The Matter With the Mainstream
Here we celebrate excellence. We bask in the radiance of America's Best Leaders, learning from their inspiring examples. Kudos to these men and women who change the world by leading with honor. They make us proud.
Thank goodness. Otherwise, we would never get relief from the other news about putative leaders: sordid sex scandals, costly wars waged on false pretenses, backdated stock options, or corporate ethics officers arrested for ethical violations (the HP privacy case). Name a big mainstream institution-Congress, the federal government, major corporations, churches, universities-and it's a good bet that at least one of its top executives has recently entered the Hall of Shame.
Perhaps that's why so many of the candidates for Best Leaders 2006 come from outside the establishment. In our selection committee meetings, we shared enthusiasm for social entrepreneurs who create organizations enabling others to serve society. We praised heroes of wars or natural disasters who offer selfless aid and comfort. We lauded physicians and scientists whose actions improve lives. But we struggled to find candidates for best-leader laurels from the traditional large institutions that dominate America, such as government and business.
We rejected household names, because celebrity is not leadership. We steered away from high positions, because command over resources is also not leadership, unless resources are used courageously to improve the state of the world. Thus, we netted few well-known members of the establishment.
So what's the matter with the mainstream?
Leadership was once equated with big responsibilities for the direction of big institutions. Today that connection is lost and even reversed. To be a large company's CEO, for example, is to be suspected of earning too much, promising too much, hiding too much. Only 18 percent of Americans responding to the Edelman Annual Trust Barometer survey find CEOs or CFOs the most credible source of information about companies; 68 percent place more trust in colleagues, family, and friends.
Think about that one for a moment-your neighbor is a better source of business information than the businesses themselves? Unless you live next door to Warren Buffett, that says a great deal about how strongly Americans feel that some corporate executives have joined other establishment bosses in letting us down. Some feel that Internet gossip is more credible than the mainstream media; others assume political candidates lie to gain power.
Ethical lapse. To give the folks at the top of mainstream institutions their due, it is increasingly hard to run a large organization flawlessly, even for the many excellent, ethical CEOs. In recent years, enterprises have become more complex, the world has generated more shocks and surprises, the public has been more polarized, and the Internet has produced more instant watchdogs and attack dogs. Mistakes and problems are inevitable in complex enterprises. Lapses from efficient, rational, law-abiding, or virtuous behavior are a constant danger. Sometimes this occurs because of flawed people, but more often it's because of ambiguous situations that require the juggling of competing demands (pay raises for workers or price cuts for customers?). We shouldn't expect heads of established organizations to be perfect, but we should expect them to catch and correct their mistakes quickly. When fumbles occur, denial is tempting, especially when people are pressured to promise strong results regardless of circumstances.