The Humility of Leadership
A colleague and I were recently marveling over the leadership skills that have made it possible for the RAND Corporation to change so much with so little disruption over the past two decades. That span of time has borne witness to a whirlwind of transitions that could have triggered a welter of confusion within many organizations.
Once known mostly for its Cold War analyses in defense of the United States, RAND has gone local and global at the same time. As indicated by the stories in this issue, the scope of RAND’s work today ranges from New Orleans families to Arab economies. The cover story on America’s response to terrorism since the 9/11 attacks of ten years ago typifies RAND’s multidisciplinary approach, encompassing issues of international diplomacy, military sustainability, homeland security, and social resiliency.
The expanding scope of work, however, only scratches the surface of RAND’s transformation since the 1980s. After all, the subjects of RAND research have been vast and eclectic since at least the 1960s. What began to change most profoundly with the fall of the Berlin Wall was the nature of RAND’s work, as the focus of research clients began to shift away from known, stable, long-term problems toward unpredictable or variable challenges requiring quick responses.
As James Thomson, RAND’s outgoing president and chief executive officer, explains here in his farewell column, RAND “had to rethink everything” in the 1990s to adjust to a new world. What he does not explain is that he has continued to rebuild everything since, including research units, the physical RAND headquarters, the virtual RAND online presence, and new overseas offices.
My colleague and I concluded that one key to Jim’s success has been his humility as a thinker. He has not placed too much stock in his own training or assumptions. He has felt comfortable working across numerous fields and extending his flexibility as a generalist. He has been less interested in proving his point than in pursuing whatever works.
What I have found most charming about working with Jim over the years has been his disinterest in tooting his horn. “I’m from New Hampshire, and we have a saying up there,” he put it best during a luncheon a few weeks ago. “If you need to keep saying how great you are, you aren’t.”