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by Deborah Hopen

What's Happening to Leadership in America?
Senior leaders' policies are only as good as their actions.

Enron, WorldCom and Tyco. Bernie Ebers, Dennis Kozlowski, Martha Stewart, James Traficant and Robert Torricelli--they're all household words these days. Is it because we should emulate them? No, the sad truth is that these organizations and people are in the news because they're leaders who have broken their stakeholders' trust.

Why should those of us involved with total quality management and continuous improvement care about these names and their stories? What can we learn from these modern-day case studies? There are two lessons we may choose to apply in the near future.

Let's take a look at the Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award's Criteria for Performance Excellence to frame our consideration on this issue. The core value, "visionary leadership" includes the following descriptions: "An organization's senior leaders should set directions and create a customer focus, clear and visible values, and high expectations. The directions, values and expectations should balance the needs of all your stakeholders. Senior leaders should serve as role models through their ethical behavior and their personal involvement in planning, communications, coaching, development of future leaders, review of organizational performance and employee recognition. As role models, they can reinforce values and expectations while building leadership, commitment and initiative throughout your organization."

Leaders of private- and public-sector U.S. organizations are expected to set the standard for ethical behavior and commitment to stakeholders: customers, citizens, employees, partners, vendors, shareholders and communities. The decisions these leaders make and implement guide the decisions and behaviors of their associates. No matter what these leaders say in their organizational values statements and ethics policies, it's what they do that counts.

U.S. organizations and their leaders are currently facing some very tough challenges. As Thomas Paine once said in The American Crisis (1776), "These are the times that try men's souls." Indeed, it's scary to be held accountable for the financial success of an organization when a one-cent downward shift in projected earnings can cause a backlash on Wall Street. Innovation and creativity become essential requirements for successful leadership, but not without some carefully constructed boundaries.

That's where quality professionals can set an example that organizational leaders may choose to follow. After all, we're expected to be role models, too. Most of us have extensive experience with collecting and analyzing data, developing specifications, comparing actual results to requirements, identifying root causes and changing our processes to improve our results. Unfortunately, few of us apply these skills to our decisions and behaviors.

First, I'd like to suggest that you conduct a "technical audit" of your conformance to your organization's values. Start off by reviewing each value and defining limits around it--limits that clearly define its boundaries. It's probably a good idea to discuss your proposed limits with your boss; this will ensure they're correct and increase your understanding of the values. Then, evaluate 10 to 15 decisions that you've made recently. Ask the tough questions, "Did this decision conform with the stated value? Could I have made a different decision that would have conformed better?" Focus on identifying the circumstances that undermined conformance to the "letter" and "spirit" of the value. I'm certain you'll find patterns, root causes and processes that can be changed to ensure your future compliance.

Then poll a cross-section of your stakeholders to do a "perceptual audit." Present them with some of the same decisions and find out how they view your conformance to the stated values. You may be surprised. In fact, even if your technical audit provided a high conformance score, you may be shocked to see how others viewed your decisions. No matter what you intended, it's these perceptions that guide others' decisions and behaviors.

Will these actions stop the presses and turn U.S. leadership around? Probably not overnight, but they may serve as a worthwhile example to other leaders. They provide a proactive, preventive approach to improvement, rather than a reactive, punitive approach. And for quality professionals, that's a far better way to address the problem.

About the author

Deborah Hopen has been a senior executive and consultant with Fortune 500 organizations in quality management, human resources, organizational development, research and development, and accounting. She is a past president of the American Society for Quality and the Washington State Quality Award. Hopen currently edits The Association for Quality and Participation's The Journal for Quality and Participation and News For a Change. Letters to the editor regarding this editorial can be e-mailed to letters@qualitydigest.com.