REALITY BITES

REALITY BITES - How the mighty have fallen. Like a deck of dominos, business heavyweights have toppled, one by one. Faces that once beamed from glossy mags now wear hunted looks on the front of financial newspapers. Dennis Kozslowski (Tyco), Jean-Marie Me

by RICHARD REEVES, a consultant and business writer
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

How the mighty have fallen. Like a deck of dominos, business heavyweights have toppled, one by one. Faces that once beamed from glossy mags now wear hunted looks on the front of financial newspapers. Dennis Kozslowski (Tyco), Jean-Marie Messier (Vivendi), Kenneth Lay (Enron), Bernie Ebbers (WorldCom), Ron Sommer (Deutsche Telekom). Jack Welch's fling with the editor of Harvard Business Review helped to tarnish even his previously shiny reputation.

In the Shelley poem that every schoolchild knows, the pedestal of a ruined statue reads: 'My name is Ozymandias, king of kings: Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!' This is a pretty good summary of the cult of the heroic CEO, just as the next lines capture something of the current mood: 'Nothing beside remains. Round the decay/Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,/The lone and level sands stretch far away.'

As it turned out, our corporate leaders were more Ozymandian than Olympian.

But we shouldn't be downhearted. The projection of the CEO as all-action superhero has been a corrosive trend, inflating top salaries to immoral levels, rendering whole firms vulnerable to the mood-swings of individuals and militating against creating organisation-wide responsibility for both prosperity and probity.

There was a moment, after 9/11, when it seemed as if the heroic leader was to make even more headway. An article in Fortune, likening Rudy Giuliani to Winston Churchill, declared: 'After years of losing ground to its dowdy cousin, Management, Leadership is back.' Wrong on both counts. Far from losing ground, leadership has become the mantra of the business community.

A Google search of the word throws up 9,540,000 items. (Or 9,540,001, now. Sorry.)

Leadership is about inspiring others, painting pictures of the future, telling stories, keeping a 'helicopter view' of the strategic issues by staying out of messy management stuff. Leaders don't burn the midnight oil poring over accounts, they spend two days at scenario-planning exercises.

They don't make tough decisions about who to hire and fire, they create a climate of creativity.

Leadership is a lot more fun. Who wouldn't rather focus on broad-brush strategic issues, rather than getting to the bottom of why the figures for sales leads in the information systems are so erratic?

There is a point at which the adoption of a leadership style amounts to the abdication of management responsibility. As Bruce Pasternak and James O'Toole argue in Strategy and Business: 'We now know many companies have been overled and undermanaged.'

The enormous field of leadership research has found little of value, having got stuck on 'contingency theory' about 10 years ago. Contingency theory says that the key qualities of a successful leader are - drumroll please - It Depends... In other words, it varies according to the circumstances of the business and the economy in general. Well, who'd have thought it?

The games that executives play to be successful leaders end up being self-defeating. Robert Goffee, professor of organisational behaviour at London Business School, urges them to 'reveal their weaknesses' - but selectively: 'Knowing which weakness to disclose is a highly honed art... A leader should reveal only a tangential flaw and perhaps even several of them. Paradoxically, this admission will help divert attention away from major weaknesses.' This is tricky, 'especially when the end result must be authenticity'.

That's clear then: consciously admit to a few irrelevant weaknesses in order to demonstrate your humanity, in the hope that your staff will be distracted from your really serious shortcomings, while remaining entirely authentic.

It is time for a retreat from this stuff to the skills that we really need from people in positions of responsibility: patience, analytical ability, focus, attention to detail, a willingness to be accountable, development of others - sweating the small stuff. Pasternak and others are pointing to the quiet leaders of tomorrow, who trade charisma for commitment. Jim Collins, author of Good to Great, calls them Level 5 leaders, and points to Darwin E Smith, former CEO of Kimberly-Clark, as an exemplar.

Darwin E who? Quite. The unassuming in-house lawyer turned struggling Kimberly-Clark into the leading paper-based product company in the world.

For 20 years, he set targets, held people to them and analysed the bowels of the company. Smith was not the kind of person who got invited to be a keynote speaker at swanky New York conferences.

If all of this is ringing a faint bell, it should. Most of it is what used to be called management. That management is hard is unquestionable.

That it is vital has been shown more clearly in the past few months than ever before. Stories and big pictures are helpful, but WorldCom employees would rather have a job and a pension fund with some money in it. Inspiration is nice, but we need some honest perspiration from executives.

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