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Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Faceless Bosses

While I'm on the subject of "corporate world," I need to talk a bit about another emerging trend in business (and possibly government and non-profits as well). It is the phenomenon I would call the "faceless boss."

I don't know about you, but most of the bosses I've had in my career were memorable. They made an impact on my life. And I saw that they made an impact on the organization. Mind you, I didn't always agree with the merits of that impact, but they were impacting ... and that's what bosses are supposed to do.

But the corporate world is increasingly rejecting true leaders as bosses, in favor of anonymous managers who will tote the corporate line and implement the strategy du jour that's fed to them by some charismatic CEO who is paid gazillions. (But I'm not bitter!) These people tend to be watered-down versions of yesterday's bosses. Simply put, they're bland. And they tend to head a vast army of even more forgettable bosses who are equally as bland.

It is true that there are more women and ethnic minorities at the top of companies today. But physical diversity doesn't seem to have translated into cultural diversity or intellectual vitality. Almost without exception, today's bosses spout the same tired old management cliches - about the merits of doing well by doing right, the importance of valuing your workers, the virtues of sustainability, and so forth. Never mind the fact that they don't actually do these things. It seems to be enough for them to simply say them - and therefore believe that they are true.

Take the women CEO's for example. Andrea Jung, the boss at Avon cosmetics empire, was quoted to say that her biggest inspiration in life has come from "Avon's six million sales representatives worldwide." Really? Is that the biggest personal inspiration you've ever had in your entire life, Ms. Jung? Why do I find that so hard to believe?

And these women act no better than the men who are their peers. All of them remain, above all else, obscenely paid. My guess would be that Ms. Jung, for example, makes as much money as perhaps a million (or more) of her inspirational sales reps put together.

On a personal level, these are people who seem to live lives that don't make much impact. Few corporate leaders are ever caught doing anything material outside of their companies. They seem artificial, and without much substance.

Take Bob Nardelli for example, who was paid something like $270 million to leave Home Depot after he trashed it. Has he done anything significant with that money since? Oh yeh ... he went on to drive Chrysler into bankruptcy and a government bailout!

Granted, the turbulent business climate has been a major factor in encouraging today's executives to keep their heads down and remain somewhat anonymous. But the criteria for making most decisions seems to have become largely fear. So we have a bunch of paranoid managers making decisions based on what they fear will happen or fear won't happen. And being bland or faceless seems to be the perfect match for that criteria. They fear even being known.

So what is the fix for all this? How could the corporate world gain leaders that would really matter? Where will the companies, governments, non-profits and even churches of today find the men and women who can really lead them into the future (instead of just ride them into the future)? While I take aim (in my prior blog post) at corporate executives who seem to see themselves as gods, I also acknowledge the need for visionaries who aren't limited by life's boundaries.

We need people who are bold --- and who make decisions based on the right criteria (which is not fear). You might call them outrageous, even. But they'll not only think outside the box (which hardly anyone really does), rather they are the people who've never lived in the box in the first place. Heck, they don't even realize that the box is there. Many of them have never been in it in the first place!

Henry Ford was as close as you can get to being deranged without losing your liberty. John Patterson, who founded National Cash Register and is considered on of the greatest businessmen of the gilded age, once notified an employee that he was being sacked by setting his desk on fire! Thomas Watson, one of Patterson's proteges and the founder of IBM, turned his company into a cult and himself into the object of collective worship. Bill Gates and Steve Jobs are both men from way outside the box --- and they've made a difference that is difficult to even fathom today. What would the world be like without Windows or Apple computer products?

These are people who have created the future, rather than simply managing change. And they did it through the force of their personalities coupled with the strength of their visions. Today's world is harder to explain than ever before. The turbulence, risks and complications are mind-boggling. What is required, therefore, is an unprecedented degree of unusual bosses who know no fear and see opportunity in the midst of the menacing circumstances.

I believe that the best ambassadors to steer the corporate world toward a solid future are the men and women who realize that they were put on this earth to make a difference. They are the out sized figures who feel no need to apologize for themselves or their calling in life. And you can be sure that they won't be faceless bosses or forgettable people.

Now, where do you suppose the corporate world will find these people?

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