Thursday, June 01, 2020

Thoughtful Words about Leadership

The Times newspaper of London, noting the conviction of executives like Ken Lay and Jeff Skilling of Enron and Bernie Ebbers at Worldcom, has an interesting article about how people get to the top. Here’s an extract:
Chief executives will often know little about what their board members get up to, and next to nothing about what happens at the grassroots. This is not because they are stupid, but because they are human. In a sense, Lay and Ebbers were ruined by the cult of leadership, propagated by countless business books, that will have previously served them so well. The mythology held that those who ran successful companies were vested with a rare insight and knowledge. This is great for the ego, and helps to fend off those who covet your job, but quite inconvenient when you are standing in the dock telling all and sundry that you didn’t have a clue.
The writer, David Bolchover, points out that top executives are more likely to get their jobs through luck, patronage or political maneuvering that through any outstanding business acumen. I’m not trying to denigrate genuinely able leaders, but most top executives today aren’t as smart as the prevailing cult of leadership claims. It’s a common fallacy that one person’s leadership ability can reliably change an organization. It has happened — there are amazing people who have changed the world — but it’s extremely rare. We remember such people because there are so few of them. Most of our leaders are simply human beings like the rest of us, doing the best they can without possessing any unusual abilities.

It’s this cult of “the all-powerful leader” that’s responsible for so many CEOs being fired after a short time in the job. They’re unable to live up to the shareholders’ wildly inflated expectations. Crazy CEO salaries are driven by the same idiocy. Shareholders convince themselves it’s worth paying millions to one person because they expect that person, virtually unaided, to transform their investment.

Power is seductive. Top people love having it — and want to hang on to it as long as they can. As Dan Bobinski writes:
Just like political leaders, many business leaders also fear losing their power. When that fear is coupled with an addiction to power it's only a short step to begin manipulating the checks and balances that are meant to keep things above board. … The lesson to learn is that people in authority can become blind to their own weaknesses. In his book Why Smart Executives Fail: And What You Can Learn from Their Mistakes, Sydney Finkelstein says that fallen leaders “are almost always remarkably intelligent and usually have terrific track records.” Bottom line, if you are in a position of power, you are not immune from the seductive dangers of addiction. Make sure you have a good set of checks and balances. Be accountable to more than one person. Make it one of your personal goals to be intellectually honest with yourself - and with a close group of others who will hold you accountable.
Since the way to win and keep power is to foster the false cult of the heroic, all-conquering leader, it’s not surprising business executives willingly cooperate with it. They encourage their PR people to get them worshiping interviews on TV or in the business media. They write books extolling their amazing business acumen — even, like the top guy at Raytheon, plagiarizing the content and passing it off as their own.

Maybe it’s time to get back a sense of proportion and accept that even the leaders of huge corporations could use a little humility. After all, recognizing your weaknesses and staying clear of them is the first step to lowering the number of mistake you’ll make. Nor can anyone be a civilized leader if they’re obsessed with furthering their own self-image.

As Peter Drucker wrote:
No institution can possibly survive if it needs geniuses or supermen to manage it. It must be organized in such a way as to be able to get along under a leadership composed of average human beings.

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DJHowatt said...

You've made some excellent points about leadership -- or lack thereof -- in business. I believe that political skill and leadership skill are both necessary. Certainly people have risen with insufficient amounts of either, but it's difficult to recommend that path. I've done some research in Leadership and found that a great summary of three fundamental attributes is Be Know Do: effective business leaders need to be an example to their teams; have the necessary knowledge; and move into action. This is how average human beings can build the leadership we all need to effectively influence our colleagues. By the way, these are skills for leadership, not manipulation or demagoguery, so the ethical component will come from the beliefs of the leader and the team be they good or bad.

Let me know what you think.


4:53 PM  

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