From the Archives: “Leadership for Change”

Joseph C. Wilson, Chairman and Founder of Xerox Corp.
Joseph C. Wilson, Chairman of Xerox, 1966-1971

By Joseph C. Wilson, Chairman and Founder of Xerox Corporation, 1969

(The following throwback article appeared in Research Management, precursor to our award-winning journal Research-Technology Management, in November 1969. It was an address delivered by Mr. Wilson at the dedication of the Oxford Center for Management Studies at Oxford University, on April 30, 1969.)

Leadership for Change

A generation ago, John Maynard Keynes envisioned a workless society in the Western world. He predicted that, in about 100 years, “For the first time since his creation, man will be faced with his real, his permanent problem–how to use his freedom from pressing cares, how to occupy the leisure which science and compound interest will have won for him, to live wisely and agreeably and well.”

Lord Keynes, mindful of the great psychological and social readjustments that would be required of people in the transition from a working to a near-workless world, dreaded the prospect. His misgivings would probably be intensified today, because his forecasts predated the mid-century burst of invention and innovation which greatly accelerated society’s evolution toward a technologically saturated world.

We already have ample evidence that technological growth and change will exert profound and complex pressures on society throughout the world. The influence which these pressures are bringing to bear is, and will be, increasingly relentless. It is inescapable; it must be shaped.

The critical question now is: are we prepared for accelerating change? Some of those who dream of the future raise the frightening possibility that man will be the victim of his own knowledge; that technology will override him; that his freedom will be imperiled and his values lost. Others, like Sir Julian Huxley, foresee the fruition of a “fulfillment society” … or, as Robert Hutchins said in his book The Learning Society: “A world community learning to be civilized, learning to be human, is at last a possibility.”

Whether technological and social change will bring a happier and more fulfilling existence for men will depend on how well we behave while change accelerates. I suppose our collective behavior will be formed by those who lead us into the social structures of the future.

Creators and Innovators Desperately Needed

Throughout history, leadership and organization have been the twin influences which dominate man’s development, a hypothesis which may be attacked successfully but I will let it rest. Leaders create the ideas or chart the courses of action for organizational implementation, and thus society moves. However, as society grows increasingly complicated, so will the demands on leaders in every segment of it. We are facing a desperate need for innovators and creators… for large numbers of people who truly understand the nature of their technological environment and have the courage to act on the new ideas that will benefit it.

This new Center for Management Studies is a significant step for Oxford and, indeed, for the entire community of the United Kingdom, not just its businessmen. It surely will play a substantial, important role in meeting the country’s need for leadership. It will be followed by many other institutions. Its influence will govern the future, perhaps to a greater degree than any of us here today dare to dream of.

To understand some of the demands facing tomorrow’s leaders, consider our immediate future, as described by Jean-Jacques Servan-Schreiber in The American Challenge:

“There is a new society on the horizon, one which will come into being before today’s thirty-year-olds go into retirement. The ‘post-industrial society’ will be distinguished by man’s unprecedented freedom from physical, economic, and biological constraints. Not only will it be a richer society, but a different kind of society, since beyond a certain level wealth is measured not so much by a higher standard of living as by a completely different way of life.”

Are we ready for this kind of society? Are we developing the leadership to assure a higher quality of life in this new society, or to cope with the social problems which stem from onrushing technology?

Sociologist Raymond Aron emphasizes that “the history of mankind has never been reduced to mere progress in science and technology.” But history clearly shows that technological progress can affect the characteristics which define the human quality of man: knowledge, language and communication, tools and control of environment.

Social Environment’s Master is Challenge

Master of our social environment most likely will continue to be the crucial challenge, primarily because of the extremely powerful acceleration of technical change. Lord Ritchie-Calder traces the acceleration of scientific progress to the feedback from interrelationships between what he calls a hierarchy of science–pure science which seeks knowledge for its own sake; oriented fundamental science, or research with a practical purpose; and technology, which is the transfer of scientific knowledge into practice. The result has been, according to Ritchie-Calder, that:

“… the volume of knowledge–six million published scientific communications, increasing at the rate of half-a-million a year–has become a Niagara of information; that the number of scientists is doubling every ten years; and that science is becoming more and more fragmented into specializations, barely able to communicate with each other because of the unique language each has invented for its convenience. And ‘natural philosophy’ has been swamped by experimental results. No wonder, then, that the ordinary intelligent layman finds himself overawed and feels that scientists have become a priesthood, creating and conserving their own mysteries.”

We need not join this scientific priesthood to fulfill a function in our changing society, but it will become increasingly imperative to have some insight into the focus and directions of science and technology if we are to understand their impact. And we can only achieve this awareness if improvements in the technology of communication keep pace with the general technological revolution.

Communication Revolution Requires Leadership

I suggest that communication is undergoing a revolution today as great as that occurring in energy. The manipulating and storing of data through the use of computers are rapidly being supplemented by an ability to serve information to man at speeds and quantities undreamed of two or three decades ago. All of the data describing the citizens of a nation may soon be collected and monitored by a single machine. The information generated and needed by the increasing variety of the activities of humans will require a store of facts of almost unimaginable complexity. It must be made usable if the data is not to overwhelm us. Intellectual attainment of the highest order will be required for leadership in such a situation.

If our ability to draw upon the information created by those who went before us is a uniquely human characteristic, then communication, which includes important elements of education, is close to being the essence of humanism.

The massive increase in available energy and the equally striking improvement in communication have produced something that we have been calling automation. This is a technology which, according to John Diebold, “vastly extends the range of human capability and which will fundamentally alter human society and force us to reconsider our whole approach toward society, and to life itself.”

It is fashionable to blame technology for current upheavals in society: the frustrations of workers with more leisure time through shortened work schedules or extended vacations; the worldwide anomy and alienation of young people reflected in demonstrations and rebellions, misuse of drugs, “hippie” movements; increasing crime rates and domestic discord; and even inequalities in the development of nations and the progress of ethnic groups within nations.

Few now claim that more automation must inevitably increase the level of involuntary unemployment in society. It may occur but, if it does, it will be the result of poor management or inadequate education and training of people. Most people would more readily agree with Professor Emmanuel Mesthene of Harvard that “technological development has provided substitutes for human muscle power and mechanical skills for most of history.” And even more promising, as Helmut Helmer of the Rand Corporation suggests: “Man is becoming the master of his technology.”

But Professor Mesthene warns that disruptions from advancing technology will devolve on society “a major responsibility for inventing and adopting mechanisms and procedures of occupational innovation.”

Industry in the United States is facing this problem right now. Our economy produces a million-and-a-half new jobs a year, and the current need to place a half-million urban dwellers would not seem difficult to fulfill.

Technological Progress Brings Social Challenge

But in America’s technologically-oriented economy, placing the hard-core unemployed, usually black men, has shown businessmen, in a very real way, not only the need for their greater involvement in society but, perhaps more significantly, the difficulty of the social challenges which stem from technological progress. To turn unschooled, unskilled, and unmotivated people into productive workers, we have had to help them overcome a heritage of handicaps that bar them from meaningful jobs: grossly deficient education, fear of failure… and, ultimately, society’s discrimination against them.

We are only beginning to come to grips with this fundamental social problem. But most business leaders in America now recognize that it must be solved and that business must explore other ways of contributing to greater social progress.

Fortunately, a new kind of American business leader has evolved and he accepts, not always happily, this change in the traditional attitude toward responsibility to the public good.

Following World War II, in the wake of a vastly greater demand for trained managers and skilled leaders, there began in the United States a number of advanced schools of industrial management similar to this new Oxford Center. As a result “management” has become relatively stable, if not a science.

The techniques of management have become reasonably well formalized. With a better understanding of technique, we can not only develop it in our employees, but also, to a degree, teach it. Thus, since he no longer devotes himself to the fundamental problems of making and selling, the new leader is spending more and more of his time and effort thinking about the longer-term future–to analysis of the probable environment “X” years hence with all of its opportunities and perils, with its need for accelerating change, and with innovation its sine qua non. Happily, this sort of projective [sic] thinking appeals most to an entrepreneur. Yet it is highly disturbing, because the exciting possibilities he discerns also reveal problems frightening in their natures and their dimensions.

Curiosity Vital to Business Leader

Those who aspire to be tomorrow’s business leaders face chilling demands. They must develop and retain a lively and active curiosity in every aspect of life. Their skill in discerning the real needs of society, their imaginativeness in applying their insights to the development of goods and services, their courage in evaluating and accepting risks arising from the uncertainties that will surround them–these will constitute the acid test of leadership as an entrepreneur, in contrast to their merits as a manager.

Just as values of justice, liberty, and individual rights and responsibilities are the keystones of the Anglo-Saxon social systems, so also do we share a concept of free enterprise. We place as much stress on the value of individual incentives as on the need for total profits. I suggest, however, that the emphasis is changing, that socially useful profit and involvement will be as important to the organization as it is becoming to its people. But material incentives cannot be jettisoned without destroying the willingness to risk and I am presumptuous enough to suggest that here in the U.K. you appear to be ignoring this fundamental side of the equation.

Business leaders–because they will direct the new technologies–will be held accountable in larger part for the total quality of society, for the kind of life the people live in your country and my country and throughout much of the world. We therefore cannot give lip service to social progress. We must be committed to it, work for it and achieve it… else we shall lose our power to be free.

Education: Panacea for Complex Problems

Many of us in the U.S. business believe that education is the greatest and most promising single endeavor and the best hope for solutions to our terribly complex problems. Daniel Bell, chairman of the Commission on the Year 2000 established by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, put it this way:

“Perhaps it is not too much to say that if the business firm was the key institution of the past hundred years, because of its role in organizing production for the mass creation of products, the university will become the central institution of the next hundred years because of its role as the new source of innovation and invention.”

The university today shapes more and more people for productive roles in society, and it increasingly is responsible for leadership in all segments of society. The essential role of a leader is to clarify choices and place priorities. The chief asset of any business leader historically has been instinctive good judgment, but this no longer is enough with the emergence of complex economic, social, and technical problems that can affect priorities and choices. The case for the growing importance of education was made most graphically by anthropologist Margaret Mead when she said:

“The most vivid truth of the new age (is that) no one will live all his life in the world in which he was born, and no one will be in the world in which he worked in his maturity.”

I suggest that leadership in the years ahead, at all levels of society, will require intellectual capacity beyond mere technical, managerial, or professional skills. Tomorrow’s leaders will face increasing pressures to expand their knowledge and abilities, or forfeit their rights to leadership.

Evolutionary change requires continuing education to remain effective in any field. However, the accelerating rate of technological change and its sweeping impact on society will affect every field and will impose new criteria for leadership.

Future Businessmen in Broader World

Business leadership, especially, will require as great intellectual subtlety as political or academic leadership, for the businessman must henceforth move in a broader world. In fact, only to the degree that business leadership’s status and involvement are upgraded will any economy of free enterprise prosper. There can be little doubt that our new leaders must be broader-gauged and wiser than their predecessors in our own generation. We can foresee some of the qualities that will be required simply by studying our present problems. They must be able to motivate people towards social participation rather than isolation, towards rebuilding society rather than exploiting it. They must have sufficient intellectual insight and sensitivity to stimulate people to strive for excellence, to adapt to new environments, or to use increased leisure time effectively to raise their own intellectual capacities and accept broader social responsibilities.

They must know what [Robert] Browning meant when he wrote,

“That low man seeks a little thing to do,

Sees it and does it:

This high man, with a great thing to pursue,

Dies ere he knows it.

That low man goes on adding one to one,

His hundreds soon hit:

This high man, aiming at a million,

Misses an unit.”

These leaders will be concerned with the quality of life, from individual fulfillment to the beauty of the countryside; with technologies and organizations that serve, and do not menace, the individual; with making change work for society and assuring, as John Gardner terms it, “change in a framework of order.”

Generalists May Be Tomorrow’s Prime Movers

In business, unbalanced emphasis on specialization and dedication to single prime functions is ending. Perhaps this is a harbinger for other disciplines and professions. The prime movers in tomorrow’s society may well be those leaders who are truly generalists–who understand and can direct the utilization of the new tools but who also can foresee the full effects of new technologies and will demonstrate the ethical and moral strengths to insist upon applications which place society’s best interest before individual or special interest.

For the new leader, more appropriate tomorrow than ever may be H.G. Wells’ prediction that “the future is a race between education and disaster.” We are reaching a point in time when a  leader must feel comfortable in the world of ideas. The only limitations on the province of this leader will be his capacity for thought and his ability and willingness to act on it and to articulate it. The new leader’s aspirations will be higher and his goals will more deeply challenge. But he will be less a Captain of Fate and more of Mankind, I believe. This is the reason why this School may be seminal in the history of this Island, with all its glorious past.

Today’s businessman must take to heart Matthew Arnold‘s answer to his own question:

“Hath man no second life?

Pitch this one high!”


Reference: Wilson, J.C. (1969). “Leadership for Change.” Research Management, Vol. 12, No. 6 (November-December), pp. 21-28.

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