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George Reed
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George Reed

A retired U.S. Army Colonel, George Reed is an associate professor in the Department of Leadership Studies within the School of Leadership and Education Sciences at the University of San Diego.

No "Savior Leader" Here

The selection and firing of senior leaders serves as a powerful way of sending messages to key stakeholders both inside and outside the organization. That is appropriate since much of leadership at that level is symbolic in nature. It may not always be fair to the leader as an individual, but sometimes leadership at the top means serving as a repository of hopes, dreams, and aspirations when times are good or disappointment and anger when they are not. There seems to be a fundamental human drive to hold people accountable, even when the scope of the endeavor exceeds the capabilities of one person. There comes a time then when you have to either fire the manager or fire the team.

Let us be clear, however, about what happens when we attribute the success or failure of an enterprise to the efforts of one person. When we focus too clearly on one aspect, we can ignore others. It may be a useful fiction to say that one powerful person accounts for so much success and failure, but it is fiction nonetheless. It would be ridiculous to put the failure of GM at the feet of Mr. Wagoner or any other individual CEO, and, if there are no substantive changes in that system, we'll likely be examining his successor's failure in short order. Leadership does matter, but even heroic leadership may not be able to overcome some hurdles such as a flawed strategy, a fundamental change in the environment, or a lack of resources.

At its worst the frantic search for the savior leader can turn into a destructive parade of the CEOs. The "off with their heads" approach may serve as a short-term, feel-good tactic that diverts attention from more substantive issues. When we limit the changes to the man or woman at the top we can end up with a succession of ineffective senior level leaders. This turbulence at the top can be disconcerting and demoralizing to those at other levels. Leadership is only one of many factors that drive organizational success and failure. While I happen to believe that it is a very important factor, we would be well advised to avoid simplistic solutions to complex problems.

By George Reed

 |  March 31, 2009; 9:42 AM ET
Category:  Economic crisis Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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