Everything you can imagine is real. Pablo Picasso
Success is not final; failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts. Winston Churchill.
The issues of leadership continue to intrigue me, so much so that I believe that it is all-pervasive; leadership and concomitant followership touch and shape all aspects of life. Each of us plays a dual role of leader and follower as the context warrant. A professor leads class and follows the leadership of the school; parents lead families at home and follow leadership at work; a CEO leads operations and follows the board; a general leads army and follows the civilian leadership; even a powerful president leads the nation but must not alienate his powerful donors and core support base; and so on. A successful leader must hone both the leadership and followership skills.
But understanding of leadership is incomplete without a value judgment. By its inherent nature, leaders are entrusted with or usurp enormous power and resources which they could deploy for good or evil pursuits; history has witnessed both. In the process leaders could uplift lives, terrorize humanity, or pursue a course in the middle. It all depends on their deeply-held beliefs, existence of proper checks and balances, and compliant, apathetic and timid followers.
In the fierce, unrelenting, unapologetic pursuit of deeply-held beliefs, in the name of racial and ideologue cleansing, Hitler, Stalin, and Mao collectively are responsible for an estimated 120 million deaths. Mindboggling atrocities. They just happened during the last century. 120 million – it is not just a number: they were fathers and mothers; sons and daughters; brothers and sisters; husbands and wives. Their unfulfilled aspirations vanquished with their last breath – the world will never know what they could have been. Those who survived in the Soviet Union and China lost two generations of economic progress under experimentation of a dogma that is contrary to human nature, by these devil-possessed despots. Thankfully, China finally “got it.” But world continues to host many despotic leaders, from North Korea to Venezuela.
On the other hand, the well-intentioned, do-gooders, post-independence leaders of India in their righteousness belief experimented with flawed strategies and failed economic model and yet they continue to remain unaccountable for unforgivable repressing and stifling innumerable aspirations. Time, resources, and talents squandered away while some of these leaders, intoxicated with power, steadfastly cling to fractious politics. More than two lost generations and they still perhaps don’t fully get it.
Then we turn to a few recent examples from the world of global business and capital markets. We all know about the trillions of lost market value from the ill-fated decisions of leaders engulfed in the subprime mortgage debacle. The world came close to a global depression; so many lives of innocent bystanders got irreparably harmed.
We can go on with flawed leadership decisions at recent HP acquisition, Enron, WorldCom, Madoff, insider trading scandals at hedge funds, innumerable indiscretions of talented, powerful CEOs, leaders in politics and nonprofits. And the cast of characters in each of these cases involves very smart, bright, well-educated leaders. So what is going in here?
For beginning (just beginning) of an understanding of this perplexing phenomenon, I came across two useful pieces. First is a new research article by Stanford’s Francis Flynn and USC’s Scott Wiltermuth. They contend that powerful people “see issues with more moral clarity,” more black and white, perhaps just as Kings proclaimed moral authority descended to them by the blessing of Providence as a precursor to waging each war. It seems intuitive. So perhaps each of the characters mentioned earlier saw with moral clarity, despite being terribly wrong, nothing flawed in their decisions and actions. We can draw two leadership lessons from this insight. First, a powerful leader must surround himself/herself with trusted advisors who can tactfully, but forthrightly point the inherent flaw in the leader’s decision. Second, regardless of how seemingly benevolent leader appears, there must be in place checks and balances to prevent things escalating into a colossal damage.
A second insightful piece is by Giulio M. Gallarotti, entitled, The Power Curse: The Paradox of Power in World Politics. Gallarotti’s contends that power comes with power curse, the illusion of power, which most powerful people, nations, empires remain oblivious during their quest for usurping greater and greater power. Lessons from history are always dismissed with rationalization that it would be different this time. And that power curse, the illusion of power is the ultimate cause of their tragic demise. All the characters we have catalogued above ultimately fell tragically as none of them understood the curse of power. So intuitive, and yet virtually always ignored! Another lesson for leaders: mindful of the curse of power.
Our concluding remarks follow the general theme of these posts: advice to clients and potential clients. In selecting a consultant, talent is a given, thoroughly learn and dissect the beliefs of the leadership of the service-provider firm. Ask what do they stand for? Can you trust them? That will make all the difference in your enduring service experience.