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Big Blue celebrates its one hundredth anniversary this week, quite an accomplishment for any business, even more so one in technology. IBM’s four full pages in “The Wall Street Journal” acknowledged where the company made mistakes, what it learned, and how it tried to create a culture oriented to the long-term.

Out of 25 top United States corporations in 1900, only 2 continued in operation in 1960. Of the top 25 companies in 1961, only 6 still exist today. So IBM’s 100 years is indeed impressive.

What did IBM learn? “Not to confuse charisma with leadership,” “Leadership often requires shedding emotional attachment to (its) heritage,” and “Leaders must show up in defense of the future.” Notice all these points are about leadership. IBM learned and demonstrated that leadership that grows, that looks proactively forward, that acts with integrity reinforces a company’s potential for surviving and thriving.

Leadership is not the end of an organization, but it is most certainly one of the key and essential means to determining the end of the organization. Leaders must be future-oriented or by definition function behind the curve. On behalf of their organizations leaders must stir and stimulate their organizations even to the point of discomfort—that is, if they and others within truly want the organization to improve by competing with itself.

Thomas Watson, Sr and Thomas Watson, Jr set IBM on a path to greatness that faltered. Louis V. Gerstner, Jr rescued and resuscitated IBM, putting it back on track. Gerstner wrote about IBM’s radical self-induced culture change in one of the best leadership books I’ve ever read, Who Said Elephants Can’t Dance? Inside IBM’s Historic Turnaround.

Leadership involves more courage than most people think. It’s easy to slide, to duck, to wink at percolating problems. It takes courage to tackle them head on. IBM has been blessed with more such leaders than most organizations can claim. Consequently, it’s celebrating its one hundredth birthday.


© Rex M. Rogers – All Rights Reserved, 2011

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