Monday, January 03, 2005

Making Leadership Boring

It's articles like this that make me never want to go to business school -- or at least never major in management if I do. Even the esteemed Peter Drucker can't write about leadership in a way that seems interesting. Sure, he cites Machiavelli, Shakespeare, and Alexander Hamilton, but these references seem rather perfunctory; the names are just there to add some polish to the piece. He's onto something when he says that the American CEO is unique and is fast becoming an export, but he doesn't really say why. How is it that this kind of one-man rule grew up here?

First of all, Drucker doesn't say anything interesting about executive power. What is it? What a strange phrase we use for ruling. Why don't we simply say "rule"? Why the fancier construction? And what's so good about one-man rule anyway? Drucker apparently doesn't think that these questions are worth pursuing. Maybe these questions are more suited to an unusual kind of political scientist, but Drucker's historical references -- not just to great thinkers but to things like the Jesuit order -- indicate that he aims to be more than a narrow, second-rate scholar.

Second, the tasks of the CEO, as defined by Drucker, amount to a kind of boring laundry list -- defining success, representing the corporation to the outside, organizing information, appointing subordinates and delegating authority, taking responsibility. This last one should be interesting, but it isn't in Drucker's hands. Does he mean that Ken Lay is guilty of not taking responsibility? Drucker doesn't say. Actually, they all should be interesting, but they all seem so routinized when Drucker speaks about them.

Finally, Drucker has nothing to say about the recent corporate scandals. That one could write an OpEd piece for the WSJ on management and the American CEO and not cite recent governance problems is astonishing. Additionally regarding corporate governance, Drucker doesn't say anything about the shareholders. Is the CEO their humble servant or is he something different? The shareholders, after all, make a very serious claim to rule the entire enterprise. At the very least, there are perennial tensions among the board, the shareholders, and management. One can't expect Drucker to resolve these tensions in an OpEd piece, but it seems ridiculous not to mention them in a discussion of the concept of the CEO. It may be that he's right -- that the shareholders and board should take a back seat to the CEO. But Drucker doesn't provide an argument for why that is.

Perhaps, however, my disatisfaction with Drucker has to do with the fact that business is somewhat less exciting than politics, and there's nothing any commentator can do to change that.


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