Temper of the Times: Poor Leadership

A few years ago, a boss with an ulcer came to me a few months before he headed out the door and said,

“I want you to form a committee. Ask two questions: 1)What’s going on? 2)What’s going wrong?” I personally think these two questions are applicable today. All you have to do is pay attention to the news.

One of the definite problems today is poor leadership. No one seems to be able or is willing to lead.

Leaders lack competency today. They also lack integrity.

Furthermore, the followers are lazy. We put all decisionmaking on our leaders and go about our business and live with the horrible consequences.

In addition, we followers are also easily duped. In this world it’s all about image. If the public image is successfully portrayed, who cares about results? At least our pain is felt.

Kimberly D. Elsbach writes in an essay called “Looking Good vs. Being Good” that we expect three things from our leaders: 1) Control-they are in charge and have the final say 2) Competence and Consistency-leaders will make good decisions and maintain right thinking 3) Certainty-leaders have great confidence in the rightness of their decisions.

Unfortunately according to Elsbach, this attitude toward leadership leads to some messy problems when things go wrong. The truth is that leaders do not always fulfill the expectations of their followers.

Elsbach’s essay concerns the sex abuse scandal in the Catholic Church which came to light in the last decade. It is part of a larger work on the subject called “Church Ethics and Its Organizational Context”, edited by Bartunek, Hinsdale and Keenan.

She notes that part of the problem with the Church’s management of the issue was their attempt to meet the perceived expectations of their followers. This resulted in poor handling of the matter and even a coverup.

What would have been better according to Elsbach is for church leaders to have done three things to manage the crisis. They should have 1) admitted their incompetence and apologized 2) ceded control by changing the structure, for example, through bringing in new leadership  3) repaired the damage, for example , by focusing on the future though new evaluation policies and training programs.

Leaders must be properly trained. In the Catholic Church training in ethics was sorely lacking, at least according to James F. Keenan, whose essay appears in the same work as Elsbach’s.

Keenan believes that clergy should be trained in professional ethics. He indicates that while this kind of training abounds in medicine, the business and law, it is missing in the Church.  As a result, there is a lack of discourse and proper due process in relation to sexual matters which helped lead to the crisis.

The Church is not the only realm where trained leaders are needed. Jeffrey D. Sachs believes that economists need to be better trained in order to solve the world’s lingering extreme poverty.  

In his work “The End of Poverty”, he calls for economists to become more like doctors. What is needed to solve poverty is clinical economics. 

Sachs says that economists are not trained in clinical methods. As a result they have “focused on a very narrow range of issues, such as corruption, barriers to private enterprise, budget deficits and state ownership of production.”

He would like to see economists be able to engage in differential diagnosis and look at economies as more complex, just as a doctor does with the human body. Because of their simplistic views,economists currently have developed a cookie cutter approach whereby they prescribe what he calls “standardized advice to cut budgets, liberalize trade and privatize state-owned enterprises, almost without regard to the specific context.”

Organizations like the International Monetary Fund, Sachs notes,  overlook other valid causes to the poverty and thus come up with and insist upon the carrying out of a  wrong treatment plan:

 “The current situation reminds me too much of the fable of the farmer whose chickens are dying. The local priest gives one remedy after another — prayers, potions, oaths — until all of the chickens are dead. ‘Too bad,” says the priest, ‘I had so many other good ideas.’

As Sachs says, it is difficult for a country to do belt tightening when it doesn’t have a belt.  Because of their lack of competence, economists miss this.

Elsbach indicates that if followers believe their leaders are competent and things are still going wrong, then they will perceive the problems as stemming from a lack of integrity. This can be seen all the time in the media.

Iyengar and Kinder in their book “News That Matters” note that television news managers engage in “agenda setting”.  The hypothesis they set out to prove (and did) was that “those problems that receive prominent attention on the national news become the problems the viewing public regards as the nation’s most important.”

Not only do TV news bosses engage in agenda setting, but they also are involved in another dubious exercise called “priming”. This term refers to the effect television news has when it calls attention to some items and ignores others. What occurs with priming they say is that “television news influences the standards by which governments, presidents, policies and candidates for public office are judged.”

There is not too much question that news people today are competent. However, I think their ethics are quite debateable.

What the world needs is leaders with character. Niall Ferguson claimed in Newsweek this month that the European debt crisis affecting millions of Europeans could be solved by the continent’s economic giant Germany.

However, things aren’t bad in Germany. As a result, Ferguson says, the country is complacent.  He writes:

“Life in Berlin is good. In Munich, the capital of the German manufacturing machine, it is even better. You should try explaining to the average Bavarian beer drinker at the Stammtisch why he needs to get ready to finance an annual transfer to the Mediterranean countries of up to 8 percent of German GDP. I never get very far.”

At least Ferguson is trying. Sometimes leaders need to be pushed.

Urban Meyer is a championship coach who just took over the reins at football factory Ohio State. Here is what he told Sports Illustrated (SI)  about one of his new quarterbacks.

“I hate to stereotype a kid as a typical high-school player,” Meyer said of Miller, “but I got the sense when I first got here that he was kind of a cool guy and, ‘I’m going to lift weights and take care of my business,’ as opposed to, no, you’re going to finish first in every drill, you’re going to be the first one in the office, you’re going to do extra work, you’re going to push yourself to be one of the best.”

For Urban Meyer of course, this is unacceptable. He will insist on his player being the best.

It doesn’t hurt to push leaders. Indeed, Colin Powell says that a little courage upon the part of his subordinates when he was Secretary of State may have kept him from having egg on his face in front of the United Nations.

Powell told Newsweek that he asks those he leads three questions: 1)What do you know 2)What is it you don’t know 3)What do you think? He says it is his job as the leader to analyze all this and come to decisions.

He says his followers failed him in that, although they knew certain truths, they lacked the bravery to tell him.  Powell says they are even out there writing books about him even though they are culpable.

Our leaders have to stop being children and grow up. When they do, it will look beautiful.

The results of a maturing leader are exemplified again from the sports world. In an article called “A Brand New Lane Kiffin”, SI tells of the growth of a football coach:

 He has reached a comfort level. He is driven, but not overwhelmed anymore. … Kiffin is smarter, more aware. He’s not accusing opposing coaches of breaking NCAA rules when they haven’t (Urban Meyer, February 2009). He isn’t popping off without an actual reason. “There has absolutely been a maturation of Lane Kiffin and that will continue,” says USC AD Pat Haden. “I expect him to be a different person five years from now as a coach than how he is now. He’s already come a long way as a head coach and I anticipate more growth going forward.”

This is the kind of growth in character we should demand from our own leaders. If we don’t get it, we ought to thank them for their service, send them home and bring in some fresh blood.

There’s an old saying that people get the leaders they deserve.  I think we deserve better. Surely the world can’t take much more from the current crop without getting an ulcer.


Leave a comment

Filed under Temper of the Times

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s