at the Highest Level
by Irving H. Buchen
“I can scarcely conceive a more harassing, wearying,
Ambition often is long on glamour and short on reality. Moreover, it is evidently a universal and comprehensive blindness, not limited to any one field or sector. Middle level managers dream of becoming divisional heads, then senior managers, and even CEO’s; and see their portraits on the cover of Time. Assistant principals project their careers to the principalship, then beyond to assistant superintendent and finally to superintendent; and imagine being selected educational leader of the year. Chairs of academic departments envision themselves as the dean, the vice president of academic affairs and finally the Chancellor; and dream of appearing as the subject of a major article in the Chronicle of Higher Education. And so on.
Such fantasies of ascent are stirred by the steady deluge of books and articles that appear annually, by various leadership centers usually associated with prestigious universities presenting special leadership development programs here and abroad at outrageous fees, by professional associations offering wisdom and networking at annual national meetings, and by colleges and universities enrolling aspiring leaders in executive degree programs. They all stress how to get there. Very few address how to stay there (although some will recommend using a professional executive coach). But none include the “f” word -- failure
And yet CEO’s topple regularly, even predictably. A major problem arises and everyone just sits back and waits for the inevitable resignation, and for the clever spin that may accompany it. No one ever tells the climbers to the top that they also function as fall guys; whether or not they are responsible for the major goof . The tenure of school superintendents currently has shrunk to 2 1/2 years. You are out before you even have a chance to settle in. The same thing is happening to college presidents who used to be there forever.
So why don’t we talk about failure? Why is it not a major agenda item in professional leadership development programs and courses? Many reasons, most obviously because it probably would not make a difference anyhow. No dash of cold water would cool the ardor and hunger of aspirants. Besides it might decrease the numbers enrolled and the income. But perhaps the most serious reason for the sin of omission is ignorance. We have not analyzed failure. We have not sufficiently probed the reasons for it. We have not placed failure alongside success and examined the degree to which one may be the secret sharer of the other. Above all, we have not come up with a way to rate top jobs as to their failure factor -- their failure quotient, as it were. Obviously, not all of these matters can be covered in detail here but perhaps a start can be made by examining some of the reasons for failure. Because these are generic, they also may serve as a reality check on job selection and what questions to ask at the interview in many fields.
There are minimally three ways in which those at the top can topple. The first is the job is crushing. The second is the customers of leadership — boards, employees, media, and community. The third, seldom mentioned , are the excessive expectations of followers.
Apropos of the first, the National Museum of American History just has opened a new permanent exhibition on “The American Presidency: A Glorious Burden.” It is a comprehensive indictment of the position. Jefferson called it a “splendid misery”; Andrew Jackson “dignified slavery.” Warren Harding exclaimed: “It’s Hell! No other word to describe it.” Woodrow Wilson’s summary was predictive : “Men of ordinary physique and discretion cannot be President and live.”
A recent article in Educational Leadership provided survival tips for new school principals. The first matter discussed and returned to often was an overwhelming workload. New principals were warned that they would be exhausted every day and that their weekends would be invaded and ravaged as well.
Going up the academic leadership chain, the parting message of a recently retired college president was “There should be an 11th commandment: Thou shalt not attend meetings!” A recently terminated CEO warned those who would seek the top job to take a vow of celibacy because you will no longer have a normal family life.
How can those at the top be expected to make intelligent decisions, deal with angry customers, rebellious students, etc. on only a few hours sleep? Even the medical profession has begun to recognize that emergency room interns having to make life and death decisions should not be exhausted. In short, the job itself can be the killer — not any special weakness or limitation of the leader.
Happily, there is some recognition that jobs at the top have to change or be redefined. In business, there are now many companies who supplement the CEO with CFO(Finance) and most recently with CIO(information). New York City just split the job of school superintendent into two jobs: educational leader and business manager. But few other school districts have followed suit. Principals still have to survive a daunting schedule. Similarly, college presidents are still being wiped out by typical 12 to14 hour days followed in the evening by attending a faculty music recital. Recently, one college president was asked how he survived and he quipped “I have learned to sleep with my eyes open.”
Humor is a key survival technique but it is not a substitute for making a job doable and manageable. Minimally, two remedies are required. Externally, organizations have to review and reengineer the position of executive so that it is not preparation for the tri-athelon.. That may involve subtracting portions of the position and creating another position, providing a budget for an executive coach, limiting the areas of responsibility and direct reporting, and above all, reexamining the entire structure from the unique perspective of allowing a leader to lead. Almost every advertisement for a school superintendent , for example, calls for someone with great energy and stamina. That already communicates a level of executive exhaustion that will consume the office holder.
Ultimately, however, the leader himself also has to be aware that the enemy may lie within not without. Unless he controls and limits his time and energy, and has a clear and dedicated view of what he is supposed to do and what he does not have to do, he will falter. But for that to take hold , future or current leaders need to know why leaders fail and that they are not immune from such demise. Specifically, we need to designate leadership as a qualitative not a quantitative position . We also need to document that it is a high risk one as well. And for that we in turn need what we currently do not have -- case studies of failure.
The second major source is not identifying, profiling and satisfying the key customers of leadership. Minimally, that includes governing boards, employees, the media and the community at large. All are often difficult for different reasons. The involvement of the community is probably more important for school superintendents and government operations, although many corporations are happily engaged in local community activities as good local corporate citizens. But it is the first two — boards and employees — that really can do a CEO in.
None is more helpful or troublesome than a governing board. As the nursery rhyme notes, when they are good they are very good ; but when they are bad they are horrid. They all need training as board members. That is probably best done by the professional association of governing boards but many organizations do it themselves, for reasons which are not always supportive of proper board functioning. Many do not do it at all. Many board members are business entrepreneurs who do not do well occupying an honorific position but want to roll up their sleeves and wade in. The next thing that happens is micro managing of the macro role. Often board members, especially school boards, have their own agendas. They attend meetings with clippings from newspapers and magazines and wave them in the face of the superintendent and ask indignantly; “Why can’t we be doing this?”
Clearly, a top executive will not survive without good board relations. In many cases, they in fact hired him and can fire him. The care and feeding of board members needs to be entrusted to a liaison of the CEO’s office — a board coach as it were who functions as a early warning system. Some top executives ask their board members to share the task of representing the president and undertaking occasionally some dog and pony shows. Scripts are provided, physical relief is given the CEO, board members appreciate being in the limelight, a team spirit is engendered, and board members appreciate directly what a hard sell the company message is especially to certain audiences. Properly managed and directed, this may help develop boards that are fail-safe.
If boards are the most overrated source of support and difficulty, employees are the least. In fact, many board members take readings of the CEO’s popularity and effectiveness by sampling employee views. But employee commitment has become more important than a measure of CEO popularity. Employees have become a singular leadership responsibility.
With empowerment, teaming, and gain sharing on the one hand, and with intellectual capital and the goals of productivity, quality, and creativity on the other hand, the situation is way beyond standard employee or public relations. Without employee involvement, the CEO’s vision can become stillborn. In a curious and even ironic way, the chief executive has to function as a union leader, serving as the advocate of employee centrality and negotiating a new collaborative work covenant as the company’s contract with its workers. This is perhaps even more urgent in school districts and among government employees. But unlike the suggestion to seek professional help with board members, this task cannot be delegated. Nor can it be shared with the public relations department. It requires straight talk, frequent public discussions with employees of the big picture, and regular introductions and orientations to the future of the organization. In short, it requires the chief executive to be interesting, to share his knowledge of the industry and its future environment and indirectly to demonstrate why his serving as the CEO is justified.
Finally, followers. Howard Gardner in his survey of leadership notes almost in passing that Americans unlike many other nationalities are generally not knowledgeable about what to expect from leaders. Specifically, most Europeans for example do not expect very much, or very much that is different, or anything to happen quickly . Not so in America. We put upon a newly elected president the insane measure of the first 100 days. And that fictitious and sensational time line regularly has compelled at least one major premature or hastily conceived act or appointment. Another expectation which seduces executives at their peril is that they are saviors or magicians or miracle workers. In fact a smart move would be to announce that they are none of the above. Still another related temptation is that they will turn things around and strike out in a direction totally different from that of the past. And worst of all that the transformation will be accomplished rapidly and avoid the cronyism and favoritisms of previous administrations.
Hearkening to the usually excessive expectations of followers routinely produces leaders who do not belong to themselves and who regularly fail sooner or later, usually sooner. Chief executives need to possess their own internal clock, listen endlessly and appreciatively to what followers insistently urge without promising to act, and again and again ask for everyone’s help and patience. To do otherwise, is to have the executive serve at the beck and call of followers who generate expectations that are more likely to insure failure rather than success.
In summary, then, the causes for failure are many and deep Aspiring leaders understandably will pay more attention to how they can get there rather than how they can stay there. They also will draw little consolation from the fact that lesser level leadership positions do not suffer the same rate of turnover. Still, understanding why leaders fail can provide perhaps the most powerful leverage on how they succeed. But until we are ready to be as smart, knowledgeable, and direct about acknowledging and analyzing failure; and develop the case studies in all sectors to bring the lessons home; all the publications and professional development programs will continue to contribute and to constitute the mythology not the methodology of effective leadership.
The burden is only glorious while it is being borne. But failing generates a burden of self-rapprochement and regret, often life-long, which invokes martyrdom rather than glory. Alas, many executives will occupy the ranks of failure through no fault of their own, except that they allowed their egos to operate and to range free without the knowledge of what pitfalls lay before them. Unknowingly, they will not be aware of the thousands of opportunistic, ignorant and excessive academics, board members, employees and followers on the sidelines, knowingly and unknowingly , cheering them on to failure.
Irving H. Buchen is a Senior Associate with Comwell, Consultants to Management, and HR Partners, HR Consultants, and is on the faculty at International College. Contact Irving H. Buchen by e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org .