04/04/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

On the Front Burner - Leadership

"Liz Claiborne has been a great pathfinder." So wrote Gene Landrum, PhD., in his book "Profiles of Female Genius." He goes on to acclaim her "pioneering spirit. The chapter heading for Liz is "Persevering Pioneer."

It is in the definitions of pioneer--"one of a body of foot soldiers who march with or in advance of an army or regiment having spades, pickaxes to dig trenches, prepare roads and perform other labors in clearing and preparing the way for the main body"--and that of pathfinder--"one that explores untraversed regions to mark out a new route"--that we find those qualities that made Liz a great leader. "Liz Claiborne," he writes, "is a persevering genius." She cleared the way.

When interviewed Liz assessed her "leadership" qualities this way: "I lead, I believe, by doing and teaching. I try to set an example. I try to show others how I implement what I see in my mind's eye as I design, assess fabrics, comment at fittings. I naturally speak slowly. I've been taught patience. I try to hear everybody out."

I was at that interview and would have added considerably more.
I would have said: "Just walk through the halls of the design floor and sample-makers room. All clean and white, plants everywhere, toilets shared. Now, there's nothing noble about toilet sharing, but it's strong evidence that Liz ran a flat company - equals as people. That was her way of leading her company."

But there were other ways, of course. Katy Allgeyer was a knitwear designer for the company. She wrote, after she became aware of Liz's death, "I had the privilege of designing for Liz Claiborne when Vogue published a knit ensemble in the mid 1980s. It was the first time Claiborne's line made the pages of fashion's bible, despite - or perhaps, because of - being the average American woman's favorite designer label. Most designers would have savored the moment alone, but Liz wrote me a personal note congratulating me for getting 'us' into Vogue. I was proud to be part of her team, and I learned as much from her as to how to treat others as I did about design."

One reader of a piece of mine that appeared in the Huffington Post reminded me that Liz rode the company van to the warehouse for fitting sessions: "She insisted on taking the van along with everyone else." I never urged her to do otherwise. There was always a limousine available. "I'll just pile in with everyone else," she said. "That's the easiest way to know what the production people are thinking and to support my staff. I want them there. It's a great learning experience. You'd be surprised at how more relaxed and talkative people are in a van than in a business room."

These small things, perhaps many small things made us all proud to a part of her team.

There seems to be an academic infatuation with leadership. Business schools, trying to bridge the chasm between culture and numbers, seem to have much to offer. Here are a handful:
The Harvard School of Business, Leadership Initiatives
The Massachusetts Institute of Technology -Sloan School of Management New York University, Stern School of Management
Wharton of the University of Pennsylvania, offers an MBA for Executives

The list goes on and on. No one of substance wants to miss this boat. Notre Dame even offers a course on its website.

If you're looking for the bible of the movement, read "In Search of Excellence," written in 1982. It was a blockbuster when published. It was received as a book of revelation. Thomas Peters and Robert Waterman the authors, wrote a preface to the 2003 edition, pleased that they got it right.

Ask current (where possible) shareholders of General Motors or Boeing or Texas instruments and other listed companies how right they got it. As always happens, the data described the past. The writers presumed that therein lay the road to the future. This is a habitual error, almost as worrisome as insisting on repeating past mistakes.

The academics and experts all have the "principles" right - note those in the book: 1.) "You cannot manage by the numbers. 2.) "Leaders need to set people free, not to harness them." 3.) "Leaders have a bias for action." And so on, principles difficult to argue with.

What's missing is how to "manufacture" leaders. Liz was manufactured by her background, by her love of museums and ballet and reading, by Tolstoy, Marquez, the great, outspoken historian Barbara Tuchman, John Le Carre and many others. She had a global sensibility. She was refined in her earlier life. Which of the above business schools insist on inter-disciplinarian courses? Which of these universities insist that a rigorous submersion in the humanities is as important in developing leaders as are traditional business courses? Who designs a curriculum to develop leaders who have an historic and cultural perspective?

Indeed we were proud to be part of her team. Here is Liz in Hong Kong working with one of our suppliers, one of a group who admired her, I think even loved her, because she led by teaching, by doing, by putting her body into the work, by being good-natured and patient. She would crawl on a cutting table, pins in her mouth, cutting wheel in hand (the small rotary cutting wheel that perforates the pattern paper to indicate changes to be made in the pattern.) She would place a pin here, a pin there and then look up and say, "See, just a little more slope on the shoulders and a little less bagginess under the armpits." And then she would beam at the onlookers. And all of her students, in this case the factory's cutters and patternmakers, would beam back and applaud.

It was as if she had been born to show how this or that is done, to teach, to lead. There were no "principles" of leadership that she had memorized. She was a natural.