At the recent Forbes Global CEO Conference in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, my colleague Tim Ferguson, editor of Forbes Asia, led a panel on leadership. What struck me–and not for the first time–is the variety of leadership styles that work. And work really well. There is no single leadership secret; there are many. They are hiding in plain sight, and we can learn from them.
One of the panelists was Helmut Panke, former chairman of German automaker BMW. As auto executives go, Panke was a late bloomer, not even entering the auto business until his mid-30s. He was a nuclear scientist and university lecturer. He came to BMW as head of planning and control in 1982. As head of strategy during the 1990s Panke retooled BMW’s brand from yuppie toy to performance luxury car the equal of rival Mercedes-Benz. Panke rose to become chairman of BMW’s management board in 2002 and there fulfilled his goal of BMW’s becoming the biggest seller of luxury automobiles, overtaking Mercedes.
Panke says leadership is chiefly about vision. During his BMW tenure vision and brand became one and the same. While serving as BMW chairman, Panke was fond of saying such things as: “Every model we make has to earn the right to wear the BMW badge.” Another Pankeism: “I want to be able to blindfold a person, set him down in a BMW and have him know it’s a BMW by the feel of it.” (If you could hear Panke’s German accent, the statements would sound even more forceful.)
Apple ( AAPL – news – people )’s Steve Jobs and Whole Foods ( WFMI – news – people )’ John Mackey are examples of visionary business leaders today. For them, vision, product integrity and brand will always be one and the same.
Another leadership style is that driven by empathy. Admiral Bill Owens is an example of this. Owens, an Annapolis graduate, was a nuclear submariner from the 1960s through the 1980s. He served in Vietnam and later as commanding officer of the U.S.S. Sam Houston and the U.S.S. City of Corpus Christi. During Operation Desert Storm in 1990-91 Owens served as commander of the U.S. Sixth Fleet. In 1994 he was appointed vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, serving under Chairman John Shalikashvili.
Owens retired from the military in 1996 and now lends his leadership lessons to several corporate boards, including Indian software services giant Wipro ( WIT – news – people ) and recently Daimler AG. (Full disclosure: I am a longtime friend of Owens’. We hail from the same town–Bismarck, N.D.–and currently sit on the boards of two private companies together.)
Owens told conference attendees that the top-performing sub commanders had “soul” and showed empathy for the sailors under their command. The very best sub commander Owens ever saw in the Navy was an officer who once spent an entire night consoling a homesick new enlistee.
Corporate America is replete with great empathetic leaders. Bill Hewlett, cofounder of Hewlett-Packard ( HPQ – news – people ), was a legendary one. He liked to roll up his sleeves and inspire engineers by walking the floors and listening to their concerns. Empathetic leadership under founder Herb Kelleher and current CEO Gary Kelly is the reason that Southwest Airlines ( LUV – news – people ) even today has some of the happiest flight attendants in the skies.
A third style of leadership is that demonstrated by Wal-Mart ( WMT – news – people ) Chairman S. Robson Walton. At the conference Walton was interviewed onstage by Steve Forbes. Walton said it is the job of leaders to “listen to customers, listen to customers, listen to customers” and thereby establish a service spirit for the whole company. Walton took over his father Sam’s empire in 1992, when Wal-Mart was doing $55 billion in annual revenue, almost all of it in the U.S. Today Wal-Mart is a global giant, with sales of more than $400 billion.
Rob Walton’s secret is that he does not pretend to be Sam Walton, who founded Wal-Mart in 1962. Sam was an archetypal entrepreneur. Rob chooses to be the humble-servant leader. Under Rob Walton’s leadership his company has listened well–even to its many critics–and prospered.
An insistence on companywide ethical behavior–i.e., every employee practicing the Golden Rule in all company dealings–can be a powerful form of leadership. But it is also a fragile form, subject to human frailty. One mistake and a moral/ethical leader can easily look like a hypocrite.
If that’s too much pressure for you, consider Francis Yeoh, head of Malaysia’s YTL Corp., which builds utility plants, high-speed rail service and hotels. An advocate of moral leadership, Yeoh is also an outspoken Christian in a Muslim-majority country. In other words, Yeoh and his company have no room for ethical lapses. Yet Yeoh says the moral way is the only way to go. YTL’s compound annual growth rate of 55% over the last 15 years (in pretax profits) is proof that the higher bar of moral/ethical leadership can pay off.
There are many more leadership styles beyond these four. If there’s any secret to leadership, it is “fit.” Leadership style must fit the leader, and it must fit the organization.