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Sinofsky may have led at Microsoft, but that doesn’t make him a leader

THE departure of Microsoft’s Steven Sinofsky, the president of its Windows division, earlier this week has had business and technology circles buzzing. It was unexpected and came on the heels of the release of Windows 8. Throughout the press accounts of the breakup, Sinofsky has consistently been referred to as a “leader.” In fact, The New York Times held up the event and the departure of Apple executive Scott Forstall as examples of the challenge of knowing when to retain “brilliant leaders who cannot seem to get along with others.”

We have a collective tendency to automatically refer to people in senior positions as “leaders” and then be disappointed when they fail to display sufficient leadership.  This is a problem.

At Harvard’s National Preparedness Leadership Initiative, we use a very simple definition of leaders: People follow them. This description omits any reference to rank or role. You don’t become a “leader” simply because you occupy a certain spot in the hierarchy; you earn it from those who follow you.

We help leaders learn to do this through a five-dimensional framework called “metaleadership.” Examining Sinofsky’s tenure through these five dimensions is instructive for understanding why some people become leaders and others don’t.

The first dimension of meta-leadership is the leader’s personal character, which comprises his competence, self-awareness and emotional intelligence. One of the critical elements in Sinofsky’s fall from grace, according to the Times, was that he was “smart but abrasive.” True leaders know they have to moderate their behavior because of the effect it has on others.

The second dimension is the context in which someone leads. Sinofsky seems to have defined his situation rather narrowly: to deliver a technical product that would satisfy customers, on time and on budget. I would suggest that he was tasked with delivering a product that helped Microsoft as an enterprise succeed with its customers. From this perspective, other parts of the organization aren’t Sinofsky’s rivals—they’re critical to his success.

The third dimension of meta-leadership has to do with “leading down” to one’s organizational base. Here, Sinofsky seems to have had a good record as a manager. And, in fact, it would be hard to imagine Sinofsky rising as far as he did without the ability to motivate software development teams.

The fourth dimension is “leading up” to one’s boss. We don’t have many details on Sinofsky’s relationship with Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer, but it certainly seems to have been fraught. In a complex, global corporation like Microsoft, the CEO must have an effective senior team that knows when to surface conflict and when to come together to execute.

The fifth dimension of meta-leadership is leading across to people over whom you have no authority but who are critical to your success.

This is the ability to create unity of effort among one’s peers, suppliers and distributors. True leaders know that success is rarely achieved alone.


Eric McNulty is a senior associate at the National Preparedness Leadership Initiative at Harvard and a senior fellow at the RoseMont Institute for Transformational Leadership. He is the co-author of a forthcoming book on crisis metaleadership.





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