In his book Everyday Greatness, Stephen Covey recounts the old tale of a Japanese samurai warrior and his three sons. He takes out an arrow and asks each son to break it; they do so easily. Then he takes out three arrows, bound together, and asks his sons to break them. No one can. "That is your lesson," the samurai tells them. "If you three stick together, you will never be defeated."
That old story is taking on fresh life as today's executives find that their capacity to meet challenges rests more and more upon partnerships with others. Consider some of "America's Best Leaders." Honoree Fred Krupp became the president of Environmental Defense when it was fashionable, as one observer said, for environmental groups to dance on corporations; Krupp changed tactics and began dancing with companies. He has forged many unlikely alliances, but perhaps the partnership with the greatest potential is one that Krupp, along with Jonathan Lash of the World Resources Institute, created with a dozen large corporations including General Electric, Duke Energy, and DuPont. The U.S. Climate Action Partnership, as it's known, is putting intense pressure on the federal government to reduce carbon emissions. Never before has there been such a compact between private companies and nongovernmental organizations.
America's best leaders increasingly reflect this spirit of teamwork. Princeton University President Shirley Tilghman and Brown University President Ruth Simmons have not only achieved significant breakthroughs on their own campuses but also joined to lend a helping hand to Simmons's alma mater, Dillard University, after Hurricane Katrina.
It used to be that the Center for Creative Leadership, the country's largest executive training program, taught its students to think of leadership in two concentric circles. The inner circle is you, it instructed its students, and to become a leader, first you must learn to lead yourself. The outer circle is your organization, and next you must succeed in leading there.
In recent years, though, the center has added a third circle, this one representing organizations and institutions outside the leader's own group. Now, it tells students, you must learn to collaborate and lead there, too. Other advisers are making the same argument: The most effective leaders are those who can cross boundaries, forming partnerships not just in their own sectors but with other sectors—worldwide—as well.
Technology and globalization are driving much of this change. With burgeoning markets overseas, large American corporations find that partners in Europe, Asia, and Latin America are keys to growth. Witness GE's efforts with the Chinese government to bring lower-emission technology to market. The Bush administration, despite its go-it-alone approach, relies heavily on other friendly governments to share intelligence about terrorism. Even social entrepreneurs are going global: The nonprofit Teach for America helps groups in Britain, India, and elsewhere create similar organizations.
Growing global threats, likewise, require global compacts. Klaus Schwab, founder of the World Economic Forum, says the United States could act alone to curb acid rain because the main sources of pollution are U.S. coal plants. But no country can tackle climate change alone because the atmosphere reflects carbon dioxide built up around the world. If the U.K. stopped using carbon entirely, says former Prime Minister Tony Blair, industrial production from China would make up the difference in just two years.
Today's leaders can hardly solve all of their problems by seeking allies. New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg noted that when he spoke of a view he shares with U.S. Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson: "Hank and I both come from a world where in some issues you are competitive and for some you are partners; on some issues they're your customer, on some you're their customer. It's not the simplistic world of good guy, bad guy."
What's clear, as Tom Tierney, former CEO of Bain & Co., argues, is that leaders today must have broad bandwidth. We may still retain the image of a leader who is alone and heroic. Who can forget the haunting picture of John F. Kennedy alone in the Oval Office during the Cuban missile crisis? But today's leader is usually the one sitting at a table with six others, sleeves rolled up, trying to solve a problem together.
U.S. News Editor at Large David Gergen is the director of the Center for Public Leadership at Harvard.