University of Southern California

Bennis and Panel of Experts Discuss the Future of Leadership in Light of the Economic Crisis
Passion Purpose and Collaboration are Key Traits for Good Leaders
November 30, 2009 • by Jeremy Deutchman

When it comes to global influence, few brands can claim the reach of Mattel's Barbie, which for generations has shaped the lives and ambitions of children around the world. That influence was the topic of a recent symposium at the USC Marshall School of Business, bringing together scholars, students and business professionals to reflect on the icon’s 50th anniversary and consider the half-century impact of one of the best-selling toy brands of all time.

Titled "Forever Barbie: The Global Marketing of Pop Culture and American Femininity," the symposium was sponsored by USC Marshall’s Global Branding Center

USC Marshall Professor Warren Bennis and Leadership authors John Hope Bryant and William G. George say passion, purpose and collaboration are key for today's new generation of leaders.

According to a panel of leadership experts, collaboration and leading with passion and purpose are traits that will help the U.S. and the world in the aftermath of the global economic crisis.

James G. Ellis, Dean of the USC Marshall School of Business, moderated the panel titled "A Conversation on Leadership," which included Warren Bennis, Ph.D., Distinguished Professor of Business Administration, Founding Chairman of the USC Leadership Institute, author of the recently published The Essential Bennis and the forthcoming Still Surprised: A Memoir of a Life in Leadership; John Hope Bryant, author of Love Leadership and founder, Chairman and CEO, Operation HOPE Inc., a non-profit social investment banking organization self-help provider of economic empowerment tools and services for the underserved; and William G. George, Professor of Management Practice at Harvard Business School; former Chairman and CEO of Medtronic and author of four books including True North and his most recent 7 Lessons for Leading in Crisis.

"These are true experts in the thought process of leadership and what's happening with leadership in the world," said Ellis, before throwing out the first question to the panel, which took place December 2 on the University Park Campus. "Much of what's transpired has been attributed to supreme lack of leadership. What are the issues and what can we do?" he asked.

Bryant, whose work to empower low-wealth communities has earned him a role as the Vice Chair of the U.S. President's Advisory Council on Financial Literacy and the Chairman of the Council's Under-Served Committee, stated that if in this crisis bankers and lenders treated clients as they would their grandmothers instead of as transactions, "we wouldn’t be in this mess." He pointed out that the economic pain created by the crisis is an indication of something deeper. “This isn’t a recession, it’s a reset. ...It's a crisis of values," he said, noting that the crisis today is also a global crisis of confidence.

George added that the aftermath of the crisis will be harder to deal with as unemployment still soars and the current culture of society is still interested in short-term and instant gratification, "if everyone operates on short-term self interest we've lost what the real purpose of leadership is," he said, putting the leadership onus on the shoulders of the students in the audience. "It's up to the new generation to step up and offer new leadership and a new way of looking at leadership. We have to get back to the kind of people we would like to follow - [those who] lead authentically, genuinely and have a clear sense of purpose,” he said. "I'm calling to you in the audience to step up and be heard and lead with ideas with purpose and passion. You'll be rewarded."

Bennis added that while Western society embraces the myth of the great heroic individual who comes to the rescue, it’s through collaboration that leadership succeeds. "If you are trying to make a difference in anything - it has to be with collaboration," he said. Among his examples, Bennis spoke about filmmaker Robert Zemeckis who visits his classroom each year. "One student asked him what his favorite film was and his answer was Forrest Gump. She pressed him about why that film was his favorite and his answer was 'we were all making the same movie.' Everyone was making the same movie, not just the screenwriter and producer but everyone down to the gaffer and dolly grip was making the same movie. He listed 20 different groups of people who worked on that film who made it possible."

"What makes collaboration work is being able to respect the values of another and trust in them enough to argue about things," added Bennis, talking about the leadership course he teaches with USC President Steven Sample. "We both realized that neither of us by ourselves would be able to teach this course. We needed each other. The root of collaboration in the world is that realization that if we want to succeed we've got to do this together."

George pointed out that while collaboration is key, there's a tension between collaboration and the rugged individualism valued by American culture. "How do we integrate them together?... We're making different movies," he said.

Bryant added that the current crisis is a blessing because it will cause people to reassess and re-imagine, and hopefully push people to focus on purpose.

"That's what it's all about at the end of the day," continued George. "We should think about 'does my work matter?' It's important to discern what we're leading toward and collaboration can help a complex task overcome an intractable problem. Think about who you admire. They are all givers," he said. "You will be successful if you follow your path and your purpose. Shut out following what comes from the outside. You've got to dig in and you've got to do it. Also, pick a place where you’re with people you want to collaborate with."

Watch the video from this event,
"A Conversation On Leadership"
held 12/02/09 at the USC Marshall School of Business

About USC Marshall School of Business
Based in Los Angeles at the University of Southern California, at the crossroads of the Pacific Rim, the USC Marshall School is the best place to learn the art and science of business. The school's programs serve nearly 5,000 undergraduate, graduate, professional and executive-education students, who attend classes in facilities at the main Los Angeles campus, as well as satellite facilities in Irvine and San Diego. USC Marshall also operates a Global MBA program in conjunction with Jiao Tong University in Shanghai, China.

, the school's marketing department and Mattel. Symposium organizer and Global Branding Center Assistant Director Therese Wilbur saw the topic as a natural fit for Marshall. "I worked on the Barbie brand for 13 years most recently, as senior international marketing director for girls’ toys before coming to USC. This seemed like the perfect opportunity to expose students to the real-world application of what they’re studying while putting together two of my favorite brands," she said.

The two-day event featured a presentation on Barbie's past, present and future by Lisa McKnight, vice president of marketing for Barbie and closing remarks by USC Marshall Dean James G. Ellis. McKnight also accepted an award from the Global Branding Center honoring Barbie's extraordinary success and ongoing cultural relevance. "It's a well-deserved recognition," says Global Branding Center Director C.W. Park. "What other brand can perform the kind of roles Barbie has been performing for customers? It creates such a strong bond with young girls, and that bond continues throughout the girl's life, eventually being passed along to her own children. Barbie is not just a doll; she represents a never-ending, continuously evolving relationship between a brand and its customers."

It was a common refrain among event participants. Professor of Marketing Deborah MacInnis, co-editor of the Journal of Consumer Research, observed that Barbie "represents our possible selves," a theme reinforced by Mattel Vice President of Worldwide Consumer Insights Michael Shore. "Barbie is open-ended and possesses the 'I Can Be' element," Shore said. "She has been a veterinarian, a preschool teacher and a racecar driver. Barbie doesn't have a predetermined storyline." This openness, Shore said, not only allows us "the freedom we associate with play"; it also helps Barbie stand out in a highly competitive marketplace populated by more scripted characters like Hannah Montana and the Disney princess dolls.

As Dennis Rook, chair of USC Marshall's marketing department, pointed out, Barbie's laidback identity has also been key to its commercial success. "Barbie is Californian," he said. "Historically, she's been more casual, and less stodgy." This, Rook suggested, has made her more adaptable to changing times, a considerable asset in a market driven by a host of emerging challenges.

Assistant Professor of Marketing Lan Luo, another event participant, summed up a number of those challenges. "Kids, even those ages three to five, now want an iPod for Christmas, so Barbie's got competition from high-tech toys," she noted. As a result, Barbie is under even more pressure to stay relevant – something, Luo suggested, Mattel might do by extending the brand to other platforms, such as video games and film.

The Internet is another way to ensure that Barbie retains her place among the world's most recognizable brands. "An active part of our corporate strategy is the Barbie Girl website and online communities," said Mattel's Shore. It is uncharted territory, but Barbie, says the Global Branding Center's  Wilbur, is well positioned to thrive. "Barbie has had a lasting effect on consumers and the culture," she says. "The bottom line is that it continues to be a truly incredible brand."

The Global Branding Center
Led by Director C.W. Park, the Global Branding Center at the USC Marshall School of Business is a global creator and disseminator of branding knowledge and path-breaking research, expanding the scope from traditional product and service branding to entertainment and business-to-business branding. The Global Branding Center serves the needs of managers globally by providing research-based solutions relating to branding.

About the USC Marshall School of Business
Consistently ranked among the nation's premier schools, USC Marshall is internationally recognized for its emphasis on entrepreneurship and innovation, social responsibility and path-breaking research. Located in the heart of Los Angeles, one of the world's leading business centers and the U.S. gateway to the Pacific Rim, Marshall offers its 5,700-plus undergraduate and graduate students a unique world view and impressive global experiential opportunities. With an alumni community spanning 123 countries, USC Marshall students join a worldwide community of thought leaders who are redefining the way business works.