These Leaders Get the Respect They Deserve

April 17, 2005
Barbara Kellerman

The Washington Post

Like other primates, humans have always organized themselves so that there's a clear distinction between the few leaders at the top of the social ladder and their followers below. By and large, those in positions of authority could expect to remain in place until they themselves agreed — for reasons of custom, law or mutual agreement — to step down.

In recent years there are signs of a slight but potentially seismic shift in this age-old balance of power. Leaders at all levels, both in the public and private sectors, are more vulnerable to forces beyond their control, including those that come from the bottom up. They are more readily evicted from positions of power. And they are more prone to being punished if they do wrong.

The implications of this shift are impossible to overestimate. From here on, those who presume they are impervious to punishment do so at their peril — which is all to the good. It means that leaders, aware of the newly precarious nature of their situation, are likely to develop a management style more attuned to the needs and wishes of their followers. It means that leaders are realizing that they need to be more responsive to the culture and context within which they operate. And it means that leaders will be more inclined to follow rather than break the law.

The signs of change are everywhere — in the academy and in the boardroom, in the courts and in the streets, at home and abroad. Moreover, the sins for which leaders are being made to pay range from the private and personal to the public and professional, from those that are about matters of style to those that are about matters of substance, and from those that are merely mistakes to those that are crimes against humanity. Their stories reflect a growing understanding today that while it takes ambition to be a good leader, we should not tolerate abuse of power.

Take the case of Howell Raines, former executive editor of the New York Times. When he was fired two years ago after only 21 months on the job, it was certainly not on grounds of incompetence. Under Raines's stewardship, the Times had won a record seven Pulitzer Prizes in one year. Nor was it on account of the conventional wisdom that he had allowed reporter Jayson Blair's multiple transgressions to go unnoticed and unpunished for too long. Rather, it was because Raines's high-handed management style had first angered and finally alienated his subordinates, who in the end had the collective clout to capitalize on the Blair incident and get Raines sacked.

Raines's fate should have sounded a cautionary note to others who share a similar leadership style. But a month ago, Harvard University's president, Lawrence H. Summers, received a remarkable rebuke from a majority of the university's faculty of arts and sciences when it passed its vote of no confidence in his leadership.

Summers had, of course, created a firestorm by suggesting that, along with two other factors, intrinsic differences between men and women might explain their different levels of accomplishment in science and engineering. But the more telling reason for his rebuke was that, during his less than four years as president, he had developed a reputation for being indifferent to the sensitivities of at least some of his core constituencies. Nevertheless, the resolution — which read in part, "the Faculty lacks confidence in [Summers's] leadership" — came as a shock to many. It was the first such vote in the university's long history and it was obviously much more about the style than the substance of Summers's leadership.

And just last week the glorious 19-year career of La Scala's conductor Riccardo Muti came to an inglorious end when he was obliged to resign. The tensions at La Scala, the renowned Italian opera house, were nothing new. Muti had long had a reputation for being an egomaniac, and for having little regard for those whose artistic judgments differed from his own. But finally La Scala's 800 musicians, singers, carpenters and janitors were fed up. Chanting, "Resign! Resign!" they voted nearly unanimously for Muti to quit his venerable post. He had no real choice but to step down.

In the past, first-rate editors at the New York Times were not canned for being callous, nor were Harvard presidents humiliated for being abrasive or La Scala conductors brought to their knees for being autocrats. These three leaders were called to account for management styles that until recently were widely considered acceptable or, at least, not the sort of behavior that would cause a mutiny. Their fates are a reflection of the new intolerance for bad leadership that is also affecting corporate boards and international courts.

Leaders today are vulnerable to much more than pressure from below. Since the collapse of Enron, the outrage over corporate corruption is bringing to justice a growing list of corporate leaders. The tens of thousands who paid a price for the malfeasance at Enron can take comfort in knowing that none of its former top executives — including indicted chairman and CEO Kenneth Lay and CEO Jeffrey Skilling, both of whom face court trials — are getting away without suffering. Those who put their faith and hard-earned money in WorldCom can take similar satisfaction in the conviction of former CEO Bernard Ebbers, now facing a possible 30 years to life in prison, and particularly in the landmark agreement that requires 11 former WorldCom directors to pay $20 million out of their own pockets to settle a case against them by thousands of investors.

Even the merely tainted are vulnerable. Franklin Raines, CEO of Fannie Mae, was pushed into retirement when it became apparent that on his watch, the company had engaged in improper accounting. And as soon as it became public knowledge that under the leadership of legendary CEO Maurice Greenberg, the giant American International Group (AIG) was involved in fiscal irregularities, his ties to the company he had long ruled with an iron hand were unceremoniously severed.

Part of this shift has to do with the approach of corporate boards, who often stayed silent while the CEOs for whom they were ostensibly responsible went astray. Now legislation has required them to be more aggressive monitors or face penalties. Moreover, the tactics of individuals like New York Attorney General Eliot Spitzer prove the value of one person's moral (and political) convictions.

As Carly Fiorina, the recently ousted CEO of Hewlett-Packard, and Michael Eisner, the soon to be retired-against-his-will CEO of Disney can attest, boards, along with shareholder activists, are increasingly unwilling to be patient with leaders who don't live up to expectations. Only a month ago, Boeing CEO Harry Stonecipher was axed for having a personal relationship with a female executive. Boeing's board concluded the behavior "reflected poorly on Harry's judgment and would impair his ability to lead the company."

The private sector's unprecedented refusal to stomach bad leadership is mirrored in the public one. John Rowland, former governor of Connecticut, is serving a prison sentence after pleading guilty to accepting $107,000 in goods and services and failing to pay taxes on them. And Kofi Annan, secretary-general of the United Nations since 1997, is finally coming in for public criticism, from which he has until recently been virtually exempt. A commission investigating the oil-for-food program in Iraq reported it could not find sufficient evidence to support the charge that Annan had used his influence to award a contract to the company that employed his son. While Annan claimed to have been exonerated — he reported the commission's conclusions came as a "great relief" — the commission did not explicitly vindicate him. In fact, it clearly faulted Annan for bad management — first for failing to monitor a program in which big money was at stake and then for failing to probe aggressively into the allegations of wrongdoing that surfaced six years ago.

Of far greater consequence is the increasing activity at the International Criminal Court in The Hague against leaders accused of violating international humanitarian laws. In the wake of a century in which malevolent despots such as Hitler, Stalin and Pol Pot committed mass murder, there are signs that the international community is no longer so willing to tolerate crimes against humanity. The change is heartening, even if our resolve to bring evil leaders to justice is still uncertain and inconsistent. There is no good or obvious reason why, for example, Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic — Bosnian Serb leaders charged a decade ago with "genocide, crimes against humanity, and violations of the laws or customs of war" — remain at large. Still, the evidence that spines are stiffening is beginning to pile up. The trial of Slobodan Milosevic, the former Yugoslav president, is in its third year. Forty-eight Balkan war criminals have already been convicted. And the International Criminal Court has recently been given authority by the U. N. Security Council to pursue 51 of those suspected of mass killings, rape and arson in Sudan's Darfur region.

This growing willingness to chase down the bad guys matters. I firmly believe that there is a connection between the conviction in U.S. court of Bernard Ebbers and the conviction in an international court of Bosnian Serb colonel Vidoje Blagojevic. What's more, they are related to the sudden departures of Howell Raines and Riccardo Muti as well as to the historic rebuke of Lawrence Summers. Obviously these leaders were bad in different ways and on radically different scales. But information about all leaders who are in any serious way ineffective or immoral is disseminated more aggressively than ever before — and this in a global context in which the traditional respect for authority is on the decline.

The growing awareness of the damage that bad leaders can do emboldens us: We are willing to pursue and even prosecute leaders who fall short. This explains why leaders who stumble are more likely now to fall very far very fast. And it explains why leaders who break the law are more likely now to find that crime doesn't pay.

Barbara Kellerman is research director of Harvard's Center for Public Leadership and author of "Bad Leadership: What It Is, How It Happens, Why It Matters" (Harvard Business School Press).

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