by CIO Staff

The Cult of Leadership

Jan 10, 20064 mins

Two interviews that the folks at Wharton did last year offer a good yin and yang on leadership science.

One, an interview with leadership author and consultant Marcus Buckingham, veers into the ditch of celebrity cult worship–an unfortunate channeling of our culture’s fascination with Hollywood celebrity into the business realm. First, there’s the usual “you got it or you don’t” distinction between managers (losers) and leaders (heroes). Managers can’t possibly be leaders unless they have a lot of ego and relentless optimism. Buckingham goes so far as to say the problem with Enron’s Ken Lay wasn’t his arrogance or ego, it was his lack of ethics. “Virtually nothing about a leader is humble,” he says. “I’m not saying they are arrogant, but their claims are big.”

I think he’s got it backward. Lay’s ego investment and celebrity status made it nearly impossible for him to have ethics when things went wrong at Enron. His status, and that of his company, was so inflated that to admit failure would have been the ruin of both–which led to denial, illegality and ultimately, implosion.

Worse, Buckingham follows up by saying that “if you are a leader, you better be unflinchingly, unfailingly optimistic. No matter how bleak his or her mood, nothing can undermine a leader’s belief that things can get better, and must get better. I believe you either bring this to the table or you don’t.” What does this kind of unfailingly optimistic attitude lead to? To me, it leads to disconnection with reality when things get bad and deep cynicism among employees. Relentless optimism is akin to manipulating your employees like they were children or criminals, not to be trusted with the truth. It’s at odds with the other oft-repeated leadership dictum: “Be clear,” says Buckingham. “Clarity is the antidote to anxiety.” Not when it gets in the way of the truth–employees see right through the BS. (As do children, for that matter. My daughter’s eyes already roll at my vainglorious speeches–and she’s only eight!)

Another interview, this one with author David Sirota, focuses on this very point–the penchant of leaders to treat their employees as children, thereby ruining morale and ultimately, productivity. The happy-face CEOs pronounce all things wonderful at the employee meeting and then go behind closed doors to order the middle managers to cut 10 percent of the workforce before the end of the next quarter. When the layoffs hit, the CEO deflects mistrust into the middle of the organization, where it festers into vague resentment of the company as a whole. It’s not my boss and it’s not my relentlessly optimistic and charming CEO, reasons the employee, it’s this damned company. That’s what ruins companies, says Sirota. I think it is much harder for organizations to regain trust than it is for individuals. A person can tell you when they’ve failed and you can forgive them. An organization can’t do that.

I once ran an organization that was near death financially. I told everyone I hired how dire the circumstances were and the risks they faced by coming to work there. Interestingly, not one of the people I interviewed bowed out of the process when I told them that. They turned out to be the most motivated, loyal employees I’ve ever worked with and stayed to the bitter end (the financial problems were too deep to resolve) because they could see we had a good product that they could each contribute to in their own way and because they knew where we stood every step of the way. Adults can handle that kind of responsibility.

Not surprisingly, at the end of the interview with Sirota, who preaches respect and adult treatment for employees, the interviewer asks, “All of these recommendations seem so soft-hearted. Are you ever criticized for being naive?”

“Yes, all the time,” replies Sirota, “mostly by hard-line managers and human resource managers. They are cynical about workers. But there are managers and CEOs who look at this and really run with it. They tend to be optimists and give people the benefit of the doubt.”

What are your definitions of leadership and how do you keep the trust of your employees?