Anthony J. Mayo: An interview by Bob Morris

Tony Mayo

Tony Mayo is the Thomas S. Murphy Senior Lecturer of Business Administration in the Organizational Behavior Unit of Harvard Business School (HBS).  He currently teaches FIELD, Field Immersion and Experiential Leadership Development, a new required experiential, field-based course in the first year of the MBA Program.  Previously, he co-created and taught the course, “Great Business Leaders:  The Importance of Contextual Intelligence.”  In addition, Tony teaches extensively in leadership-based executive education programs.  He is the co-author of In Their Time:  The Greatest Business Leaders of the 20th Century, which has been translated into five languages.  He is also the co-author of Paths to Power: How Insiders and Outsiders Shaped American Business Leadership and Entrepreneurs, Managers and Leaders:  What the Airline Industry Can Teach Us About Leadership.  These books have been derived from the development of the Great American Business Leaders database that Dean Nitin Nohria and Tony created. [Please click here to check it out.] As Director of the Leadership Initiative, Tony oversees several comprehensive research projects on leadership and manages a number of executive education programs on leadership development.  He was a co-creator of the High Potentials Leadership Development, Leadership for Senior Executives, and Leadership Best Practices programs.  He created and oversees the executive coaching component of Harvard Business School’s Program for Leadership Development.

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Morris: Before discussing In Their Time, a few general questions. First, who has had the greatest influence on your professional development?

Mayo: Two individuals had a strong impact on my professional development – a senior manager at Epsilon, one of the firms that I worked at after graduating from Harvard Business School, and Nitin Nohria, my co-author and current Dean of Harvard Business School. Both allowed me to take a number of risks and both challenged me beyond what I thought I was capable of achieving.  I thrive in an environment that is highly challenging but supportive of learning and development.  Both individuals created the context in which I could stretch myself.

Morris: Years ago, was there a turning point (if not an epiphany) that set you on the career course that you continue to follow? Please explain.

Mayo:  The turning point came when I approached a former professor at Boston College to write a letter of recommendation for me for an evening-based master’s in technology management program in the mid-1980s.  When I approached Professor Bowditch to write the letter of recommendation for me, he refused.  He told me to come back with a letter for Harvard or MIT or Dartmouth.  He saw something in me that I did not see in myself.   I was the first in my family to graduate from college and the thought of a top-tier graduate program was never something I even remotely considered.  Though I was disappointed and confused by his reaction, I researched different programs and returned to him with an application to Harvard Business School.  That one action changed the trajectory of my career.  It is something that I try to do myself when I work with young, promising students; I try to help them see their full potential.

Morris: What is the Leadership Initiative and what are its major objectives?

Mayo:  Chaired by Professor Linda Hill, the Harvard Business School Leadership Initiative was organized to be a catalyst for research on leaders and leadership and to design effective leadership development programs that are relevant for the 21st century.  The goal of the Initiative is to support Harvard Business School’s overarching mission to educate leaders who make a difference in the world.  To that end, we search for opportunities to contribute to the study of leadership and the development of content for the MBA Program and various executive education offerings.  Throughout our work, we seek to bridge the gap between the theory and practice of leadership.

Morris: To what extent (if any) has its mission changed since it was founded?

Mayo:  Our mission has been relatively consistent in the decade since the Leadership Initiative was founded.  If anything, the need for leadership at all levels in organizations has expanded and we need to find ways to tap into the leadership potential that exists in each individual.  The increasing globalization of the workforce and the pressures from the global economic crisis have only heightened the need for well-reasoned, thoughtful leadership.

Morris: In your opinion, what is the single greatest challenge that business leaders will face during (let’s say) the next 3-5 years? Any advice?

Mayo:  Leaders have always faced the challenge of inspiring others while making important strategic decisions for their organizations with limited, conflicting, and ambiguous information.  A leader’s success or failure is often dependent on his or her ability to accurately interpret, analyze, and process this information in a constrained time frame.  Today’s leaders are confronted with challenges and opportunities that are more dynamic and complex than ever before.  Leaders need to understand how to harness technological advances, manage and lead a dispersed and diverse workforce, anticipate and react to constant competitive and geopolitical change and uncertainty, compete on a global scale, and operate in a socially responsible and accountable manner.  Leadership is a team sport, and no one individual can do it all.  Effective leaders build their self-awareness and hire individuals who can complement their skills

Morris: In which specific area of M.B.A. programs now offered by the most prestigious business schools is there the greatest need for immediate improvement? Please explain.

Mayo:  When HBS celebrated its 100th anniversary in 2008, it was an opportune time to reassess our model of MBA education.  To that end, Professors Skrikant Datar and David Garvin embarked on a major review and evaluation of MBA programs.  Their book, Rethinking the MBA, highlighted three primary areas that leading MBA programs should address in helping their students prepare for leadership positions in the future.  The three areas include leadership, globalization, and integration.  HBS embraced their recommendations and has launched a new required course called FIELD, Field Immersion and Experiential Leadership Development, which encompasses these three areas with a primary focus on field-based experiential work.  For instance, all Harvard MBAs will be required to participate in a global immersion where they will work with a company in an emerging economy.  To truly develop as a leader, one must learn about the phenomenon (that is where cases and books do a great job), but it is even more important that one experiences being a leader (that is where experiential exercises come into play).  More and more, MBA programs are combining theoretical lessons with practical leadership experiences.

Morris: Now please shift your attention to In Their Time. When and why did you and Nitin Nohria decide to write it…and do so together?

Mayo:  Our initial goal was to develop a canon of business leadership, which could help us better understand the evolution of business and specifically, the individuals who shaped it.  We began with the development of a database that eventually grew to 1,000 business leaders (  While we were initially planning to winnow this database down to a few dozen individuals who would represent a canon of business leadership, we subsequently became intrigued by the full dataset and switched our focus to learning about hundreds of great leaders, not just dozens.  When we examined our database of great business leaders by the decades in which they served their companies, we became excited about the notion of context-based leadership or contextual intelligence.  We found that business leaders who were able to create or optimize businesses over long periods of time had an appreciation of the contextual environment.

Morris: Were there any head-snapping revelations while completing the research for the manuscript? Please explain.

Mayo:  Our biggest revelation was our emerging understanding of contextual intelligence.  We specifically analyzed the ways in which business leaders influenced or were influenced by six macro-level contextual factors including (1) government regulation; (2) geopolitical forces; (3) demographic shifts; (4)  labor policies; (5) technology commercialization; and (6) social mores.  Within each decade of the twentieth century, these six factors ebbed and flowed, coalescing in unique combinations.  A business executive’s ability to make sense of their contextual framework and harness its power often made the difference between success and failure.  Contextual intelligence is the ability to seize the zeitgeist of the times to create, maximize, or transform a business opportunity.  Certain times demanded specific management orientations to produce and sustain thriving businesses, and great CEOs and Founders were skilled at accurately assessing when to adapt their leadership style and strategic approach.

Morris: To what extent (if any) does the book in final form differ from the one you originally envisioned?

Mayo:  As mentioned previously, we thought we were going to develop a canon of business leadership that profiled a dozen or so great leaders.  The book was envisioned to be a series of short biographies of great leaders who have shaped American society.  The richness of the full dataset convinced us that there was so much more to learn from studying a wider array of leaders and placing them within the context in which they were successful.  The integration of business history and individual leadership development was not something that we had planned, but it has made for a very rich and nuanced perspective on the evolution of leadership over the past 100 years.

Morris: In the Introduction, you and Nohria explain that the book “is about leadership in context – not leadership that emerges solely from the qualities of the human character. But leadership that springs forth from an appreciation and understanding of one’s situation in the world.” Of all the leaders discussed, which in your opinion best exemplifies that? How so?

Mayo:  Only one company, General Electric Company (GE), has appeared on the Dow Jones Industrial Average since its inception in 1896.  Over the last century, General Electric has been able to align its business offerings with the changing marketplace ensuring that its products and services remain relevant.  GE has been unafraid to shed poorly performing businesses while simultaneously investing in new innovations.  Over the course of the past 100 years, GE has been led by eight different CEOs, and each one was able to adapt and change the business to fit the contextual landscape.

Morris: What are the defining characteristics and unique capabilities of “contextual intelligence”?

Mayo:  Emotional intelligence is the ability to understand and influence one’s own and others’ emotions in ways that lead to positive action.  Contextual intelligence goes beyond this, to the ability to sense and handle social, economic, and environmental factors that influence the direction an organization takes.  In our analysis, great business leaders possessed contextual intelligence – strong leadership skills combined with a periphery view of the context and an ability to adapt and change over time.  When context changes, leaders need to change and adapt with it and/or try to influence the evolution of the contextual factors themselves.  Leaders who are successful over long periods of time exhibit this adaptive capability.

Morris:  For those who have not read the book, what are the six “contextual factors” and why is each so significant?

Mayo:  While there are many contextual factors at play within any era or time frame, we found that six factors—government intervention, global events, demography, social mores, technology, and labor—are especially influential in shaping business. These six factors are not exhaustive; they merely open a window into a specific era and show how different circumstances influenced the opportunity structure that the entrepreneurs, managers, and leaders of that era exploited.  In summary the six factors are:

•  Government intervention:  The extent to which the government of the United States intervened in the affairs of business.

•  Global affairs: The impact that global events had/have on shaping the competitive landscape for business.

•  Demography: The impact that shifts in the demographic base of the country have on the markets for new products and services as well as the nature of the talent pool that is available for hire.

•  Technology:  The role that innovation and new technological discoveries play in shaping the competitive landscape.

• Labor: The degree of influence the labor movement has had on shaping the internal business environment.

• Social mores: How prevailing social attitudes and concerns impact business decisions.

Morris: You and Nohria devote a separate chapter to each of ten decades, 1900-1999. Why did you select this organizing principle rather than, let’s say, a sequence of themes or socio-economic developments?

Mayo:  When we decided to look at the way business leaders shaped or were shaped by their context, we found that decades were a useful organizing framework. We were interested in the specific context in which an individual became the founder or CEO of an organization.  By framing our analysis within each decade, we were able to assess how different leaders were influenced by or influenced the various contextual factors.  We found that some were able to create something new while others were able to capitalize on certain growth trajectories.  We were also interested in how these forces change.  Some of this change is driven by the leaders themselves while others are driven by broad scale social movements or new technological discoveries. The manner in which a leader responds to the changes in the contextual landscape often contributes to the long term success or failure of his or her organization.

Morris: There were great leaders in each of the ten decades, of course, and each for different reasons. In your opinion, which leader is most representative of each decade? Why?

First, 1900-1909

Mayo:  It is difficult to name just one leader for each decade.  There are multiple individuals who helped to shape the decade.  It is probably best to identify the core context that characterized each decade to identify an exemplar of business success.  For the first decade of the 20th century, the country was experiencing rapid industrialization and expansion, especially in the railroad sector.  Capital was needed to fuel this growth, and the individual who helped so many railroads gain access to capital was J. P. Morgan.

Morris: Next, 1910-1919

Mayo:  The 1910s was a time when the government began to exert a stronger regulatory influence on business.  This was especially evident with the break-up of the major oil and tobacco companies and the passage of the Clayton Antitrust Act.  This decade was also characterized by the widespread growth of the automobile.  One individual who capitalized on this context was Frank Phillips who cofounded Phillips Petroleum after the discovery of oil in Oklahoma.

Morris: Next, 1920-1929

Mayo:  Advertising and marketing were prominently exploited during the 1920s as consumer credit expanded.  Robert Woodruff of Coca-Cola was one individual who was able to capture the essence of Americana in his advertising of Coke. He stayed at the helm of the company for over 30 years, and the advertising that he championed became iconic representations of the country’s evolving social mores.

Morris: Next, 1930-1939

Mayo: The Great Depression and its aftermath cast a shadow on the landscape for business and many leaders and businesses struggled.  The U.S. government allocated millions of dollars to various work programs and loaned billions of dollars to various contractors to help put people back to work.  The Reconstruction Finance Corporation led by Jesse Jones was created to allocate capital to jumpstart the economy.  Jones was a master at deciding which projects to fund and was able to ensure that every dollar invested by the country was paid back in full without the hint of controversy or corruption.

Morris: Next, 1940-1949

Mayo:  World War II, which defined much of the 1940s, proved to be a fertile ground for a number of businesses.  Henry Kaiser was one such businessman who was able to support the war effort through the establishment of a new shipbuilding company.  Having never built a ship before, Kaiser learned shipbuilding from the best in the industry and went on to found his own shipyards.  He applied the fundamental principles of mass assembly and standardization to an industry that was characterized by custom design.  His Liberty Ships constructed with an assembly line process were produced with unprecedented speed and efficiency.

Morris: Next, 1950-1959

Mayo:  The post war highway expansion of the United States led to the development of a number of franchise business models.  Applying consistency, standardization, and quality metrics to food preparation and service, Ray Kroc built McDonald’s into one of the most successful fast food enterprises in the world.  Its establishments are dotted along America’s highways.

Morris: Next, 1960-1969

Mayo:  The 1960s was characterized by a focus on big business and the expansion of business through diversification.  Conglomerates were in vogue and individuals such as Henry Singleton of Teledyne were at the forefront of this movement.  Singleton built Teledyne from a small semiconductor operation with less than $10 million in revenue into a $3 billion conglomerate.

Morris: Next, 1970-1979

Mayo:  The 1970s was a particularly fertile period for entrepreneurship with the founding of companies such as Apple, Microsoft, VISA, Intel, Oracle, and FedEx.  Bill Gates of Microsoft and Steve Jobs of Apple were exemplars of this period.  They pushed the emergent boundaries of technology and helped set the stage for the development of the modern high tech industry.

Morris: Next, 1980-1989

Mayo: In a role reversal from the 1960s, conglomerates fell out of favor and companies turned to leveraged buyout firms to extract value.  Reginald Lewis of TLC was a prominent player in this marketplace.  His leveraged buyout of Beatrice Foods was the largest such buyout of an offshore company.  As an African-American entrepreneur on Wall Street, he also broke through conventional norms and stereotypes.

Morris: Finally, 1990-1999

Mayo: Reengineering, realignment, and restructuring became the mantra of companies as they tried to streamline and optimize their operations.  Lou Gerstner’s tenure at IBM was characterized by such large scale change initiatives.  Gerstner led the venerable company through a major realignment enabling it to not only survive, but thrive as a newly reinvented systems solutions provider.

Morris: Throughout the past 20 years or so, it has been my great pleasure as well as privilege to work closely with hundreds of owners/CEOs of small companies. That is, with annual sales of less than $25-million. Here’s my question: From which of the business leaders discussed in the book can those who head small companies learn the most valuable lessons? What would those lessons be?

Mayo:  The lessons of contextual intelligence apply to all business regardless of their size.  It is important to pay attention to competitive threats, new technological applications, potential emerging customers segments, etc.  The ability to develop this peripheral view of one’s business enables owners and operators to ensure that they maintain their position in the marketplace while preparing for various future scenarios.

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Tony Mayo invites you to check out the resources at the HBS Leadership Initiative: by clicking here.




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