Jim Fisher shares the details of his successful career, spanning three different fields, that influenced his writing of The Thoughtful Leader.
How did you become involved in your area of research?
I have had the good fortune of enjoying three careers. My first career was nearly 20 years as a strategy consultant; the second, about 15 years as an executive in the food industry. In my third career I was asked to teach a course on Human Resource Management at the Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto. At the same time, I became Vice Dean of Programs responsible for the Masters and Executive programs of the School.
I decided to teach the course as one on “how to manage people so that they become a resource” rather than as one on the mechanics of the Human Resource function. That decision led me dig deeper into the mystery of leadership – what it is and how it works. In that pursuit I was able to test the various theories against my own life experience observing leaders as a strategy consultant and trying to be one as an executive.
What inspired you to write this book?
My students inspired me to write the book. Over the years, many have asked for a write-up on the concept. Several were particularly persistent long after they had graduated.
I was also inspired by the number of people who I would run into long after they had been in my classroom who would report on how useful the concepts were and how often they used them. They urged me to share these ideas with a larger audience.
How did you become interested in the subject?
Over the past 20 years, leadership has gone from being a topic for the history books to a topic that dominates the public conversation. It is hard not to be interested and to have an opinion.
My personal interest in leadership started with a year-long consulting assignment with the Canadian military. I assumed that military leadership was based on the idea that officers gave orders and the lesser ranks obeyed – or were court martialed. In fact, in over a year of visiting bases in Canada and Europe I found that the military thought very deeply about leadership and that the model of leadership in the army was very different from that of the navy and different again from that of the Air Force.
From that year I began to see leadership as a great puzzle. How does one get someone else to do what you want them to do when it may be something that they do not want to do? How do you get them to do it with energy and enthusiasm and creativity? When I found myself in an executive position responsible for an operation employing 8000 people spread across the continent, I was preoccupied with that same puzzle. How can I influence the behavior and attitudes of people that I would never see.
Leadership is magic; leadership is hard; leadership is a great human puzzle.
How long did it take you to write your latest book?
One answer to this question is that it has taken a lifetime. Another answer is that it started in 1998 when I taught my first leadership course and was still puzzling about just what leadership is that can be taught. A more specific answer is that it took about 4 years and 3 complete rewrites to get the finished product.
What do you find most interesting about your area of research?
Leadership is the news every day. Where we used to talk about senior managers or executives or Presidents, we now talk about leaders. There is always a point of view and always someone to consider.
In addition I find the concepts of leadership can be found in everyday life and can be used to explain why someone is a great teacher or great salesperson or great fundraiser or great teammate.
What do you wish other people knew about your area of research?
I wish people would pay more attention to what people do and puzzle about why those actions are able to influence people and spend less time trying to generalize the attributes or skills of leaders.
What’s the most surprising thing you discovered during the course of your research?
I was surprised that I had to write this book. I was surprised that there was not another comprehensive framework out there that captured what a leader needs to do today to induce voluntary, energized leadership.
Do you have to travel much concerning the research/writing of your book?
In my working life I have spent a lot of time in the air. And, in the time leading up to the publication of the book, I did teach in China, India and Europe. One of the great things about teaching at the Rotman School is that the students come from around the world. I was always curious about how the ideas resonated with different cultures and different environments. The framework that emerges seems to be generally applicable. As a result I have learned more about the global applicability of leadership concepts in the classrooms at the University of Toronto than I did when I physically travelled.
What was the hardest part of writing your book?
It was hard to get the ideas to stand still. Over the years that I wrote the book I taught my full course close to ten times and taught abbreviated versions many times. I teach to learn; each class is an opportunity to learn. Anything that I had committed to paper might have been improved from something I had learned in the class. After many classes I would rush back to my office to start revising some part of the manuscript.
What did you learn from writing your book?
I think I came to a deeper appreciation of the nuance of the framework and how it interrelates and connects. I am a better teacher for having written the book.
What are your current/future projects?
I do have an idea for a book on designing workable organizations but hope the idea fades before I go through the hard work of getting it into book form.
I also have an idea for building an interactive website that will allow people to work through the leadership framework in a way that enables them to use it to accomplish something in their own lives.
What do you like to read for pleasure? What are you currently reading?
I usually have several books on the go. At the moment my bedtime reading is book three of the Neapolitan Novels by Elena Ferrante: Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay. To stay current with my topic I am reading Jeffrey Pfeffer Leadership BS: Fixing Workplaces and Careers One Truth at a Time.
What is your favourite book?
My all-time, read-many-times work of fiction favourite is War and Peace by Tolstoy.
My all-time favourite, this-will-change-the-way-you-look-at-the-world book is Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman.
If you weren’t working in academia, what would you be doing instead?
Academia is my third career so I have already done a lot of interesting things. One answer would be that I would finally retire, learn to play golf, play the piano and another language while focusing on a particular area of literature. Another is that, if I could drag myself away from my grandchildren, I would like to think I could find some way to make a difference to people in the many parts of the world that have not had the advantages of those who live in Canada.
However, since I have signed on for another year of teaching and can't drag myself away from my grandchildren, the real answer is “more of the same”.