Leaders and Light Bulbs


Once upon a time, long, long ago, I ran an organization. Well, I’ve run several organizations, but in this instance, after a few years of leading and managing, I was ready to move on to something else. And I did, in good conscience. For I was leaving behind a going concern that was humming along, as within the timeframe of just a few years my colleagues and I had established an enterprise that by every measure was successful.

Though I was a leadership scholar as well as a leadership practitioner, I left said slot under the illusion, the delusion, that what we had put in place would remain in place. That all the good work we had done would not, could not, in short order be undone. Well, dear reader, I was wrong. Very wrong. In not much more than a year, much of what we had initiated and then carefully crafted bit the dust, hit the cutting room floor, never again to see the light of day.  A leadership lesson learned – the hard way. Whatever you build up, your successor can quite quickly, rather easily, tear down.

It’s a lesson that comes to mind regularly, as it’s not uncommon for a leader to erase the work, that is, some of the work, of his or her immediate predecessor. However, during the presidency of Donald Trump it’s a lesson of which I’m reminded virtually weekly. Virtually weekly Trump obliterates one or another of Barack Obama’s policy achievements. If it were up to Trump, Obama, not to speak of his record, would be, apparently, wiped from the history books, so eager does the former seem to erase any vestige of the latter.  

U.S. as participant in the Paris climate agreement? No longer. U.S. as participant in the Iran nuclear agreement? No longer. U.S. as participant in the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement? No longer. U.S. as proponent of … making light bulbs more efficient? No longer.

What? It was President George W. Bush who first signed (in 2007) a law mandating that light bulbs use less energy. To be sure, it was Obama who pushed this environmentally friendly initiative even further, who expanded the legislative ban that Bush pushed through to include more types of lights. No matter: Trump knocked down not just what one of his predecessors had built up, but two.

Trump said he mandated the policy change because “I always look orange and so do you. The light is the worst.” Was he trying to be funny? No matter. The point is instead of being a builder, Trump’s a demolisher. Of course there’s the more general point as well. Leader beware! He or she who succeeds you could wreck what you wrought!  

Leaders Look in the Mirror

Last week the Business Roundtable announced it was changing direction.  The Roundtable is among the nation’s largest and most important professional associations, counting among its members chief executives of dozens of the largest U. S. companies. So, when it issues a new ‘statement of purpose,” attention should be paid.  

The change of direction amounted to an apparent abdication of the principle of “shareholder primacy.” Instead of being driven primarily or even exclusively by profits, members of the Roundtable agreed from here on in to consider “all stakeholders,” including workers, customers, and society at large.  

No sooner was the new statement of purpose issued than it was rendered suspect. Larry Summers, for example, former U.S. Treasury Secretary, suggested it likely was empty rhetoric. “I’m wary,” he said. But while rejiggering the Roundtable’s presentation of putative purpose guarantees nothing, it does suggest that leaders in business are being buffeted, if only slightly, by the prevailing winds.

Why after so many years of putting profits first did most members of the Business Roundtable sign on to a statement that signaled significant change? Here’s my systemic sketch – a sketch that looks at 1) leaders; 2) followers, and 3) the contexts within which leaders and followers are situated.     

Leaders

Several corporate leaders led the charge, argued for change. Top of this list is Larry Fink, CEO of BlackRock, among the largest money management firms in the world. For years Fink has publicly pushed for, proselytized for, change away from shareholder primacy toward corporate responsibility. Other like-minded leaders include, Starbucks’ CEO, Howard Schultz; Salesforce’s co- CEO, Marc Benioff; and, more recently, JP Morgan Chase’s CEO, Jamie Dimon.   

Political leaders have also played a part, none more so than two of the three leading Democratic candidates for president, Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders. Both are progressive who for years have taken aim at big business which, by and large, they judge rapacious. Warren has maintained that until “big corporations start following through on their words by paying workers more instead of spending billions on buybacks,” she would remain a harsh critic. Sanders has claimed that business leaders were “feeling the pressure from working families all over the country.”

Followers

Public approval of corporate leaders is at or near an all-time low. Americans are disposed to see corporate leaders as obscenely greedy and outrageously self-interested. From where they stand, why not? CEO’s sky-high earnings are in striking contrast to those of their workers. A single indicator: the highest paid chief executives make 254 times the median salary of those in their employ. Some people have protested. For example, employees at MacDonald’s, Amazon, and Google have taken publicly to objecting to what they deem destructive discrepancies, among them income inequities. Moreover, while most of the time the American people are bystanders, some of the time they are not. Come November 2020 will be an election in which an electorate that is fed-up just might vote into office a president, a Senate, and a House of Representatives (not to speak of officials at the state and local levels) that tilts to the left. Should this happen, members of the Business Roundtable have no interest in being caught fully flat-footed.

Contexts

The United States is not exempt from the populism and nativism that have come to characterize liberal democracies the world over.  In other words, the U. S. is itself situated in a larger, global context within which popular discontents remain on the rise. Why do some of the world’s largest corporations pay no taxes?  Why do some people have so much more while other people have so much less? Why is the environment being dangerously degraded while leaders seem unable effectively to respond? Why is North Korea continuing to develop weapons that threaten not just its closest neighbors but places and people at great remove? Why is corruption more rampant? Why have what historically were the world’s greatest democracies – the United States and the United Kingdom – declined? Why have they been so stuck – the United States unable to shed by far the worst president in its history; the United Kingdom unable to extract itself from a miserably misguided commitment, Brexit.

Want to know why members of the Business Roundtable thought it was high time,  past time, to change their appearance if not necessarily their substance, start here.  

The Leadership Industry – Abdication of Responsibility

For years I’ve written about, talked about, bad leadership. And for years I’ve wondered why among putative leadership experts I’ve been among the few who chose to do so.

Perhaps it’s because for most of the half century life of the leadership industry the American experience of bad leadership was something of an abstraction. This is not to say that Americans have had no bad leaders. Quite the contrary, we did. But at least at the national level – specifically the presidential level – our leadership was, broadly speaking, good enough. The single exception to this general rule was Richard Nixon, who was dispatched with relative dispatch.

Since the presidency of Donald Trump this has no longer been the case. He has been so manifestly unfit, in every way, to hold the nation’s highest office that to discuss him per se is no longer of any interest.  But what is of interest, of practical consequence, is the nation’s paralysis given a chief executive who is neither suitable nor capable. We lack an adequate response at the individual level and at the institutional one. We are stuck. Americans are stuck with the worst of all possible leaders – while being unable and/or unwilling to do anything about it. Had Trump been Chief Executive Officer of a company instead of a country, his wretchedly ineffective and woefully unethical leadership would never have been tolerated. Not for a week or a month not to speak of a year. But here we are, America, stuck.

The leadership industry prides itself on having experts of various kinds – scholars and instructors, practitioners, consultants, and coaches, you name it. Moreover, the leadership industry has yielded countless, numberless, teaching materials – programs and trainings; courses and workshops, books and articles. What it has not provided is even the most modest information or slightest instruction on what to do when saddled with a leader who is bad. Is it that we, we putative leadership experts, are unable to respond, or is it that we are unwilling? In the event of the former, it is our professional responsibility to address what we have ignored. In the event of the latter, it is our moral responsibility to hang up our spurs.

Poor Xi. What’s a Dictator Like He to Do?

In the old days, no problem. When a dictator wanted to eliminate his enemies, he simply went ahead and did it. Arranged for them to disappear or, maybe, not disappear. Maybe to be found dead on the street or in the bush, to serve as a warning to anyone who would cross him.

Even today by and large that’s what happens. When dictators want to erase their opposition, they do so, without apparent compunction or contrition. Anything to preserve their power. Meantime we, we Americans, generally pay them no mind, even when they kill with apparent abandon. Mostly we are too busy or too oblivious or too distracted or too uninformed or too indifferent or too pitiless even to pay attention, not to speak of care.

But every now and then a dictator comes along who is impossible to ignore – who for various reasons matters even to Americans. Such a leader is Xi Jinping. Why does Xi matter? The list is long – but close to the top of the list is his most obvious opposition. Which is not, of course, in mainland China, but in Hong Kong. His opponents in Hong Kong are so large in their numbers, so persistent in their protests, and so skilled at attracting global attention that for now at least they symbolize the struggle between autocracy and democracy. This struggle is not new; it’s been going on in Hong Kong for five years. But in the last two months it’s been relentless, so ceaseless that the Chinese authorities have had no choice but to address it.

Here’s the tricky part. Xi Jinping does not have the luxury of his predecessors or even of most of his dictatorial contemporaries. Should he decide to use force, to bring in the army to subdue the people, the price he will pay is certain to be high. The world is watching. Hong Kong is center stage and there’s no bloodying anyone, least of all a young protester, without incurring global outrage.  

Which is why at least up now the Communist Party of China – read Xi Jinping – has exercised unaccustomed restraint. To be sure, the Chinese authorities have done something. They have tried to crush the opposition by hiding their iron fist in a velvet glove. Tried to outmaneuver their Hong Kong opponents by, for example, manipulating social media, putting the squeeze on business, and limiting access to the mainland. So far though nothing has worked. Maybe nothing will work – short of using violence to force the people of Hong Kong to toe China’s line.  How risky a tactic would that be? Clearly so risky that Xi himself is reluctant to use it.  What an irony – a near all-powerful leader on the horns of a most difficult and possibly dangerous dilemma.

You’re a leader? Fine. But to whom are you responsible?

In a book I wrote fifteen years ago titled, Bad Leadership, I described seven different types of bad leadership, one of which was Insular.

Insular leadership is when the leader and at least some followers minimize or disregard the health and welfare of “the other” – that is, those outside the group or organization for which they are directly responsible.

I described among others the case of Lee Raymond, who for years was chairman and chief executive officer of Exxon, the largest energy company in the United States. But while he was leading Exxon, Raymond was also the most powerful and outspoken oil industry executive against any and all efforts to contain global warming. Additionally, he had zero compunction about cooperating with repressive regimes. As Forbes put it, Raymond was “unapologetic about making deals with regimes that lean toward the diabolical.” But … was Raymond an effective CEO – good for Exxon and everyone directly associated with it, especially stockholders? He was.

Which raises this question: To whom are leaders responsible?  Are they responsible only to those who are their obvious constituents? Or do they bear some responsibility also to a wider public? Do leaders of, say, large publicly held companies have any responsibility at all for the general welfare? Or are they accountable only to those directly in their line of sight?

The question is always important, especially this week in the United States, where because of two recent mass shootings gun violence as a political issue is front and center, again. Writing in the New York Times, Andrew Ross Sorkin took a novel approach. He wrote what was, in effect, an open letter to Doug McMillon, who is CEO of Walmart, the largest seller of guns in the United States.    

Sorkin wrote, “You, singularly, have a greater chance to use your role as the chief executive of the country’s largest retailer and largest seller of guns – with greater sway of the entire ecosystem that controls guns sales in the United States than any other individual in corporate America…. It is your moral responsibility to see that it stops.” *

I am sympathetic to Sorkin’s point. But is he right? Is it clear that McMillon is responsible to Americans generally rather than to, say, Walmart stockholders specifically? If the latter is true, then the measure of what constitutes a successful CEO must change. For decades this measure primarily has been profits and stock performance. If profits are up and the stock goes up great, no matter the fallout. If, though, profits are down and the stock goes down, the CEO is likely to be in trouble, whatever his or her other virtues. For example, when the Harvard Business Review (HBR) ranks the “best-performing CEOs” it uses this measure: “financial returns over each CEO’s entire tenure.” To be sure, HBR now also “factors in” ratings on environmental, social and governance issues. But it’s clear that financial performance is the measure that matters much the most.

So, until our assessments are line with our values, nothing much will change. Overwhelmingly private sector leaders will shy from becoming involved in public sector problems because doing so is as likely to punish as reward them.

Back to Doug McMillon. What has he done in response to the two mass murders? So far he has given the order to remove from Walmart’s shelves violent video games. So far he has not given the order to remove from Walmart’s shelves so much as one gun.

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*https://www.nytimes.com/2019/08/05/business/dealbook/walmart-guns.html   

The Myth of Work-life Balance

For years, our attention has been drawn to the tension between “work” and “life.” Employers and their employees, superiors and their subordinates, leaders and their managers all have been told to focus or even fixate on how to jam the demands of a full-time job and the demands of a full-time family in a day with just 24 hours.  

Many countries and companies have responded to the dilemma, tried to address it by offering a range of family friendly policies and programs including part time, flex time, leave time, subsidized childcare, subsidized eldercare, and greater freedom and flexibility.  Women particularly have taken advantage of these offerings – far more often and for longer periods of time than men – though the problem of how to divide time and cope with the relentless demands, especially on families with young children, persists.

But the conversation is based on an unproven assumption – that balance is Nirvana. Balance in all things all the time. Leaders are encouraged to live a balanced life, to wit leadership expert Bill George, in whose view “balanced leaders develop healthier organizations.” More generally, followers as well as leaders are forever being encouraged to strive for work-life balance, all because of the conventional wisdom that balance is best.

Setting aside the question of whether balanced leaders are better leaders – a question that seems still open – is the matter of whether work-life balance is all it’s cracked up to be. Is it, for example, all it’s cracked up to be in the event either work or life is of primary importance? Is it, for example, all it’s cracked up to be no matter the circumstance at work or at home? Is it, for example, all it’s cracked up to be both at age 25 and at age 65? Or are there, personal and professional circumstances in which work-life balance makes no sense? Or even is detrimental as opposed to beneficial?

These questions came to mind recently, while I was reading the Financial Times of July 22nd. In one part of the paper was an article by a Brigid Schulte, who directs the Better Life Lab at New America. Worried that gender equity had “stalled,” she advised companies to make work-life balance a “key performance metric.” But, in another part of the paper, was an article whose message was quite the opposite. It was a piece about the fabulously successful media mogul, Jeffrey Katzenberg. Katzenberg, it was reported, famously had a motto – “If you don’t come in on Sunday, don’t bother coming in on Monday.”

I am not defending Katzenberg’s personal or professional choice – or his leadership style. What I am defending is the position that balance and bliss are not the same. That while balance might work best for most, it does not necessarily work best for all.

Leaderless and Rudderless – the Dems

Whereas the Republicans have at the helm a charismatic leader – Donald Trump’s ability to attract attention and admirers remains remarkable – the Democrats have at the helm no leader at all. This became clear again today, when they proved incapable, completely incapable, of using Robert Mueller’s testimony to significant effect.

Part of the reason obviously was that Mueller failed persuasively to present either himself or his report. But part of the reason was that none of the Congressional Democrats have the magnetism to pull us into their orbit.

Congressman Jerrold Nadler, leader of the House Judiciary Committee? For all his reliability and resolve, I don’t think so. Congressman Adam Schiff, leader of the House Intelligence Committee? For all his insight and intelligence, I don’t think so. Even Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi – cautious to a fault and dithering ineffectually on impeachment – doesn’t cut it. As she proved again today, when she spoke after the proceedings were over, she’s the leader in name only. She’s failed completely – though in fairness it’s not clear she’s even tried – to capture the public imagination.

The same can be said about the candidates for the Democratic nomination for president. For the moment there’s too many of them – who can remember each of their names, not to speak of distinguish the one from the other? And for the moment not one stands out, stands head and shoulders above the rest because he or she is so obviously convincing and compelling. Even the front runners – Biden, Sanders, Warren, Harris – have yet to prove they can cut it. Have yet to prove they could conceivably take on Mr. Charisma and be the one left standing. Meantime it’s Trump who continues to hold center stage. It’s he who continues the star of the circus.

The Leadership Industry – a Lament

We in the leadership industry are responsible – at least in part.

We in the leadership industry are responsible at least in part for the miserable mess that is American politics.

We in the leadership industry are responsible at least in part for the diminution and degradation of American political culture.

We in the leadership industry are responsible at least in part for the fact that not since the advent of political polling have our leaders been as disliked, disrespected, and distrusted as they are now.

We in the leadership industry are responsible at least in part for sending the message that leaders can be novices – completely inexperienced, altogether inexpert, and wholly untested. As was Donald Trump when he was elected president of the United States.

We in the leadership industry are responsible at least in part for sending the wrong message. For sending the message that learning to lead is simple – that it can be accomplished as quickly as easily.   

We in the leadership industry are responsible at least in part for not sending the right message – that learning to lead is hard. That learning to lead involves each of these three: leadership education, leadership training, and leadership development.

We in the leadership industry are responsible at least in part for not getting our act together: for not cooperating and collaborating, among ourselves, to agree on a core curriculum, to set minimal standards, and first to aspire to and then to achieve professionalism.

We in the leadership industry are responsible at least in part for failing to develop a widely accepted and deeply respected analogue to the Hippocratic oath.

We in the leadership industry are responsible at least in part for the fact that America’s followers – the American people – have never been taught that good leadership absent good followership is not only improbable but impossible.   

A Leader is Born

Megan Rapinoe is just getting started and already she’s being compared to Billie Jean King and Muhammed Ali. Two other athlete-activists who left an enduring mark on American sports, American politics, and American culture.  

My guess though is that Rapinoe will turn out different. Only time will tell, of course. All I can do is imagine what she’ll be like ten, twenty years from now. But to listen closely to what she says and to how she says it is to witness a woman who is being nothing if not deliberate, and who is doing nothing if not preparing in the present for her future. For her future as a leader. I don’t mean a leader just in sports, which already she is. Or a leader just in the fight for equal rights, which already she is.  I mean a leader with a capital “L.” A leader in the largest sense of this word – a leader of, say, the United Nations or the United States.  

King and Ali were reactive: they reacted to the situations in which they found themselves. Rapinoe is similarly reactive – she does respond to cues from the contexts within which she is situated. But, additionally, she is proactive. She ventures forth, looks as far into the distance as she possibly can, and then dares to report what’s broke and to tell us how to fix it.

Rapinoe is riding the wave. She is intensely aware of the incredible, indelible, moment in which she finds herself – and intensely aware that it was she who, more than any other single individual, is credited with creating it. But she is also smart enough to be inclusive in her accomplishments; she is also ambitious enough to plan for when her career as a (soccer) player is over; and she is also tough enough to take on, even now, anyone anywhere who has the temerity to get in her way. Megan Rapinoe is no ordinary star athlete. She is a leader who will, in time, almost certainly become more influential and, ultimately, consequential.  

Assassination

An assassination is a murder. But the word “assassination” is usually reserved for the murder of a prominent person – often a politician picked off for political reasons.

Recently was an assassination about which most Americans never heard. Never heard though it occurred in a country that is, or it should be, one of America’s closest and most important allies. Never heard though it triggered in the staid, stable Financial Times an editorial with a decidedly alarming headline, “German Radical Right Threatens the Survival of Democracy.”  

Everyone who pays attention to these things knows that in the wake of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s 2015 decision to admit into Germany a million or more immigrants, refugees, seekers of safe havens, has been a political resurgence of Germany’s extreme right wing. For obvious reasons such a resurgence in Germany particularly has historical resonance. But, additionally, contemporaneously, in the last several years has been a surge in rightwing activity not just virtually, online, but actually – in the streets and in the corridors of power.  

Still, the assassination on June 1st of a popular politician, Walter Luebcke, by a single shot in the head fired at close range, is another matter entirely. Given it was the first murder of a politician by a rightwing extremist in Germany’s postwar history, it is not too much to insist that though attention has not been paid, attention must be paid.      

The difference is of significance. Laypeople are murdered, leaders are assassinated.