A few weeks into my tenure as editor of Fast Company, I called an old friend. "Man, this leadership stuff is hard," I complained. Except the word I used wasn't "stuff."
Leading is indeed hard, and now I admire the people who do it well all the more. While it's always intellectually dubious to apply superlatives to present circumstances—to say that something is worse, better, bigger, more important than it has ever been before—I suspect that it's harder than ever to be a good leader now. Businesses today face unprecedented disruption and an extraordinary lack of certainty. (Here comes China! There goes your intellectual property! Watch out, this new technology is gonna wipe you out! Eliot Spitzer on line three! And guess what they're saying about you on the blogs?)
In every issue of Fast Company, you read about leaders who cope with these challenges far more wisely and gracefully than I could ever hope to. Once a year, though, we focus a little more emphatically on leadership. So this month, you'll meet leaders who are showing courage, sensitivity, skill, and insight at places such as JWT, Herman Miller, TiVo, Liz Claiborne, Cadillac, and Ubisoft.
But just as we should hold up praiseworthy leaders, we should also call out the poltroons, scoundrels, dolts, and greed heads. So here is a short list of the worst leaders of the year—sad to say, the ground's so fertile that I confined this list to just 2006 so far.
The Golden Saltshaker, for really rubbing it in: Lee Raymond, chairman of Exxon, and William McGuire, chief executive officer of UnitedHealth Group (tie). Raymond received a retirement package of almost $400 million. HMO titan McGuire made the oilman look like a piker, though, with unrealized stock-option gains of $1.6 billion. Never mind the sober-sided objections to entrepreneur-sized pay for hired hands, or to executives taking the credit, and the compensation, for industrywide trends like rising oil prices. With gas at $3 a gallon and 46 million Americans unable to afford health insurance, this just sticks in your craw.
The White Feather, for turning tail: French President Jacques Chirac. A new law would have made it possible to fire younger workers, a move anyone who didn't learn their economics at the University of Stalingrad recognized as a promising way to make a dent in France's nearly 10% unemployment rate. After weeks of furious protests, Chirac, who first invoked the sanctity of the legislative process, did une flippe-floppe and scrapped the measure.
The Pointing Finger, for deflecting blame onto subordinates: Christopher Cox, SEC chairman. Egged on by Patrick Byrne, the conspiracy theorist who runs Overstock.com, the SEC subpoenaed records of business journalists with supposed ties to a hedge fund Byrne accused of manipulating his stock. The subpoenas would have pretty much spelled the end of financial journalism (which, incidentally, often exposes abuses later investigated by an underfunded SEC). Days later, after someone at the commission discovered the First Amendment, Cox backtracked, professed surprise, and spanked his enforcement folks—while leaving open the possibility of such subpoenas in the future.
The Rubber Gavel, for most compliant herd of directors: the General Motors board. With GM losing $10.6 billion last year and bankruptcy rumors swirling; with market share dwindling; with more than 100,000 GM workers having lost their jobs; and with the stock nearly 80% off its peak, the board issued a ringing endorsement of CEO Richard Wagoner. Was that in recognition of bold strategies to build better, more-exciting cars, to winnow down an overstuffed lineup of brands, to reduce dependency on rebates, to capitalize on demand for fuel-efficient vehicles? Nah. It was a pat on the back for his sale of a majority stake in GMAC—for less than half the price analysts originally thought it might bring. GM's financing arm was the company's sole bright spot: It actually, uh, made money last year. So why… oh, never mind.
A dismal parade, isn't it? All the more reason we applaud their antithesis in this month's look at leaders who know what the word really means.
A version of this article appeared in the June 2006 issue of Fast Company magazine.