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  • Writer's pictureMarkus Starmer

The Business 'Heroes'​ We Mistakenly Follow

Today I read an article, attributed to a high-profile former CEO. He’s now a pretty prolific author and has written several books about his views on effective leadership, as well as founding his own Management Institute. I'm sure his books have sold in the millions and have influenced the actions of countless corporate executives and shaped their attitudes towards people management and leadership. Today’s brief article is another little gem from his stable, and by the time I read it, it had already secured more than 43,000 views, and nearly 5,000 likes. Good for him. My best is around 370 views and 27 likes!

The only problem as I see it, is that what is written is bollocks.

He shares with us that leadership is comprised of five essential traits which are: positive energy, the ability to energize others, ‘edge’ (“the ability to make tough calls, to say yes or no, not maybe”), the talent to execute (“get things done”) and passion.

I wonder how he researched this. Is this what makes you want to follow?

Not me. I agree that energy is a key (quite apart from the fact that the first two are aspects the same thing, because energy naturally tends to energise), but ‘edge’ (I thought at first this meant you had to employ a member of U2 - that might have worked) is a function of management, as is execution (neither of which make others want to follow, they're just performance issues) and passion may be a thing that is uniquely personal to the individual and is not shared, sold or visionary in a way that appeals to others.

Irrespective of whether you find this brand of nonsense good sense or not, it's not what's really important.

What we have here is a classic example of a former (very successful) CEO touting his version of leadership and perhaps ultimately hundreds of thousands ‘buying it’. Doesn’t anybody do their research? Don’t they know that the output comes from a man who employed extremely questionable management tactics that some would say borderline abused the people within that business and has proved the subject of controversy ever since? So why do so many people not only listen to, but like what he says, and even think it’s worth going to a business school that espouses his brand of enforcement?

The answer’s simple of course. The CEO was wildly successful. The business and its subsidiaries, during his tenure, was turned around and became highly profitable. The human capital damage is not considered worthy of consideration; the fact that his ‘talent to execute’ came pretty close to being just that, is neither here nor there; subsequent scandals can be disassociated from; the actual terror that might have been the experience of the man as the boss is now history.

Instead we look back and see only the miraculous corporate turn-around. We are able to dissociate from the people aspects of the situation, probably because it wasn’t us going through it. We look at the business outcomes and it all seems justifiable. We forget that a business is a legal entity and a bunch of buildings and that maybe it’s really the people within it that matter. We conveniently lose sight of the fact that the only real societal benefit of a business is to provide a livelihood for those who work within them. It is expedient to ignore that getting the best out of people does not necessarily require them being perpetually pressured, stressed and miserable. And it is positively opportune that we may gloss over the fact that these issues have an unmeasurable, yet massive knock-on effect within our society as a whole.

Rights and wrongs of this particular individual aside, we hold up CEOs like this one, and many others of his ilk, as heroes. As leaders. As people who've made truckloads of money and continue to do so by selling us on notions of success and good practice that not only distort what leadership is (and should be), but may actually promulgate fear and make it OK as a strategy to use in business.

If you are not a thinking person, you won’t see this. You’ll read these nuggets of wisdom dropped for you by the great and powerful, like so much chicken feed, and decide that because of who said them, they’re right. And because the individual is wealthy and powerful and successful, what he’s achieved will be aspirational and even inspiring. And consequently, you may find yourself perpetuating some of the corporate brutality that is so prevalent and so acceptable, especially in North America. And it will be OK because it will seem to work. And because ‘that’s the way it is’ you’ll accept it and go along with it.

Of course if this is the case, you’ll miss the fact that if we valued and were developing real leaders, it wouldn’t be this way. People do matter. We could and should be striving for change to make our existence better; to make the 70% of our lives that we spend in the workplace a less torturous grind. And then the corporate world, and in turn the world as a whole, might not inexorably be becoming such a difficult place to enjoy. Doesn’t that matter to you?

It does to me.

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