There is no key for success. But, therein, lies the key
The case for leadership pluralism
Corporations succeed — and fail. Labor unions succeed — and fail. Dictatorships, aristocracies, theocracies, democracies and republics succeed — and fail. Capitalist and socialist economies succeed — and fail. Religious and secular leaders tell us how to succeed and we do — until we fail.
Throughout history, we’ve tried to discover the key for creating and maintaining successful and lasting organizations, and have always come up with competing and contradictory theories. Within that accumulated mass of theories, however, surely we must know everything we need to know about how to make a human group succeed and protect itself from failure. So, why don’t we do it?
Isn’t it possible that all these competing and contradictory theories are to some extent correct — and wrong — depending upon time and circumstances? Don’t all, or certainly most commonly popular theories make sense, given a certain set of circumstances? Isn’t it possible that, at a given time, everyone has part of the answer, but none has THE answer? And recognizing these things is the key to success.
In 1982 Tom Peters and Robert Waterman cited forty-three “excellent” companies in their book, In Search of Excellence, and it’s still considered a classic. Yet, two years later a Business Week cover story reported that fourteen of them had “lost their luster.” In a remarkably candid response to the analysis, Peters and Waterman concluded: “If you’re big, you’ve got the seeds of your own destruction in there.” The excellent companies just seemed to be big corporations that were “losing less fast.”
The insights we’ve gained from studying successes and failures of corporations can give us some insights into the workings of all kinds of human groups.
Isn’t it possible that success itself leads to the failure of large, growing and complex human groups because their leaders begin to believe that they have discovered the fictional one key to success?
They see dissenters as malcontents, unsophisticated, incompetent or even disloyal. Leaders are inclined to promote subordinates who outwardly support the current successful system, although they may have reservations about the quality of their performances. Followers, or voters in the political environment, are inclined to support those who apparently adhere to their idealized norms of behavior and are suspicious of outsiders.
Leaders who believe there is a key to success and they have found it, unintentionally blind themselves to danger signs and a need for change. They are quick to discredit and ostracize conscientious whistle blowers who try to expose failures, especially to the outside world.
They must protect their obviously successful union, corporation, religion, or nation! That’s why even top leaders with high moral standards are tempted to promote the wrong subordinate persons to positions of leadership. Their desire to protect the system they have created causes them to fail to distinguish between genuine “leaders,” “builders,” and “destructive achievers.”
Here I’m describing leader in a unique sense. Hitler was obviously a leader, but not in the sense I’m using here. In my definition, leaders dress, look and act like leaders. They have charisma, high moral standards and support the long term goals of the organization. They believe in fair treatment of not only their subordinates, peers, and superiors — but also of their community and nation. In the initial growth stages of an organization, when people have close contact with each other, they are most likely to be promoted in a corporation — or, I suspect — elected to political office by an informed citizenry.
Builders are also leaders, but less so. They are solid managers, but don’t have charisma. In the view of senior corporate leaders — or voters — they don’t dress right, or don’t talk quite right, or don’t fit-in some way with our idealized notion of how a leader should act. Their leadership potential is more likely to be underestimated and they often plateau before their time.
Destructive Achievers dress, look and act like leaders, and have charisma. They express high moral standards and pledge to support the long term goals of the organization. But it’s all learned behavior. Their unstated, driving goal is personal success in the organization, and they’ll do whatever the system rewards in order to achieve it.
As an organization grows and becomes more complex, destructive achievers have promotional — or electoral — advantages over genuine leaders, and, certainly, over builders. If a plant manager must dispose of toxic waste within the allocated budget, a destructive achiever will do it even if it means he hires a fly-by-night disposal company to dump it on the side of a rural road.
An Archbishop who has a shortage of priests will reassign a known pedophile, after counseling, to another parish. A politician will identify easily described scapegoats as causes of economic distress, and offer immediate and inexpensive, although usually ill-defined, solutions. Genuine leaders can’t do that. Their solutions will be costly and painful, and will take time.
The growing and increasingly complex human group called the United States is now wrestling with two apparently contradictory and antagonistic concepts: capitalism and socialism. They’re not. They are complementary and each needs the other.
At its core, capitalism simply means that those individuals or groups of individuals who contribute to the welfare of the nation should benefit appropriately. Socialism simply means that all citizens have a right to a good education, health care, and opportunities to make a decent living, whether a son or daughter of a CEO, computer programmer, janitor, ditch digger or aid in a nursing home.
Socialism also means that the economy and government policies make sure that no category of citizens gets so much of the nation’s resources, productivity and wealth that there isn’t enough for everyone else.
Critics and supporters of capitalism, socialism, aristocracies, theocracies, Mexicans, Jews, immigrants, and so on, focus on the wrong things: categories of systems or humans, instead of specific leadership qualities of those in control of a system or specific group. If you want to praise or condemn any system or human group, you can easily find historic examples to support your case. Bad leaders ruin a good system. A progression of good leaders will improve a bad system until it’s a good one.
Today’s politicians are twisting themselves into knots trying to explain their economic views, without admitting the pluralistic nature of capitalism and socialism. Some Democrats call its pluralistic nature “democratic capitalism” — the kind that worked between 1933 and 1980. Other Democrats call it “democratic socialism.”
Republicans call a pluralistic economy “socialism,” which keeps the capitalist free market from “working its magic,” as it did in the Roaring Twenties, and that it’s been doing since 1980. They seem unimpressed that during both periods our country experienced an explosion of the income and wealth disparity between the super rich and everyone below. The first one created the Great Depression, and the second one began the decline of the greatest middle class in world history.
Poet Jane Hirshfield observed that “Zen pretty much comes down to three things: everything changes; everything is connected; pay attention.” In essence, that describes a fundamental truth that leaders of corporations, unions, religions and nations fail to appreciate.
No matter what leaders do, their human groups will always change, sometimes for the better, sometimes for the worse. Everything is related, even the apparently contradictory theories of organization, leadership and economics. And leaders need to pay attention to signs of failure of their cherished ideologies, and make appropriate adjustments.
Note: you can read my first book about this subject in its entirety free by going to http://books.google.com. At the prompt, enter “The Destructive Achiever; power and ethics in the American corporation.”