What's Happening to Leadership in America?
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'
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
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.
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
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