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The Private Sector: Life, love, legacy

It's time we demanded real leadership of our business 'leaders'

Tuesday, July 02, 2002

By Albert Vicere

Hasn't the Enron scandal challenged the credibility of corporate America? Don't huge payoffs to banished CEOs fuel our cynicism toward business leaders? Isn't leadership really a lost art? In recent weeks, students, clients, friends, colleagues and reporters alike have barraged me with these questions. And providing a response hasn't been easy.

(Diane Juravich, Post-Gazette illustration)

As much as I hate to say it, I feel the same disappointment, share the same shock and display the same cynicism when discussing leadership in America today. Each time I read about another leader's foibles, I wonder whatever happened to stewardship, to commitment to stakeholders, to building a better life for everyone?

I believe that most leaders still feel an obligation to those responsibilities, but somehow, I feel their meaning has been lost in the celebrity of it all. CEOs have become superstars, media darlings. They even have their own version of ratings in the form of analyst reports. And the pressure on them is brutal. Their mission, should they decide to accept it, is to "fix this broken company in two years or you're outta here." A mind-boggling task to be sure.

So is it any wonder that CEOs get caught up in the pressure, seized by the moment, blinded by the spotlight? I mean, how easy would it be for you to handle the challenge of managing billions of dollars, leading tens of thousands of people, delivering on your promise to millions of customers? It's a huge responsibility.

Part of the problem is that, as the old saying goes, "It's lonely at the top." Many CEOs lament the fact that, once they've reached the top of the corporate ladder, they're on their own. When they were children, mom and dad reminded them to be mannerly and responsible. When they were growing up, teachers reminded them to be honest and dependable. When they were in the prime of their youth, friends reminded them to be humble and approachable. And from all of that prodding, their personal character was framed.

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But when they get to the top of a company, they're suddenly on their own. Why do they negotiate for signing bonuses and severance packages upfront? That's because you're on your own up there, you need to watch out for yourself, you need to fix this company in two years or you're outta here. And maybe it's also because the people around you no longer remind you to be mannerly, responsible, honest, committed, dependable, humble and approachable. And as a result, some leaders lose sight of the real essence of leadership.

Truly great leaders focus on three things -- I call them "the three L's." First, they help organizations to improve the quality of "life" for employees, customers, investors, stakeholders at all levels. Second, they create an environment of what Andy Pearson, former chief executive officer of Pepsico and current CEO of Tricon Restaurants, calls "love" -- an environment in which employees feel appreciated, involved, like they're making a contribution, like they're doing something important. Third, they help contribute to their organization's "legacy," passing the organization on to the next generation of leaders in better shape than it was in when they took it over. And that means ensuring that the organization has the ability to deliver and sustain high levels of performance.

That's really what leadership is all about: life, love and legacy. It is not about building a better life only for the leader. Not gaining the adulation of the media as a celebrity CEO. Not building a personal financial legacy to pass along to one's children. It is about making a positive contribution to every individual who comes in contact with the organization whether that person be an employee, a customer, an investor or a stakeholder at any level.

Why don't leaders remember this? What gets in the way? Maybe it's fame or fortune. Maybe it's pressure for performance. Or maybe it's because once they reach the top, no one reminds them of their real obligations as leaders. Whose job is it to do that? It's everyone's job -- employees, customers, stakeholders. Oh, yes, and board members, those folks who are supposed to be, among other things, the surrogate parents, teachers and friends of the CEO. That's part of what a board is supposed to do, though far too many of them refuse to accept the responsibility.

Interestingly, one of the fastest-growing segments of the consulting business is executive coaching, people who are hired to play the role of the parent, teacher and friend to the leader, people whose job it is to remind the CEO to be responsible, honest, committed, dependable and humble. It's a start. But there needs to be more. Keep in mind that future leaders learn the job by watching incumbents. So, it seems that each of us has a role in solving today's leadership crisis. We can start by holding leaders at all levels accountable for the real obligations of leadership -- for contributing to life, love and legacy. We can turn down the media spotlight and turn up the stewardship spotlight. We can put the ratings in perspective. We can demand real leadership. We must accept nothing less.

After all, if your best friend (or spouse, or child) were behaving badly, acting self-centered, becoming arrogant and aristocratic, wouldn't you say something? Wouldn't you do something? Shouldn't you?

Albert Vicere is executive education professor of strategic leadership in Penn State University's Smeal College of Business.

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