If you were hiring a contractor to build your house, presumably you’d hire one with experience building. If you were hiring a driver to drive your car, presumably you’d hire one with experience driving. If you were hiring a tailor to make you a suit, presumably you’d hire one with experience tailoring.
But for some reason this minimum standard – “experience required” – does not apply to hiring a leader. It certainly does not apply to hiring an American president.
My objection to the projection of Donald Trump on the national stage has nothing to do with psychology or ideology. It has everything to do with his lack of experience – his complete lack of experience as a political leader.
He would insist that he has been a leader and he would be right. He has been a leader, in business, and a successful one at that. But I would no more suggest someone for American president who had not a lick of experience in government than I would suggest someone for the New York Yankees who had not a lick of experience playing baseball – whose only experience in sports was playing for the New York Jets.
Nor is this time the first time. Last time around we voted into the Oval Office a man who had government experience – but not much. Barack Obama was elected president of the United State after having served in the U.S. Senate for just over one half of one term.
There is no other occupation that requires so woefully little of those who profess to practice it. It’s nuts when you think about it – that so many of us are willing to entrust the national welfare to a rank amateur.
To follow the scandal at Volkswagen is to be stunned anew, stymied anew, by our ignorance of bad leadership. We know no more about bad leadership now than we ever did – a miserable discredit to any of the ostensible experts. A miserable discredit to anyone even vaguely related, anyone in the hard sciences, the social sciences, anyone who presumes to study the human condition.
Volkswagen has already admitted to equipping some 11 million cars worldwide with software that enabled it to cheat on emissions tests. And the costs have already been huge: personal costs, professional costs, political costs, consumer costs, climate costs, reputational costs, and obviously financial costs, which will in the end be staggering.
How could this have happened? How could Volkswagen’s leaders and managers get themselves, their company into such a miserable mess? Did they not know right from wrong? Did their greed to succeed color their judgement? Did they really think that they could indefinitely get away with wrongdoing on such a massive scale?
There will, of course, be case studies aplenty of how this all came to pass. But they will all be inadequate to the magnitude of the task at hand. What this case merits is nothing less than a massive, expensive, and enduring commitment to unraveling how what happened did.
Bad leadership is a disease. It’s not a physical disease. It’s a social disease no less invasive or destructive than its physical counterpart. Unless and until we recognize the parallel, bad leadership will remain incurable, impossible to root out in the future any more than in the past. Sad. No, tragic.
For the better part of her tenure as German Chancellor, Angela Merkel could do no wrong. She was that popular at home. She was that respected abroad. And she was so successful at wielding her low key approach to power that she effectively led not only in Germany, but in Europe. For the most of the last decade it was Merkel, more than any of her European counterparts, who was the fulcrum on which the continent turned.
Those days are now over. The worm has turned. Ever since Merkel put out a humungous welcome mat for Middle Eastern migrants a year ago, her domestic approval ratings have dropped and her foreign policy creds have diminished. This was exacerbated in the last week when her new best friend forever, Turkey’s autocratic president Recep Tayyip Erdogan, put the squeeze on her. Knowing that he had gained the upper hand in containing the flow of migrants, which had become Merkel’s highest priority, he insisted that she permit prosecution of a German comic who had had the temerity to insult him. To the dismay of fully two thirds of Germans, the Chancellor buckled under heel of the president.
My point is not to remark on Merkel’s original decision to allow more than a million migrants to settle in Germany in one year. Nor on her subsequent decision to make a pact with the devil – Erdogan – to get him to help her staunch the flow. Nor is it even on her decision a few days ago to compromise on free speech, to permit prosecution of a comedian to go forward.
Rather my point is to point to the perils of power prolonged. Merkel has already been chancellor for ten years. She is tired and so are her followers. The large majority of Germans who for a decade were putty in her hands are putty no longer. Their patience is wearing thin and their desire for new blood in the Chancellor’s office is becoming palpable. If Angela Merkel wants her reputation as a great global leader to remain intact, she had better clean up her mess as rapidly as possible and then scamper on out of the public eye.
As anyone who knows me really or virtually will not be surprised to read, it’s been hard for me to keep my mouth shut – hard for me not to blog!
So I will blog, periodically, episodically, today about one of the most under-appreciated and least-discussed trends in global business. It’s the decline of the CEO – the diminishment of his (still, almost always, “his,” not hers) power, authority, and influence.
I am not saying anything startlingly new. In fact, I blogged about just this subject on December 21st. But in recent weeks have been fresh reminders of a trend now so strikingly in evidence it’s beginning to amount to a game changer.
I will spare you a list of examples that have piled up even in the last few months. Instead I will mention only two.
The first is what’s been going on in Sweden. After a property scandal, Swedbank lost both its chairman and chief executive officer. Another bank, Nordea, was called “shameful” by Sweden’s prime minister, Stefan Lofven, for helping clients with offshore investing. (Nordea’s transgression was made public by the leaked Panama Papers.) In 2013 was a boardroom shakeup at TeliaSonera, the telecommunications company, over corruption in Uzbekistan. And in 2015, the forestry group, SCA, ran into trouble over the use of corporate jets by executives and their families.
Such upheavals are all to the good. Corporate governance in Sweden is working as it is intended to work. In so far as is reasonably possible, it is keeping management on the straight and narrow. How? By giving Sweden’s investors control over the composition of boards – as opposed to giving such control to the boards themselves. While this confirms the effectiveness of a system in which, for once, the fox is not charged with watching the hen house, it similarly confirms that greed is pervasive, even in the fantasyland that is Scandinavia, and that, increasingly, there is a willingness to throw the rascals out.
The second example of the decline of the CEO is what happened just this week at BP (formerly British Petroleum), one of the world’s “supermajor” oil and gas companies. Angry shareholders mounted an unprecedented protest again the company, rebelling against a 20 per cent pay rise for CEO Bob Dudley. Who could blame them? The board’s decision to pay Dudley nearly $20 million for 2015 came hard on the heels of a miserably bad spell for BP – the company recorded its biggest ever financial loss, axed thousands of jobs, and saw its share price crater.
What was BP’s board thinking?! Was it aching for a breaking?! Board members beware! Your failure to read the handwriting on the wall is much more likely than it used to be to result in your collective rejection and individual embarrassment.
I AM WRITING A BOOK ABOUT LEADERSHIP. YES, YET ANOTHER BOOK ABOUT LEADERSHIP! AND ABOUT FOLLOWERSHIP… AND ABOUT CONTEXT!
I’M GOOD AT WALKING AND CHEWING GUM AT THE SAME TIME. BUT I’M LESS GOOD AT WRITING A BLOG AND A BOOK AT THE SAME TIME.
SO FOR THE TIME BEING I AM GIVING UP BLOGGING – WHICH, DURING THIS CAMPAIGN SEASON, IS AKIN TO GIVING UP CHOCOLATE.