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The Dark Side of Leadership Reputation

Within the film industry, George Lucas had a great reputation, built partly on his success with Star Wars. As the story goes, wisely he outsourced the original Star Wars sequels to a capable group of screenwriters and directors. Despite the massive success of Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi, ego and reputation meant he then opted to fly solo as a writer, director, and producer of the prequel trilogy. The resulting films proved that the director had absolutely no understanding of what audiences wanted from the franchise and by neglecting to reflect on what audiences loved about the franchise, Lucas created three boring films that barely qualified as action figure commercials nor made any return on investment.

There are strange, but often repeated outcomes that appear when the board of an organization appoints a leader with a known reputation, who fundamentally isn't up for the challenge itself, but rather approaches their role with total selfishness.

Reputation is a mercurial aspect of perceived successful individuals. Such is the nature of reputation it prompts a discussion and blog in itself... for another time. Suffice to say, in such instances as this it rests on delivering an outcome, often change, that a board considers the holder is able to bring to their own challenge 'at home'. Of course this presupposes the conditions both internal and external match theirs at that time and place, which of course can, and never will, be the same. Yet here they are appointed to the role.

So what are the outcomes of such actions? Firstly, single-minded, selfish individuals are only fuelled in their excess through each and every move, appointment and often increased reward package. Their power knows no bounds. So, to their actions and the long term effects: Change is brought about and while short term leading to perceived success, long term a change takes place in the soul. Soul of individuals, mores and culture.

Short term EBITDA, profit, growth and value appear enhanced, yet underneath a deterioration is happening. Deterioration is the ability of the organization to continually deliver cost savings, increased individual and group productivity and most of all limited creativity.

While these outcomes do not show up in the near horizon of 3-5 year plans, this does not seem to matter either to the incumbent leader nor the board. The inevitable results: Change in the leader. They move on to another challenge, fuelled by their own perceived self-worth and in many instances a knowledge that it is the 'right time' to move on (perhaps before being found out).

For a moment though let us consider what happens inside the organization. A common conversation revolves around 'sitting it out, change is inevitable and while this is the current way, hopefully the soul will prevail'. Of course this is seldom the outcome and instead another change takes place as those that have ability and resolve chose to find employment that offers values and beliefs similar to their own. Others fight to survive by adopting the prevailing behaviours in this 'new order' that can provide them short term success, but actually, in long term, affects their own sense of balance and fulfilment. In terms of delivery, whether achieving targets, results and sustainable creativity and innovation, sadly efforts, campaigns and initiatives fail. Not immediately, but rather they end up being sub-optimal and limited in their sustainability as mentioned. This is mainly as a result of staff not really being committed heart and soul to what the leader really wants, as demonstrated by his or her actions and selfish intent.

What can be done? In truth, this conundrum is best resolved through a combination of decisions and actions, namely;

Board members define what they want from a new CEO. This definition has to include;

  • A previous track record in dealing with challenges similar to their own
  • A clear set of behavioural skills considered important to maintain morale, mores and norms that enable the business to succeed then and now
  • Insight and ability to diagnose and act upon the few, yet critical blocks to improved performance and success going forward.
  • A robust and thorough selection process that takes time to really explore the fundamental motives and strategic intent underlying applicants desire to become the CEO.

Notwithstanding all the above, it is fair to say that these core insights not only apply to the appointment of CEOs, but equally to Directors and leaders throughout organisations. It is simply that the scale of risk and potential long term damage to the organization is greater the higher 'up the food chain' one goes.

Peter Buckley

I coach and develop individuals and businesses, in the private and public sector, Internationally and in the UK at board C-Suite and operational levels. Acknowledged outstanding results delivered through bespoke individual and team coaching, mentoring and leadership development to enable performance and productivity improvement with positive team dynamics and sustainable enhanced morale.

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