What have you done for me lately? (Guest Commentary)

A look at similarities between federal election and corporate boardrooms

What have you done for me lately?

Canadians have spoken — they wanted change. Many pundits suggested there had become a prevailing mood that many Canadians would simply vote for anyone, but not incumbent Stephen Harper.

We all have our own political views but I think Harper’s last TV ads — suggesting the vote was not about him — was the realization his leadership was showing serious signs of wear. It’s tough to be a leader over the short haul, let alone for 10 years… so what can recent events teach us about leadership?

Much has been written about Harper as a control freak. Some have even suggested the degree of command-and-control centralization of all activity in the Prime Minister’s Office was unparalleled in our history. 

Expelled from the Conservative caucus, Sen. Patrick Brazeau once said: “When I was in caucus, very few challenged him. Those who did were shut down; those who had differing opinions were silenced.”

Police charges laid against Brazeau for various offences would imply a personal bias is likely in play, but Harper did lose some key talent over the past couple of years — most, if not all, who were capable, competent, corporate leaders in their own right, tired of getting approval or having decisions made for them.

Over the years, I have worked with many smart business leaders who were successful moving up the organizational hierarchy. They had deservedly taken on increased responsibilities and, indeed, some moved into the top seat. 

Some of them, and we know of others from various books written about leaders, started to display different character traits as responsibilities progressively increased.

From my experience, let me cite three things that occurred. Firstly, with ultimate control, some leaders no longer had time to seek other points of view. 

Secondly, some corporate leaders even believed they had become infallible and, thirdly, for many, they knew the associated CEO severance packages were enough to sustain them in retirement.

If leaders adopt an operating style akin to a dictatorship, it is unlikely a collaborative culture can be sustained and, furthermore, it is also very likely some of the best executives will start to leave.

Harper has also built a reputation as a cagey master of the art of “divide and conquer.” The man is seen to be rather cool and calculating, and some have suggested he visualizes opponents as enemies. 

Since Harper is a hockey fan, some have suggested he can play the role of the captain, directing the strategy, as well as the enforcer, exercising power and commanding fear. He does not like to lose and to be out-maneuvered by the Liberals must be abhorrent to him.

Once again, there are similarities in corporate settings, where in the course of CEO succession, we have witnessed senior executives in the same organization being pitted against each other, with the winner taking the CEO mantle, and the loser (losing team) being shown the exit door. 

Some of us have witnessed a CEO having a temper tantrum at the board level if her strategy is rejected. Some CHROs have been in the place of mediating between angry CEOs and board members who are fulfilling their duty to question or validate the accuracy of presentations or a proposed strategy.

John Ibbotson of the Globe and Mail has observed, “Perhaps Harper’s challenge throughout his life has been his need to be in charge. He joins no team. He leads or he leaves.” 

The irony is that, under his leadership, Harper has achieved a great deal, with many noteworthy accomplishments, including guiding us through a financial crisis and building a solid financial footing, for which Canadians should be proud.

At this time of year, as we reflect on performance, there is a truism that recognition and continued tenure is about performance today — past achievements are old news. 

The Conservative campaign did not provide an exciting plan for our collective future; rather, it seemed the party was resting on its laurels. 

Corporations relying on this strategy would be seen as floundering or rudderless, and investors would be questioning their long-term viability. 
Don’t we all look for a longer term vision that offers a brighter tomorrow? This is what we expect leaders to offer.

Let me conclude with observations by Harvard Business Review on the weaknesses of the narcissistic leader:

• As they garner adulation and success, these leaders begin to feel invincible. They ignore cautionary words and take flagrant risks. They listen only to information they seek and begin dominating subordinates (for example, former Apple CEO Steve Jobs publicly humiliated employees).

• Sensitivity to criticism — unimaginably thin-skinned, narcissists can’t tolerate dissent. They say they want teamwork but, really, they want yes-men.

• Lack of empathy — they crave empathy but are not empathetic themselves. They can be brutally exploitative.  

• Intense desire to compete — they pursue victory ruthlessly, often unrestrained by conscience and convinced that threats abound. (“Only the paranoid survive,” said Andy Grove of Intel.)

Chief human resources officers placed in such a situation must act. It takes courage because of the associated employment risk, but wherever dysfunction exists, rarely does an organization fire on all cylinders. 

Canadians voted, and in corporations, employees cross the street, disengage or even sabotage.
Leadership matters.

Ian Hendry is president of the Strategic Capability Network and is vice-president of HR and administration at Interac in Toronto.

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