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Posted by on Oct 1, 2010

The Long Run

It is always fascinating to read the biographies of failed leaders. These are the folks who went to jail, lost many billions, resigned in accounting scandals or lost the confidence of employees. Bad Leadership by Barbara Kellerman and Pigs at the Trough by Arianna Huffington are packed with examples of such leaders.

We are talking Chainsaw Al, Dennis Kozlowski, Bernie Ebbers, John Rigas, Ken Lay et al.

In the stories of these leaders, a familiar pattern emerges with uncanny consistency. It goes something like this: Person of humble means pulls himself up, gets a job, gets promoted, starts putting results on the board, makes a big leap or two to the next levels, more results and then the top job — after which, everything eventually unravels.

Along the way is where it gets interesting. When former colleagues are interviewed, they invariably talk about how the person had some kind of singular vision or steely – almost scary — sense of direction, and executed to that with incredible will and strength. Hence, the results on the board. Along the way, slashing and burning were commonplace, dissent was not tolerated, and hey, as long as the results were coming in, who cared? Certainly not Wall Street with its quarterly earnings per share attention deficit disorder.

All this may have worked in the climb up, but once people like this arrived at the top, things started to change.

The resistance to hearing other ideas, the suppression of alternative points of view, and very often the command-and-control mentality ultimately wore down any goodwill, sense of genuine cooperation and social capital. In the end, all they had was rule by control, power and fear. Threats to subordinates and public humiliation were common.

What is really interesting about these narratives is how often the failed leaders bragged about their leadership style. They not only admitted, but celebrated and reveled in their take-no-prisoners methods. “My way or the highway” or “You’re either with me or against me” challenges were common. Self-congratulatory autobiographies as the makers of tough decisions or conveying that they did what had to be done are not hard to find.

There may be a temporary place for such leadership in crisis situations, but for most modern organizations, it just doesn’t work – at least in the long run.

Andrew Ashore, an analyst who met Sunbeam CEO Al Dunlap, was reported to have said, “”I didn’t necessarily like him or trust him, but I thought my clients could make money on him. I knew they just had to get out at the right time.” In other words, this pattern is so well-worn that stock analysts can try to market-time CEO trajectories.

At some point, the social capital is exhausted, relationships are non-existent and goodwill has vanished. When the hammer falls, there is no one to support the leader. And the rest, as they say, is history.

And this may all be just a history excursion except for one thing. Recently I have been talking with employees in the federal government about their perceptions of their leaders. Familiar patterns emerge: unwillingness to listen, no tolerance of disagreement, rule by force and threats to those who do not toe the line.

Sound familiar?

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