Published on
the Guardian/UK

Why Fearless Leaders are Something to Dread

Simon Caulkin

LONDON - The painful unraveling over the last year of the public and private lives of one of the UK's most iconic businessmen, Lord Browne, is a sobering example of the pitfalls of the cult of leadership. Raising expectations far beyond the capacity of one human to fulfill them - neither BP's successes nor its more recent failings were ever down to Browne alone - hero leaders often end up destroying themselves and wounding the companies that helped to make them.

The love affair with Leadership - capital L - is deep-rooted and pervasive, as a look at almost any copy of Harvard Business Review or Fortune will confirm. April's HBR establishes both the tone and the assumed relationship with 'What Your Leader Expects From You'. February offers 'Discovering Your Authentic Leadership', while January 2007 - a special issue devoted to 'The Tests of a Leader' - sports a cover picture of a shirt-sleeved executive (male, naturally) pumping press-ups on the boardroom table. 'Leadership is for lone He-Men' is the clear message: leaders are managers on steroids.

Of course, we need leaders to focus, decide, rally and sometimes inspire. From playgrounds to football teams to political parties, human groups do not remain leaderless for long. But the business need for heroic leadership - and its corollary, the lament for the lack of it that kicks off most articles on the subject - is something else again.

Where does the desire for heroes originate? One source is the quest for certainty. This intensifies as the world becomes more uncertain; perversely, by raising expectations it also increases the likelihood that they will be dashed. Another source is the way the leader's job is specified. Theoretically, the need for hierarchy, with a strong leader on top, stems from the idea that employees' and companies' interests differ, so a strong boss is needed to ensure the workforce does what is required for shareholders. The boss must also decide what they should do. Obvious, really: in any case, the alternative - running a company from the bottom up - is surely a recipe for chaos and anarchy?

Except that these notions are dangerous half-truths. In theory and in practice, hierarchy doesn't work, and no one put the reason better then GE's Jack Welch, himself an iconic manager. Hierarchy, he said, defines an organisation in which people have 'their face towards the CEO and their ass towards the customer'. The more charismatic the executive, and the more centralised the power, the more perverse the effect.

Centralised power and decision-making, central planning by another name, is not only bad news for the customer. It leads to a cult of personality that wrecks good management. In Ego Check: Why Executive Hubris is Wrecking Companies and Careers (Kaplan), Mathew Hayward notes that chief executives who become celebrities are a danger both to themselves and their followers. They believe their own press, attribute success to their own brilliance and failure to the incompetence of others, and vastly overestimate their decision-making prowess. Success only supercharges this process, generating feelings of invincibility that make an eventual fall inevitable.

When CEOs become celebrities, their firms' performance starts to decline, Hayward finds. Before their downfalls, Martha Stewart, Enron's Ken Lay, Hank Greenberg at AIG, Sunbeam's Al Dunlap, Dennis Kozlowski at Tyco, and WorldCom's Bernie Ebbers all figured in laudatory cover stories in prominent business magazines. He also discovered that companies with starry CEOs pay more for acquisitions. And consider this: by acting as positive feedback, stellar pay can reinforce executive hubris and its damaging effects. Hayward writes: 'By fostering false confidence, greater compensation can actually diminish our resourcefulness and productivity.'

At bottom, the cult of leadership is based on a false opposition. The opposite of top-down hierarchy is not bottom-up anarchy. It is what John Seddon of Vanguard Consulting calls 'outside-in', or, to reverse Welch's image, turning the company through 180 degrees to face the customer rather than the boss.

Making the organization demand-led instantly changes the role and requirements of the CEO. Of course, courage and judgment are still necessary. But they are no longer arbitrary, the product of supposed omniscience. Nor is the job any longer one of coercion, but rather to support front-line employees in serving customers. In short, the leader sets the context in which the interests of company and employees can, as far as possible, coincide.

As ever, be careful what you wish for. Outside-in, demand-led companies don't need hero leaders, we should beware of creating them, and they should beware celebrity's duplicity. As for investors, when a CEO makes the front cover of Fortune, or appears at the head of a 'most admired' list - sell.

 © Guardian News and Media Limited 2007

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