We read stories about people achieving spectacular ascents due to their disciplined work, excellent interpersonal skills, and innovative ideas. Equally, in my own profession – for good or ill – I often see ambitious university professors becoming, successively, department heads, faculty deans, associate vice-presidents, vice-presidents, and presidents. In numerous areas, leaders must arise from inside the organization. In a specialized research institution, the acquisition of a targeted skill set and proficiency in implementing it are indispensable conditions of successful leadership. Obviously, one cannot lead a team of researchers without developing solid competence in scientific literacy. An outstanding conductor is unable to lead a cardiac institute and a noteworthy athletic coach is helpless in front of an orchestra. Knowing how to grasp the interests and possibilities of an organization and how to secure the recognition and cooperation of the staff comes from the rich experience obtained within a well-defined scope of expertise.

            However, it may happen that someone who, for years, works as a leader in one field of endeavour achieves spectacular success in a radically different one. An example is worth mentioning here. At an advanced age, Kazuo Inamori was appointed to lead the Japanese Airlines company, which was plagued with serious operational problems. He was an “amateur” in this domain, with no previous experience in the aviation transport industry. After receiving substantial government aid, Inamori introduced a number of drastic measures: he dismissed a third of the workforce, shaved employee benefits and eliminated unprofitable routes. He transformed JAL into a highly profitable company. But he did not credit his success in the revival of the firm only to the extensive structural overhaul. He suggested a different and rather unusual way of looking at business operations. He felt that, during the crisis, he had to unite his employees around the proposed recovery efforts. To achieve this aim, he held compulsory philosophy sessions and, while serving beer, asked the staff to reflect with him on the right way to live, the manner of fostering a “corporate character,” and the kind of attitudes and actions that are necessary to reach the objectives of the company. He praised the practice of philosophy that elevates the mind and refines one’s character.

In the leadership literature, Inamori and others (another famous example is Angelo Bartlett Giamatti, English Renaissance scholar, university president who later became the Commissioner of Major League of Baseball), who venture into radically new realms and prove their worth, are called outsiders. I prefer calling them guests. They are guest leaders.

We usually consider guests those persons who live and act in places that are not their permanent homes. Being a guest is either a privilege, for which they are deeply thankful, or a right, for which they pay the proper amount of money. They are either invited acquaintances or friends or entitled travellers. In both cases, in a friendly house or in an unknown standard hotel, they are called to treat people and objects with respect and consideration and to observe some rules. Guests tend to treat a milieu they visit with sensibility; they adapt to the requirements of concrete situations and maintain a certain restraint, an appropriate reserve. Although guests do not relate to their hosts with a sense of intimacy, they enter into the hosts’ living space and community with a sense of being welcomed, accepted, and treated with consideration. In this space, the feelings of alienation and disorientation may be absent, but not the awareness of distance and unfamiliarity. The distance between them and their hosts, as well as the sense of unfamiliarity, bring to their lives certain benefits: they gain an impartial view of local habits and preferences and guess correctly the intricate subtleties of human interactions. When they are in a foreign land, genuine guests prefer style to comfort, character to uniformity, excitement and wonder to dull routine. They enjoy being in presence of the diversity of customs, mores, and beliefs and, without reducing the perceived sense of distance or assimilating all the cultural elements, they are affected and enriched by this diversity.

What is then the advantage of being a guest leader? Why does a guest leader succeed in tackling serious challenges and achieving beneficial transformations?

These leaders find themselves in a professional milieu in which the persons, procedures, activities, results, methods of evaluations, and the entire institutional culture are, at least for a while, unfamiliar. As I just pointed out, the experience of unfamiliarity is far from being a drawback. It can become a significant gain. Unfamiliarity produces a heightened awareness of details of intricate patterns and multifaceted realities. It prompts someone to see things differently and better, through other eyes, to observe people’s attitudes, motives, values, and actions with a keener power of discernment.

When we are in our habitual working environment, we have our cares and worries about our objectives and means to achieve them and carry out our activities in a habitual manner; we tend to become less alert and lose the power to perceive the complexity and richness of our surroundings. Habits blunt our sensory appreciation and, occasionally, even make us blind; we cease to see what is close to us and what we take for granted. Ludwig Wittgenstein’s was right to observe, “The aspects of things that are most important for us are hidden because of their simplicity and familiarity.”

Because we thoughtlessly rely on the habitual support of our own home environment, and, consequently, lose the power to see the quotidian familiar, we may follow the example of Saint Augustine who showed his town to a guest and, at the same time, became a guest with him in order to perceive it anew. Similarly, becoming a guest in our own surroundings and making things distant and unfamiliar on purpose grant us fuller awareness and uncommon thrill; we happily discover aspects of things that we failed to notice before because we were so accustomed to it. “True awareness is wakened in us only by what is unfamiliar,” writes Helmuth Plessner. “To be able to look at something, we need distance.”

For those who live and work in a familiar milieu, the sense of distancing unfamiliarity needs to be triggered, sharpened, and enlarged. For a guest, this sense, through which he is able to see with different eyes and bring realities into a clearer visibility, functions of its own accord, almost naturally.

Leaders who enter an organization as guests often see better and faster what needs to be discarded, changed, or improved. They understand and evaluate perhaps more accurately the unnecessary components of production procedures or educational programs or research activities; they tend to eliminate waste faster and eradicate inefficiencies without annoying and painful side issues. Perhaps more importantly, they see more clearly, and at the right time, a greater number of available opportunities, which had not been previously recognized, measured, explored, and exploited. They are ager to present their ideas to colleagues without making any assumption about their entrenched views and accumulated experiences. Their leadership style will be fashioned, consciously or unconsciously, by both their own beliefs and convictions and by the institutional culture they gradually discover and study from a distance.

I did not address one important feature of the guest’s behaviour: the propensity for acting with a certain restraint. I would merely say that the actual situation should suggest the leaders whether obeying or not obeying the dictates of this virtue will get them a better result.

Countless leadership books tell young leaders that they need to acquire and assert a “vision;” they have to become “visionary.” Yet, quite often, these abstract concepts generate either confusion or lukewarm response. What, in truth, they need is to learn the art of seeing and of acting upon a proper reading and understanding of concrete situations. They need to develop and perfect their ability to consider with new consciousness opposing or complementary viewpoints, specific and well-defined goals, untapped possibilities, appropriate strategies, and right moments of decision. They need to be bold and go beyond the safety of their well-oiled leadership practices and enclaves and become, at least in their imagination, guests who perceive everything with different eyes.