Breach of Trust The Meltdown of Leadership

Shackleton and Enron: A Study in Contrasts

A few days after A&E screened the movie “Shackleton”, which powerfully dramatized the incredible story of Sir Ernest Shackleton’s fateful 1914-1916 Antarctic expedition, a headline in the Wall Street Journal read: “Accounting Crackdown Focuses Increasingly On Top Executives”.

The connection? Both are about leadership.

It was Shackleton’s extraordinary leadership which brought every one of his 28 crewmembers safely home. And, with every news story of alleged malpractice, it is the credibility of today’s corporate leadership which is being steadily eroded.

Obviously Enron is the ugliest face of discredited corporate greed. But it would be naïve to think that today’s corporate leadership malaise is limited just to the disgraced executives of Enron or the alleged offenders at companies like Xerox, Global Crossings, Waste Management and Computer Associates International.

The betting is that these high-profile names represent merely the tip of the iceberg — an iceberg so huge that in March President Bush felt the need to call for accountability among corporate officers. Now a House Committee is even considering how to give legal teeth to that obligation.

It’s truly a sad day for our free-enterprise system that we apparently now need Congress to enforce what good leaders should have known for centuries: that they are accountable, that “The buck stops here.”

Lessons from Shackleton

Shackleton epitomized the qualities that truly define the term ‘leadership’. In everything he did, his actions were determined only by needs of the enterprise, never by his own needs. Shackleton led from the heart, not for ego gratification and personal gain. For every day of the epic 18 month-long ordeal of survival after his ship was trapped in pack ice, his leadership was the irresistible force that brought the entire crew home, not only alive but in good spirits.

The leadership qualities that achieved this remarkable outcome are exactly those followed by the best leaders today:

  • Constant focus on nurturing and encouraging people, because they are the key to success
  • Consistent communication both through what is said and, even more, what is done
  • Commitment to make every job meaningful and to create individual job ‘ownership’
  • Passion, innovation, decisiveness, practicality and unfailing honesty about everything.

Of course he was a dreamer, but Shackleton did not plan his Antarctic expedition for some altruistic ‘God and country’ purpose. Like many corporate leaders today, he had a personal desire for recognition and success. What truly defines Shackleton however is that, while he was powerfully motivated to pursue his dream, he never forgot that leadership is primarily about serving the needs, wants and aspirations of others, not his own.

Shackleton actually failed in every expedition he set out on. And yet, out of his biggest failure came his greatest achievement as a leader, because he instinctively knew that personal glory meant nothing next to his responsibility to his followers. He understood very clearly that there is a mantle of trust placed on the leader to do what is best for others.

The bond of trust that is implicit when we select someone to lead is founded on the principle that they will lead for the good of all toward the achievement of shared goals. Unfortunately, many of today’s so-called leaders ignore that bond and define their role solely in terms of personal gain. Our yard-stick for success seems to have become so tightly bound to “What’s in it for me?” that many leaders have lost sight of their responsibility to those they lead, and the bond of trust is frequently breached.

Why Today’s Leaders Have Failed

To say that the current epidemic of individual and corporate greed is entirely the fault of today’s leaders is to oversimplify. Though it’s true that many have failed abysmally in the trust that is put in them by those they lead, this widespread failure is about more than the individuals. It is traceable to four factors in our culture today:

  • Ten years of almost unbroken economic growth, peaking in the biggest feeding frenzy of personal wealth accumulation in the history of mankind;
  • A society in which, for many, values and ethics were set aside for personal gains;
  • An frenetic investment climate in which the only measure of success was immediate results in the form of quarterly reports; and
  • A corporate environment heavily skewed towards outrageously lucrative remuneration for executives, and away from any real sharing of the benefits of employee-derived productivity gains.

The ultra short-term scope of measurement for success in the investment community pushed corporate America into a leadership mentality that was forced to drill down to immediate results, often without regard for any other considerations. And it’s a human survival instinct (not to mention plain common sense) to focus our efforts on whatever it is that we expect to bring us the best rewards. We should hardly be surprised that many CEOs have no interest in pursuing Shackletonian leadership qualities when they are presented with huge incentive packages to deliver short-term results at any cost.

Leaders are also acutely aware of the swift consequences of failure to deliver — an average of over 80 CEOs a month fired over the past three years (too many of which were rewarded with massive severance payouts that totally redefined the notion of ‘golden parachute’).

When we look at the self-serving excesses of people with names like Lay and Skilling and Fastow, our collective outrage should be tempered by an awareness that we subscribed to the very system that created them. Enron was the icon of our brave new world. We allowed our commitment to the best principles of free enterprise to blind us to the unrestrained greed. Dazzled by the glitzy success of the Enrons around us, we ignored the evidence of distorted values, questionable ethics and, worst of all, breach of employee, shareholder and public trust.

Turning the Tide

The question before us is, what will it now take to reconnect with the attributes of true leadership that nurture and grow companies for long-term shareholder value rather than ‘fast buck’ manipulation?

For a start, go back to Shackleton’s example: his eventual extraordinary success was not achieved by his lust for personal gain, but through his commitment to the well-being of all his constituents. If he had been the only one who survived his expedition, Shackleton would have been the very first to hold himself accountable for the catastrophic failure. Yet in today’s corporate parallel, even when employees lose their livelihoods and stockholder value evaporates, many leaders have not only survived but they have actually gained enormous personal wealth.

Today’s focus on the lack of top-level executive accountability brings us back to the one hallmark of great leaders: that there is an inviolable bond of trust that the leader will always act for the good of the followers and in the interest of achieving their shared goals. To breach this trust is to fail to lead.

Companies that succeed in the long haul are those in which motivated, empowered, innovative people share the leader’s vision and share a total commitment to its achievement. And the leaders who do succeed never forget the burden of responsibility on them to honor the trust that is placed in them.

That’s what saved the lives of Shackleton’s 28 men.

That’s what we so desperately need to re-establish in corporate America today.

Hugh Coppen  is President of Winning Leadership, Inc. He is a three-time CEO who specializes in leadership and change management through executive coaching, seminars and publications.

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