Over the years several foundations have supported research in leadership. None was as interested in the subject, or as generous in its contribution over an extended period of time, especially in the 1980s and ‘90s, as the W.K. Kellogg Foundation. The Kellogg Foundation supported the study of leadership before the study of leadership became (somewhat) fashionable. And the Kellogg Foundation supported the study of leadership as well as the practice of leadership before the leadership industry exploded. Years ago I myself was a modest beneficiary of this support, for which I remain grateful.
So it is with no degree of pleasure that I am witnessing the continuing decline of the Kellogg Company – the company that for so many decades was an icon of American commerce and of Americana more generally. Put directly, Kellogg has faltered. It has failed to keep up with changing times and tastes, as consumers continue to turn away from cereals and snack bars in favor of healthier and quicker breakfast alternatives. Just last week Kellogg was obliged once more to post steep losses ($293 million for the last quarter of 2014), and to predict flat sales.
Kellogg’s story is a familiar one. Companies that fail to anticipate the future, and to innovate accordingly, are destined, doomed if you will, to be left behind. America’s corporate landscape is littered with the corpses of such companies, or at least, with corporate corpuses that are much less healthy in the present than they were in the past. Kellogg’s CEO, John Bryant, has admitted as much, noting that the company he has led since 2011 has failed to keep up with consumers’ current preferences for food that is “simple,” for food that is “clearly less refined.”
Clearly the context within which Kellogg is operating has changed. Just as clearly Kellogg’s executives have been unable or unwilling to recognize that this change would inevitably have an impact on its core business. It is an irony of the industry – the leadership industry – that the company that did so much to support leadership theory and practice has been itself victimized by bad, as in incompetent, leadership. Perhaps if the industry had all along paid less attention to leaders and more attention to the circumstances within which they were located things might have been different.