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Five Questions: Robert Kaplan on Corporate Leadership

Strong leadership is essential to a company's success, and the best leaders have to be open to learning.

Even Steve Jobs, a brilliant innovator, had to learn how to be a leader, according to Robert Kaplan, professor of management practice at Harvard Business School and author of the new book What to Ask the Person in the Mirror. Kaplan ran Harvard’s then-$36 billion endowment from 2007 to 2008 as interim CEO of Harvard Management Co. He is co-chairman of the Draper Richards Kaplan Foundation, a global venture philanthropy firm; before joining Harvard in 2005, Kaplan was vice chairman of Goldman Sachs Group. He recently spoke with Institutional Investor Contributor Carrie Coolidge about how important a good leader is to creating a competitive organization.

1 You managed Harvard’s endowment during a turbulent time, and you advise several other endowments and state pension funds. What advice do you have for managers dealing with today’s crises?
Endowments must always focus on reviewing and updating their asset allocation decisions. The world is constantly changing, and these funds need to develop a policy portfolio that fits the needs of their institution and recognizes fundamental changes in the world. Investment managers must build a superb team, and they also must address tail risks and make sure they can weather downside scenarios. That’s why management of fund liquidity is a very important part of the job.

2 Is there a leadership crisis in the U.S.?
Leadership is alive and well in this country. Anyone who is willing to figure out what he believes and then have the courage to act on it is a leader. By this definition, you could manage no one and be a leader or manage thousands of people and not be a leader. I think people worry about leadership because they look at Washington and wonder why elected officials can’t seem to work together, compromise and solve our country’s major problems.

3 What lessons can the U.S. learn from China in terms of having one voice during times of crisis?
China is very clear on its vision and key priorities regarding its economy. Of course I prefer our democratic system, but we can learn a lot from China about the importance of the government articulating a clear vision for the country. China is coming from a completely different place than the U.S. They have a much lower GNP per capita. To build their economy, they have consistently emphasized development of infrastructure, corporatization and privatization of government-owned entities, and development of their middle class.

4 Will the death of Steve Jobs have a long-term impact on Apple?
Steve Jobs specifically decided to groom a strong successor; attract, retain and develop critical talent; and establish a world-class leadership training program. One of his greatest legacies will be the superb team and company he left behind, in addition to the superb devices he innovated.

5 Are leaders born, or are they made?
I strongly believe that leadership needs to be learned. Leadership doesn’t come naturally to highly talented people. For example, if you are enormously talented like Steve Jobs, why would you ever delegate? Why build a strong team? Why not do everything yourself? Leaders have to learn to delegate and build a strong team. You have to be open to learning. If you think you have all the answers, you will have a hard time learning to lead. Leaders need to be able to ask questions and seek help.

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