her, then for the company they all serve.

According to Senge, without this individual’s ability to listen – and to listen closely and well – to those at all levels, he or she cannot reach the pinnacle of leadership. This combination of learned skills, picked up along the “developmental path” to becoming a good leader, comprise the core of an effective leader’s mentality.

“If we believe great leaders are born we’re in trouble,” Senge said, referring to the well-known, though he claims false, adage: “Good leaders are born, not made.” He also debunked the myth, “Either you got it, or you don’t.”

His message resonated with attendees. Said Nathan Soderborg, an SDM student who began the program last January: “Peter’s concept of servant leadership is not new, but I am glad he is teaching it. I like his idea that leadership requires a balance of advocacy and inquiry,” said Soderborg, who works for Ford Motor Company and had returned to campus for the March SDM Business Trip. “This is something I can use on a very practical level on my job.”

Senge took the opportunity toward the end of his talk to demonstrate his own well-developed listening skills; he asked for students’ experiences in management situations and addressed many of them.

For example, Senge responded to a question regarding individuals who seem like quality leaders in a one-on-one situation, but who are ineffective in a group.

Senge believes this type of person needs to recognize that his group-leadership skills are weak. This manager’s first step toward bettering himself, and therefore the morale of the group, would be to practice being an active listener.

“To develop the ability to listen, you have to do two things. First, hear. Second, quiet your mind,” Senge said to the audience.

“You won’t hear much of that in the Sloan School,” he quipped, adding, “But if you can’t quiet your mind, you won’t be a good listener. Next time you have a conversation notice if you’re listening.”

That lesson was key to Cory Welch, previously a U.S. Naval Officer now in LFM’s class of 2001.

“That’s a big weakness of mine. I know it’s important, but it’s hard to overcome that,” Welch said, referring to concentrating more on his own thoughts than on those of others when in conversation with friends or business associates.

Senge himself said that the purpose of his talk was not to introduce new material. Rather, he intended to inspire his audience of future top-level executives (not just manufacturing – remember there are SDM students and members of the general MTI community in the audience too.)to think profoundly about all that it takes to develop into a compassionate, respected and effective leader.

“Senge’s goal is very much aligned with that of the LFM and SDM programs,” said Donald Rosenfield, Director of the LFM Fellows Program.

“Today’s managers need to understand technical issues and assert the leadership necessary to address them while implanting organizational change.” Rosenfield said. “Talks like Peter’s help students understand the multifaceted approach necessary to do this well.