For more than a year, we've all been on a national learning journey, a trip of discovery into the land of real leadership. It started with September 11. In the aftermath of that terrible tragedy, Americans found themselves asking a new question: What's the difference between a celebrity and a hero? Heroes, it turned out, weren't famous. They didn't have PR agents or lofty job titles. They were people we'd never heard of demonstrating remarkable courage under intense pressure. They were, for the most part, ordinary people doing extraordinary things.
Our national education continued with a series of business scandals. The names toll with a timbre of shame. Enron and WorldCom. Merrill Lynch and Tyco. And on and on and on. Chief executives, top officers of companies that had won honors and plaudits for their performance — Most innovative company in America! The next GE! — turned out to be empty vessels, guilty cheats, raw self-promoters.
And then, just when you thought the story of self-aggrandizement couldn't get any stranger or uglier, we hear about the greed of the CEO — not of the next GE, but of the last GE! Jack Welch, whose name used to be synonymous with the gold standard of CEOs, turns out to be more interested in grabbing the gold than in upholding the standards. His imperial retirement package — revealed in the course of his already unpleasant divorce proceeding — only confirms the growing sense that most Americans have of the so-called leaders of corporate America: Who the hell do these people think they are? Let's throw the bums out.
Well, here's a better idea and a better response: Let's learn to recognize and reward the real face of leadership. Let's continue our education in the art of leadership by reminding ourselves of the difference between celebrities and heroes. Celebrities, as the old saying goes, are people who are famous for being famous. Heroes are people who do the right thing — whether you know their names or not.
Here's why this matters. In his landmark book, Good to Great (HarperCollins, 2001), Jim Collins drives home the point that all CEOs, at some time in their tenure, face a crossroads: They can do what is best for themselves and their careers — for their celebrity — or they can do what is best for their company. Without exception, Collins says, the CEOs who took their companies from good to great chose the path that was best for their companies. That is why they are leaders you've never heard of.
Today, business is at a crossroads. CEOs are suspect — and suspects. Big companies are not to be trusted. The stock market is on probation. Elected officials are investigating. Let's face it: Business is off track. It's time for a new generation of leaders — men and women with records of integrity, creativity, passion, and the ability to deliver results. It's time for a new slate of business leaders who can help get business back on track. Here's our slate: Who's Fast 2003. We say that these are real leaders. More power to them.
A version of this article appeared in the November 2002 issue of Fast Company magazine.