Modern Corporate Leadership: A Dinosaur's View

February 27, 2007

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Jerome Alexander, author of the book 160 Degrees of Deviation: The Case for the Corporate Cynic, tells IMT readers that accepting responsibility speaks volumes about character — an individual's and an organization's. Yet today responsibility and character no longer seem important, he writes.

Thirty years ago, when I was first promoted into management, an executive gave me some advice that I really took to heart. I was so impressed by his speech that I have shared it with every first-time manager that I have had the privilege of promoting or hiring. His advice went something like this:

When you are first promoted into management, three things will happen: 1) you will get some money, some power and some responsibility; 2) you will enjoy the money, but your lifestyle will change and the novelty will soon wear off ; and 3) you will enjoy the feeling of power until you notice that you are constrained by rules and that there a lot of people with a lot more power and authority than you. You will get some responsibility, but guess what? That will never go away! In fact, if you're good, the responsibilities will only increase

Being responsible for the activities of others should be a humbling experience. I believe that the ability to accept responsibility speaks volumes about an individual's character. The same is true of corporate character: it is the reflection of the character of its leaders and managers.

Many of today's corporate officials believe that they are at the helms of world-class organizations, each of which would qualify as the best place to work in America — and they've spent enough money on consultants to prove it!

There is never a problem accepting responsibility for good press. But when survey results on employee morale speak otherwise, some of these same officials appear dumbfounded. Others simply devalue the statistics as representing the views of the usual suspects — a few disgruntled employees and those who do not understand "the big picture" of a competitive global economy. Still others will scramble to delve into the survey results to nullify the sampling techniques or discredit the authors. Sad to say, but this cycle will repeat itself through new surveys every few years because of the one item most frequently overlooked during the postmortem process: the character of the corporate leadership itself.

In my 30 years in middle management, I have seen this time and time again. During the last several years, however, I have noticed a disturbing change for the worse. In this age of "lean" processes, downsizings, mergers and decentralized management, I believe that the once-good character of many corporations as reflected in their executives and managers has been replaced with a new character of irresponsible, self-serving and egocentric technocracy. The once-revered characteristics of solid corporate leadership have been replaced with a Hollywood-esque image of celebrity replete with pompous arrogance. Many responsible managers have been replaced with rude, fast-talking, "buzzword-spouting," acronym-using facilitators of the latest trendy programs. They are leaders in name and title only. Character seems no longer important. Responsibility has been pushed far down the organization chart to the lowest levels. Isn't that the latest fad?

The rank-and-file employees, on the other hand, still come to work with implicit trust that their managers are acting in the best interest of the company and its employees. They believe that those in positions of leadership should be responsible and of good character. Further, they believe that the corporation should be of good character. Their trust and loyalty cannot be taken for granted. They are beginning to feel betrayed.

Employees' perceptions about the corporation's leadership only seem to be important if they have an effect on "results" or become embarrassing (as in the case of an attitude survey). Instead of seriously considering the root causes of these negative perceptions, some consultants' gimmicks will usually be employed to make the workforce "feel better" about their lot. Is that a responsible way of dealing with issues?

Worse yet is when some new form of "corporate religion" is forced upon employees to prove how wrong minded those perceptions are. Insulting the intelligence of the rank-and-file and good solid managers is no way to influence change.

Many employees are losing respect for their superiors as well as the corporate system that created them. Many corporate leaders have become so removed from day-to-day operations that they no longer have a clue as to what is really happening within their organizations, and therefore, other than for short-term profits, they no longer feel responsible for anything else. Many line managers have taken their cues from the top and perpetuated all of the bad characteristics that they believe will serve their own agendas and careers.

I recently spoke with the vice president of operations for a $100 million multi-plant manufacturer. When I asked about his responsibilities, he shot back that he was responsible for holding his subordinates responsible. What does that say of his character?

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Jerome Alexander MBA, CPA, is the author of the book 160 Degrees of Deviation: The Case for the Corporate Cynic (Llumina Press, 2002).

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