iMahal Interview Series:
Jim Thompson
June 26, 2000

iMahal:  As a teacher, you have taught emotionally-disturbed children, high-school basketball players, Stanford MBAs, and business executives. Do you think that teaching prepares a person for leadership? Or is it vice versa?
Thompson:  John Gardner who has written the definitive book on the subject (On Leadership), once said to me that the essence of leadership is teaching and selling. If you're not teaching or selling, you're not leading. So the teaching part seems obvious. And selling is an under-valued skill by MBA students. Without being able to sell your ideas, you can have the best idea in the world but it's worthless.

The central part of both teaching and selling is communication--being able to articulate your ideas in a way that reaches the minds and hearts of your listeners. And also, and in some ways even more important, is listening. Listening is a highly undervalued skill. By listening we learn so much and we also communicate to people that we consider them valuable. Sometimes salespersons get the order simply be listening to the customer.

   ... The idea that people lead by example is true but limited. People can so easily misinterpret (or even not notice) an act of leadership that is not "narrated." ...
So I don't think that teaching and leadership can be extracted from each other. The idea that people lead by example is true but limited. People can so easily misinterpret (or even not notice) an act of leadership that is not "narrated." With youth coaches, we ask them to be positive role models AND to narrate what they are doing so that their athletes can understand what's being done. For example, if an official makes a bad call in a game, the coach should refrain from embarrassing the official in public by yelling at him or her. The coach can go to the official in a time-out and ask quietly about the call. And that's the kind of role-modeling that we want coaches to do.

But think how much more powerful the lesson is for young athletes if the coach narrates what he is doing, talking to his players after the game, "I was really upset with that call but I don't want to do anything that is disrespectful to the officials. So as upset as I was, I controlled myself and waited until a time-out to ask him about the call." This is narrated role-modeling and it is much more effective than the same action un-narrated.

iMahal:  As a leader of people, you have worked for the government of Oregon, a marketing department at HP, and the business school at Stanford. That is quite a variety of experiences. How important is this variety to your skills as a leader?
Thompson:  One of the premises of the "case study" method of teaching in business school is that you give MBA students many, many different organizational problems to solve. The students are forced to come up with a course of action and they hear each others' ideas. Then they find out what the person in the case did and what happened. Over a two-year MBA curriculum, a student will thus encounter hundreds of examples of how problems got solved (or didn't).

This then serves as a rich reservoir of examples that the student can draw from when she or he goes out to manage in the real world.

I think the more and broader the experience a leader has the more effective he or she is likely to be. And I think it's so valuable to get outside your own narrow field to see how leaders in different arenas respond to challenges. Tom Peters, the management guru who co-wrote In Search of Excellence, once told me that he spends a lot of time on planes and he intentionally DOESN'T read the latest management books. He takes classic works of fiction with him because he gets a different perspective on life from the creators of fiction that helps him more than adding one additional management treatise, of which he reads so many anyway.

In the leadership class that I helped develop and teach at Stanford, we brought leaders from the arts, sports, community organizing, and the like into the MBA classroom because we felt that the different perspective is so valuable.

So I think the preparation for a leader should include a wide variety of different experiences in many different cultures and situations.

iMahal:  Let's talk about your leadership style. First, let's present a quote by John Gardner, founder of Common Cause: "As a leader, Jim Thompson doesn't mount a white horse and charge into battle with a flourish of trumpets. While other leaders are grooming their white horses and instructing their trumpeteers, he quietly makes things happen. He listens. He delegates. He makes room for initiative, the self-expression, even the ego of others. And the ventures that are under his leadership flourish. I would enlist Jim Thompson as a charter member of my ideal community." That's high praise from a revered leader. But are John Gardner's comments accurate as to how you spend a typical day at work?
Thompson:  Hmmm. I was extremely flattered by John's statement and I have tried to live up to it since he said it. But what do I do on a day-to-day basis? I think I do spend a lot of time listening. The concept of "dynamic followership" is a big one for me. I want all the people in an organization I lead to be both followers and leaders. Here I think vocabulary is very important. The way a leader phrases something can either stifle or encourage critical thinking. For example, I like to say "Here's what I think we should do, but I might be wrong. What do you think?"

It's my responsibility to come up with potential solutions to problems, but it's also everyone else's responsibility. So we try to build an environment in which everyone keeps all of their opinions on probation all the time. It's not that you don't have opinions -- you can't function in life without them. But if we keep them on probation, we are always evaluating them to see if there is a better way of doing things.

A fellow named Jim Hastings once said to me that the greatest joy in life is being part of someone else's success. One of the biggest thrills for me is to see someone in my organization grow and develop and take an idea of theirs and make it happen. So I think I do look on a day-to-day basis to encourage initiative by others.



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