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The art of leadership: many people who run large corporations could take a lesson from the flexible, collaborative way a surgeon directs an operating room.

It was 6:30 on a dark and stormy morning. I was on a gurney outside a pristine operating room at Winthrop University Medical Center on Long Island, where a surgeon was about to replace a defective aortic valve.

A dozen or more people whizzed by, stopping to ask if I was comfortable and needed anything. The only thing I could think of was a getaway car. One resident, who didn't look like he was old enough to drive, told me how excited he was to be part of a team doing this procedure. It was his first time, and he heard that the attending surgeon "has really great hands." I was just hoping that the guy who was about to crack my chest and juggle one of my favorite organs had a good night's sleep.


I remember looking around the room at about $2 million worth of equipment and hoping everyone knew the tools and when to use them. Finally, I caught a glimpse of the surgeon whose operating room demeanor was the equivalent of any Fortune 500 CEO's. The last thing I expected that morning were lessons on leadership in action. But there's much to be learned from such a challenging and unpredictable environment--a place where adaptability to new situations is crucial.

In many ways, the operating theater is a microcosm of corporate America--as complex as any business on the planet--but without Wal-Mart. The surgeon/CEO is the dominant figure and ultimately responsible for results. This is not someone who is there simply to bark orders, but someone who must remain in control while relying heavily on the input and expertise of others in the organization.

Of course, leadership in any business is a lot easier during good times. It's when things start to sour that true leaders emerge. However, the question is whether one type of leadership is better than another, or do you simply adapt to the situation at hand? In the supermarket industry, and elsewhere, there seems to be a constant shift in attitudes about leadership, depending on last quarter's results or who's opening up down the road.

Sometimes collaborative management is in vogue, and the old command and control style is vilified as archaic and unproductive. On the other hand, centralized micromanagement can also be the flavor of the month, especially for a company in trouble whose board finds it necessary to appoint a knight in shining armor. The problem is that a knight usually works alone or with a squire who's pretty much there to hold his coat.

Along these lines, the operating room is very much a boardroom or executive office where the surgeon/CEO is the knight--a star performer and, by necessity, a benevolent despot. His word is final, his authority unquestioned. He resides at the center of an ivory tower where his reign is supreme; you'd think it was the essence of command and control.

However, he is also there to guide the group, and his ability to adapt depends not only on his own skill but also upon that of the people around him. Interestingly, these people may not have worked together before, but are challenged to hit the ground running and to instinctively know what the boss of the room needs before he asks. As such, one of the surgeon/CEO's key skills is his ability to bring new team members up to speed quickly, while maintaining the integrity of the operation.

Rather than traditional command and control, the operating room represents a tight organizational unit. There's no question about who leads it, and a pecking order is evident. But there is what Professor Katherine Klein at Wharton calls a complex adaptive system, in which individual team members act as departments within an organization. And each of them is also responsible for providing guidance to other team members. There exists a leadership system which has both a rigid hierarchy and a "dynamic fluidity," with team members who are flexible and leaders who delegate authority to create learning experiences. Rhetoric aside, is this the kind of supportive environment that exists in most companies today? Are enough leaders within the supermarket industry being coaches, teachers and mentors, fostering long-term relationships with their teams? It would seem this is more the exception than the norm.

Assumedly, this is being discussed more often at the nation's business schools than in the industry at large. But leadership that emphasizes flexibility over rigidity and collaboration over absolute control is the key to success not only in an operating room and a trauma unit but also in a global business environment.

Len Lewis, a regular Grocery Headquarters columnist, is a veteran industry journalist and commentator, and editorial director of Lewis Communications, Inc. He can be reached at
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Title Annotation:SOUNDING BOARD
Author:Lewis, Len
Publication:Grocery Headquarters
Date:Jun 1, 2005
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