Authentic leaders are able to analyze the context and transcend it. Always an innovator, television producer/writer Norman Lear has enjoyed astonishing success–financially as well as creatively. When I talked with him, we discussed not only his life and his work, but also his concern with what he described as “the societal disease of our time”–short-term thinking: “It’s asking what the poll is saying, not what’s great for the country and what’s best for the future, but what do I say in the short term to get me from here to there.” And that national obsession with the short term has come directly from business. Lear continued, “Joseph Campbell once said that in medieval times, as you approached the city, your eye was taken by the cathedral. Today it’s the towers of commerce. It’s business, business, business, and in an escalating fashion it has gotten more short-term oriented…. You know, they’re not funding the real iconoclasts today, not funding the innovators, because that’s risky–that’s long-term investment.”
I think Lear is absolutely right. American business has become the principal shaper and mover in contemporary America–even more so than television–and has, in an odd irony, by zealously practicing what it preaches, sandbagged itself. Having captured the heart and mind of the nation with its siren songs of instant gratification, it has locked itself into obsolete practices. Before the flameout of the New Economy and the equally spectacular fall from grace of the American CEO, corporate leaders had achieved a popularity such as they had never experienced before in history. But even as we fawned over these corporate superstars, we failed to ask a crucial question: How much genuine leadership was being practiced inside even the most successful companies?
How many of those we believe to be leaders were really corporate Wizards of Oz, their perceived abilities as illusory as their cooked books?
Richard Ferry, former president and co-founder of the recruiting firm of Korn/Ferry International, spoke to the problem of short-term thinking two decades ago and his observations are just as relevant today: “Corporate America may talk, on an intellectual level, about what it’ll take to succeed in the twenty-first century, but when it gets right down to decision making, all that matters is the next quarterly earnings report. That’s what’s driving much of the system. With that mind-set, everything else becomes secondary to the ability to deliver the next quarterly earnings push-up. We’re on a treadmill. The reward system in this country is geared to the short term.”
Our addiction to the short term gave us freeze-frame shots of a changing world, preventing us from seeing that it was shrinking, heating up, growing rancorous and ambitious–not just politically, but socially and economically. Just as our forebears challenged British rule, China, Japan, and Korea, virtually all of Europe, Scandinavia, and Australia have challenged American corporate rule–even as the Arab nations began to take back their oil. These upstarts are beating us at our own game, manufacturing and marketing. Japan, above all, saw that the marketplace was the real battlefield and that trade was not only the ultimate weapon, but the source of true national security. The Soviet Union’s recognition that trade trumps ideology led to its inevitable dismantling and accounts for the eager self-interest with which the Czech Republic and other former Soviet countries sought inclusion in the European Union.
Perhaps because they’re centuries older than we are, and therefore more sophisticated and wiser, our friends in Asia and Europe know that political regimes come and go, and ideologies wax and wane, but–human nature being what it is–our basic needs are economic, not political.
Some in America are still addicted to the quick fix and the fast buck. They haven’t yet realized that the new bottom line is that there is no bottom line–there aren’t any lines, much less limits or logic. Life on this turbulent, complex planet is no longer linear and sequential, one thing logically leading to another. It is spontaneous, contrary, unexpected, and ambiguous. Things do not happen according to plan, and they are not reducible to tidy models. We persist in grasping at neat, simple answers, when we should be questioning everything.
Wallace Stevens, a renowned poet who was also vice president of an insurance company, put it nicely in his poem, “Six Significant Landscapes”:
Rationalists, wearing square hats,
Think, in square rooms,
Looking at the floor,
Looking at the ceiling.
They confine themselves
To right-angled triangles.
If they tried rhomboids,
Cones, waving lines, ellipses–
As, for example, the ellipse of the half-moon–
Rationalists would wear sombreros.
It’s time for America to trade in its square hat on a sombrero, or a beret, and consider this new context.
Reprinted from the book On Becoming A Leader: Twentieth Anniversary Edition by Warren Bennis. Published by Basic Books. All Rights Reserved.