CHAPTER 17Liquid Leadership Connect Beyond Hierarchy

In the 1850s, the head physician in a ward of a hospital in Budapest conducted extensive research on how hygiene might limit infections and began a program that required the medical personnel to wash their hands frequently. The program virtually eliminated a fever that was rampant, and science has since proved his theory decisively. But the medical community at the time criticized the physician, Ignaz Semmelweis, and blocked his program. (He later died in an insane asylum—of an infection he contracted there.) In 2005, Blockbuster CEO John Antioco saw the grave threat that Netflix posed to the Blockbuster movie-rental chain. He instituted an aggressive plan to end Blockbuster’s hated late fees and to invest in an online platform, to counter Netflix’s DVD-by-mail service and its plan for video streaming. But Antioco couldn’t get the rest of the company to move along with him and was fired. Blockbuster filed for bankruptcy protection in 2010 and liquidated the vast majority of its assets.1

Both Semmelweis and Antioco had the authority to institute their changes. So what went wrong?

The answer is that they, like so many senior executives, didn’t have all the power they thought they had or that their titles seemed to invest in them. Even top executives have to bring the organization along with them rather than merely ordering change. Leaders cannot be content with simply getting people to do what they want; leaders have to make ...

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