The Matter With the Mainstream
Establishments create an appetite for power that can become an addiction. Powerful people who are driven to turn their domains into empires begin to feel that they are above the rules, that what applies to ordinary people does not apply to them (they don't even have to stand in line at airports). They think they can use their power to suppress criticism and force their will on others, whether employees, customers, suppliers, regulators, or the public.
The arrogance of success is well known. Imperial presidents, party leaders, and CEOs have always been with us. A few decades ago, I first encountered members of this class as a newly minted professional applying social science skills to business. One imperial chief, the head of the largest subsidiary of a New York conglomerate, was candid about commanding obedience. He asked me to help "whip his management group into shape," which I thought meant team-building around shared goals and which he thought meant public flogging. Napoleonic in his short stature and enormous ego, he frequently told his staff that "business is the last monarchy." (We soon parted company, and he was later ousted by the corporate parent.) Today there is a preference for nice folks at the top (such as American presidents with whom you could drink a beer), but a down-to-earth manner can mask the continuing abuse of power.
The cult of the heroic leader itself plays a role in elevating people beyond what mere mortals can achieve, creating a power addict's high. In the booming 1990s, as in other growth cycles and winning streaks, success was attributed to individuals at the top; they must be geniuses if we're doing so well, the public thought-even if they were merely riding on momentum. Some lionized chiefs suffered from the Curse of the Magazine Cover, coming to believe their exaggerated press (witness the Enron bunch). Proclaimed heroes at their peak, they fell precipitously because sycophants hadn't looked too closely at the basis for their success. Disappointment was inevitable when flaws (and worse) were uncovered in the post-crash, post-9/11, sober 2000s. (Memo to America's Best Leaders: Watch out.)
Role models. We judge leaders not just by their own behavior or the results achieved on their watch but by the culture they shape and the behavior they elicit from others. Michael Dell built a great company and handed the reins to a successor; did his leadership go up in flames when Dell computers caught on fire? Can we still call Steve Jobs a great leader because he was not personally involved in Apple's stock option problem?
Leaders' responsibilities for institutional values go beyond the walls of a single organization. It's not enough for ethical chiefs to run a flawless enterprise while maintaining silence on the problems of the sector as a whole. A recent Public Agenda Foundation survey found that both business leaders and average citizens have experienced a general decline in values, which they feel has contributed to recent scandals. They were particularly angry that some executives enrich themselves while allowing their companies to decline-and that their peers let them get away with it. Where are the courageous voices of enlightened CEOs who run excellent companies offering their solutions to what the public feels are excesses and abuses? We could ask the same question about Congress or the Pentagon or members of political parties who fear losing power if they expose and deal with mistakes by partisan peers.