Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Are corporate leaders noble souls?

Look at material on corporate leadership and you will find loads of stuff on "values", empathy, caring, integrity, social responsibility, etc. Listen to corporate leaders on TV and you will find the same stuff- they will come across as decent folks with strong family values and lots of humility, concern for colleagues, society and nation. In other words, noble souls who are wonderfully balanced - and with loads of intelligence and drive to boot.

How far does this accord with reality? Well, apparently the film, There will be blood, for which actor Daniel-Day Lewis won the Oscar this year, has a different view. It shows an oil prospector who goes on to make fortune and destroys people along the way. The history of business enterprise is replete with such leaders, not the evolved souls portrayed in the business media. Luke Johnson, chairman of Channel 4, writes in FT:

As you claw your way to the top of the capitalist heap, the struggle can blunt your senses. All too often self-made men have come up the hard way and they see existence as survival of the fittest. Commercial success is about endless tough decisions – getting out of messy situations that haven’t worked, beating the competition, running a low-cost operation and so forth.

But sometimes the oxygen in the boardroom can get mighty thin and bosses lose perspective. Partners, family and friends can get sacrificed for another deal, another dollar. Occasionally paranoia sets in: it appears everyone is out to steal your money, seize your crown. Bright rising stars are seen as a threat, and are dispatched.

Loyal supporters are suddenly seen as spies. Too often, the super-rich end up surrounded by flunkeys and parasites, the most apocalyptic example being desperate old Howard Hughes with his Mormon handlers, going mad in a Las Vegas hotel.

Alas, there is great truth to all this. Those who have watched CEOs and business tycoons from close quarters are often struck by their utter lack of scruple and often at how emotionally unbalanced they are. That is because, in hacking their way to the top, many of these people manipulated, deceived, cheated and sucked up as required.

A certain lack of scruple- and particularly the ability not to strike a dissenting note- is virtually a requirement for making it to the top. Most people have no difficulty associating this trait with politicians. But there are politicians in every organisation- and they are no different from those who practise politics for a living.

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