Today's Superstar, Tomorrow's Whipping Boy
There are a handful of people in the world that make such a difference in organizations that they would deserve "179 times the pay of the average worker." There are only so many "Michael Jordans" in the world; people who clearly rise above the competition, who change the rules, and who remind us what it means to be talented or special. I've studied leadership and business long enough to know that today's superstar is often tomorrow's whipping boy.
For example, we invited Ken Lay to be a keynote speaker at West Point several years ago, just before the Enron scandal broke. Our disappointment upon hearing that he had canceled his speech turned to relief that he wouldn't be talking about ethical leadership at our conference. We pay too much attention to image, and we still don't have search and hiring mechanisms that separate true leaders from celebrities.
While Wall Street CEOs and boards surely share responsibility for the "bonus debacle," so do "followers." Followers have a responsibility to make sure that these "leaders" stay connected with their constituents, and remain grounded in reality. I would hope that when now-former Merrill Lynch CEO John Thain was decorating his office, at least one voice said, "You know John, a million dollars would allow us to save 30 jobs." Or when Ford CEO Alan Mulally was departing for Washington to ask Congress for bailout money, at least one voice said, "You know Alan, it's a pretty drive to D.C."
When leaders are surrounded by those who fail to ask reasonable questions, they become further removed from reality, suspended in a web of distortion. Clearly Wall Street is suffering from a distorted view of reality and a confused sense of propriety. We can't, however, expect people who have been raised in this system to wake up and realize that rewarding failure is not the right thing to do.
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