Friday, November 9, 2018

On the Nature of Principled Leadership

What is principled leadership? Simply whatever a leader decides? Or even worse, believes? If so, does the content shift with the sands from one leader to the next? This would seem to invalidate any means of comparing one leader's rendition from another. That it to say, leaving the "filling in the blank" to any leader who wants to be principled opens the door to leadership by convenience under the cover, or subterfuge, of ethics as a means of self-restraint. Ironically, do-it-yourself principled leadership may actually be unethical. So it is vital that we ask ourselves, is a durable definition even possible?
Ethical codes of conduct easily get mired in miasma as they traverse from the finitude of personal ideology to the power that comes with  universality and even the absolute. As universally applicable as an absolute, principled leadership is seemingly a normative constraint even on leaders who do not value the particular principles. The greed, ambition, immaturity, and the associated selfishness that together run Wall Street may appear to hang in the balance.

Kant claims that principles that can be universalized without contradiction should be universalized. (Image Source:

However, even old Kant would admit that universalizing an ethical principle, or maxim, to be binding on everyone is not a sure thing, for the moral law does not by its normative nature approach the force enjoyed by public legal justice. This distinction is all that an egregious ego needs to slip through the semi-permeable normative membrane of a puffed-up ethical principle claiming for itself the mantle of universalizability and even absolute value (as if the principle were the assigner of values in place of reason).

On leadership generally, see The Essence of Leadership, available at Amazon. 

Non-Positional Leadership: A Matter of Charisma?

The concept of non-positional leadership is typically associated with charismatic leadership.[1] The Hebrew prophets are a case in point, as none had any formal civic position.  To be sure, a non-positioned leader need not be charismatic; such a leader can be effective in utilizing persuasion to get his or her position (i.e., "vision") sufficiently adopted by followers to become the default.  Obviously, a positioned official, whether in the upper echelons of a large corporation, government, or religious institution, need not “stoop” to persuasion; power from authority can be sufficient for an official's will to be done. However, does that evince leadership or simply raw power?

Gandhi epitomized non-positional leadership. He never held a formal office in religion or government. Is the strength of non-positional leadership necessarily moral?  Image Source:

Authorized power is typically also reckoned as leadership, especially if the official’s decision is unpopular at first, yet quickly implemented and effective in the end. In fact, merely the stature of “high” position can give a decision itself the semblance of leadership. Modern society lavishes an extraordinary amount of credence on organizational position itself, regardless of the particular occupant. Such positional power, as distinct from positional leadership, is excessive, even reckless. For example, Richard Fuld was able to inflict Lehman Brothers with an overwhelming amount of risk, and for so long, in line with a warped “vision” and without having to lead in the sense of persuading others of his vision. To assume almost blindly that CEOs are not only “natural” leaders, but also persons of high caliber in terms of skill and character, simply because of their position is foolhardy and yet this is typically done in modern society.

1. On “non-positional” leadership, see David Burkus,

Sunday, October 14, 2018

Steve Jobs: A Unique Societal and Organizational Visionary

Typically as a company transitions from an enterprising, creative new venture to a large organization to be managed, a staid CEO replaces a visionary founder. In the case of Steve Jobs at Apple, the very nature of the man’s vision was not only inherently at odds with the status-quo underpinning of a large organization with a budget, but also essential to the company’s business model. Hence, the company, including its shareholders, paid a price for years for jettisoning Jobs. The film, Jobs (2013), is centered on the distinctiveness of Jobs’ vision. Although the film also hints at why this distinctiveness is such that the company would (and did) lose as a large organization after making the typical founder-to-CEO transition.

The full essay is at "Jobs."

Friday, September 28, 2018

Visionary Leadership at Zynga

Faced with a stock price down 75 percent since its IPO and conflict with subordinates throughout 2012, Zynga’s chief executive Mark Pincus had plenty on his plate as he met with Bill Campbell of Apple in September of that year. Zynga investor and venture-capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers had brought Campbell in to advise the CEO. While it is tempting to play around the edges and work on “communication processes” and hand out more employee stock-options, the bottom-line in such cases is typically the need to improve the products either simply to be better products or better tailored to changing consumer tastes and habits. Product development that can transform companies may result from the vision of a leader for whom strategy is simply a matter of reaching a destination already known.
 Mark Pincus, CEO of Znyga. From this picture, it is hard not to like the guy.       Reuters
According to the Wall Street Journal, Pincus “revamped Zynga’s structure and reshuffled his executive team.” Additionally, he tried “to remake himself as its leader by ceding more control to deputies.” Prime facie, jargon like “revamped,” “reshuffled” and “remake” can have the smell of superficial jazz rather than having an intention to get at the core of the problem facing the company. Beyond the revamping and reshuffling, and even remaking, Pincus could have focused on changing his attitude or mentality, especially in terms of working with other people in the company.
Even closer to the core problem was Pincus’s decision to spend more of his time in product development meetings and putting mobile product application in every product-division. Optimally, these changes would go along with market research on what was behind the rapid change in video-game player habits and research into how to counter Facebook’s changes that made it more difficult for consumers to find Zynga’s games on the social network. According to the Journal, the change in player habits (and tastes) as well as the changes in social media technology, “dictated fundamental changes at Zynga.” As the key source of innovation, knowledge is where the real game is to be played at Zynga. The stock market may simply have been reflecting the lack of sufficient knowledge while being unimpressed by the “revamping” and “reshuffling,” and, moreover, “remaking.” Leaders are not remade and they do not spend away their time revamping and reshuffling. Rather, leaders lead on substance that is vital to their organization.
Steve Jobs led at Apple not by having a “touchy-feely” personality or granting lots of employee perks, but, rather, by having visionary ideas on products that would change our daily life in the modern world. In the midst of a lack of such ideas being fused with leadership at Zynga, Jonathan Liu, the product director, described a mere manifestation or symptom in telling Pincus, “People couldn’t articulate what the main strategy was, or why they were coming into Zynga on a day-to-day basis.” Firing the chief operating officer might have been easy, but the true source behind the muddled strategy was a wan of ideas concerning products and knowledge concerning the end-users, coupled with a lack of real-time awareness of what middlemen such as Facebook were doing.
Put another way, strategy itself is but a means by which visions of future products can be implemented; strategy itself is not the decisive point. As for “the vision thing,” either someone has it or not; one cannot simply “remake” oneself as a “new” leader and trust that the ideas will come. Ultimately, vision is more than even ideas; it is an ideal, and thus something capable of being believed in. The morale problems and related conflict, as well as all the talent being snagged up by Twitter and Facebook, the lack of strategy and even the sort of leadership in Zynga can all be interpreted as symptoms of a void in terms of vision that is oriented to products.
It might even be asked whether any passion for playing the computer games was left at the company. In terms of vision, not even such passion may be enough. Steve Jobs was surely passionate about computer technology, but this alone does not account for his vision that effectively transformed even staple products like the telephone and even the laptop. One cannot be trained to come up with a vision, much less be passionate about something; these must already be inside. The quest at Zynga could have been in trying to locate it in others and bring them in, even if it means, as Pincus said, “it’s inevitable that some people will choose to leave.” That could include the leader-founder himself.

Evelyn Rusli, “The Education of Zynga’s Founder,” The Wall Street Journal, November 16, 2012.

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Ethical Leadership in the Roman Catholic Church: The Case of the Chilean Abuse Scandal

Leaders taking an ethical stance, even en masse, may find themselves risking their very positions, including the associated perks. In May, 2018, “all Chile’s 34 [Roman Catholic] bishops offered to resign en masse . . . after attending a crisis meeting with [Pope Francis] over allegations of a cover-up of sexual abuse” in the South American state.[1] The pope could have accepted all of those resignations. Instead, he accepted the resignations of three Chilean bishops, including Juan Barros of Osorno, Cristian Cordero, and Gonzalo Garcia, a month later. The ethical leadership, I submit, was not evinced in the pope’s decision to get rid of the three sordid clerics, but, rather, in the other bishops who had been willing to take a stand even at great personal loss. Indeed, the pope admitted he had made “grave mistakes” in the Chilean sexual abuse scandal. Had he been guilty of protecting his friends?

The full essay is at "Christian Leadership." 

See: Christianized Ethical Leadership, available at Amazon

[1] Reuters, “Pope Francis Accepts Resignation of 3 Chilean Bishops Following Sex Abuse Scandals,” The Huffington Post, June 11, 2018.

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Mark Zuckerberg: Facebook’s Unjust Strategic Leader in a Crisis

Mark Zuckerberg, founder and CEO of Facebook (and Instagram) “remained silent” during the two days after the data-breach scandal broke in March, 2018 as E.U. and U.S. lawmakers “pummeled Facebook and its stock price” dropped 9 percent.[1] The company lost $50 billion in market value in just those two days![2] Beyond the self-interested investors and the demoralized employees, the company’s 2 billion users—the suppliers of the raw content (to be mined as well as shared)—and the world (i.e., societal level) looked for ethical (i.e., atoning as well as protective) leadership from the company’s CEO. To be just, I submit, the leadership could not have been a mere reflection of Zuckerberg’s or Facebook’s immediate self-interests.
When users had “complained about bugs and problems with Apple Maps app in 2012, Tim Cook, the company’s chief executive, released a statement that said ‘we fell short.’”[3] Even though releasing a statement is more managerial than associated with leadership, the contrition evinces an ethical tone as he held his own (and Apple’s) immediate self-interest at bay. In contrast, Facebook’s faceless statements in the wake of the psychological-political personal-data breach stressed that Facebook had been blameless.
In 2011, “when Netflix tried to split off its mail-order DVD business into a company called Qwikster, its chief executive, Reed Hastings, wrote a letter to the public. ‘I messed up,’ he [wrote]. ‘I own everyone an explanation.’”[4] Hastings’ credibility was boistered by his voluntary assumption of responsibility. Evading the problem would have signaled a lack of leadership, as would have an eventual explanation blaming other companies or people.
Even at Uber in 2017 when “a former engineer revealed a pattern of sexual harassment,” Travis Kalanick, the company’s CEO, informed the public that “he would immediately open an investigation.”[5] Even in a sordid corporate culture, leadership can be shown by taking the proverbial bull by the horns rather than going into hiding until the worst of the storm has passed. It is hardly surprising, given this comparison, that some employees at Facebook tried to jump ship in the wake of the scandal, citing the “demoralizing” nature of their work on Facebook’s main product.[6] Those employees could have used an ethical leader, but Zuckerberg was AWOL internally too.
I suspect that Zuckerberg evaded assuming a leadership role inside the company and societally in the wake of the scandal because his calculating mind was on how to carefully craft a public statement designed in line with his (and his company’s) immediate and long-term self-interest. In his eventual statement, although he admitted that Facebook had made mistakes, he "stopped short of a full-throated apology and was at times defensive."[7] He insisted his company was taking steps to protect its users' data from being harvested. Yet it took a whistleblower for Facebook to react (including admitting to the breach), and years earlier, Zuckerberg had made the same promise. Could he be trusted again, especially considering his track record in favoring investor over user interest?
Zuckerberg used his interview on CNN on March 21, 2018 to try to reframe the issue two degrees of separation from Facebook to Russian meddling. A leadership vision that has another party as principal bad guy is not ethical when the issue on the table lays culpability at the leader's own door. Furthermore, the pivot evades, and thus confirms any determinations that he and his company are not to be trusted.  
Strategic leadership, moreover, lacks credibility for employees and especially societally if the vision component is a mere reflection of the organization’s immediate and even medium-term financial interest; the long-term interest is more in line with a societally-valued vision.[8] For a leadership vision to establish, maintain, or bolster trust beyond an organization at the societal level, the values in the vision must resonate with societal values. This idea itself resonates with Plato’s notion of justice as resonance between a well-ordered (i.e., reason controlling passions) polis (organization or city) and well-ordered psyches (i.e., the human mind). Applying this theory to strategic leadership, I contend that a (societally-recognized) just strategic leader utilizes reason to hold the temptation of (self-interest) strategic interests back from dominating the crafting of a leadership vision such that it can be valid societally. The just strategic leader reasons that accepting discomfort rather than evading the spotlight in a crisis is in a company’s best long-term interest, and that damage-control to defend oneself and the company against the immediate attacks actually evinces weakness, ethically and otherwise. The unjust leader (and organization) insists that a vision is valid societally even though it is actually “window-dressing” to advance strategic interests or protect them. I submit that Facebook’s Zuckerberg was oriented to the latter in the wake of the crisis, and more generally to the advancing the ultra-specific interests of Facebook’s investors (rather than the users who supply the content).

Employees look for leadership in the midst of a demoralizing crisis. (USA Today)

See the essay "Facebook: A Distrustful Company."

See also the booklet, "Taking the Face Off Facebook."

1. Jessica Guynn, “As Facebook Reels from ‘Catastrophic Moment’ in Cambridge Analytica Crisis,” Mark Zuckerberg Is Silent,” USA Today, March 21, 2018.
2.  Kevin Roose and Sheera Frenkel, “Missing From Facebook’s Crisis: Mark Zuckerberg,” The New York Times, March 21, 2018.
3. Ibid.
4. Ibid.
5. Ibid.
6. Ibid.
7. Sheera Frenkel and Kevin Roose, "Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg Vows to Bolster Privacy amid Cambridge Analytica Crisis," The New York Times, March 21, 2018.
8. Skip Worden, “The Role of Integrity as a Mediator in Strategic Leadership: A Recipe for Reputational Capital,” Journal of Business Ethics, 46 (August, 2003) No. 1, pp. 31-44.

Monday, March 19, 2018

The Founder of Theranos: A Flawed Charismatic Vision and Leader

“Theranos rose quickly from being a college dropout’s idea to revolutionize the blood analysis industry to a hot tech bet that accrued $700 million in funding and many famous names for its board.”[1] Elizabeth Holmes, the company’s founder, was stripped of her position at the company in 2018 after the SEC discovered her deep involvement with the fraud at the company. Her “smarts, fierce determination and Steve Jobs-inspired look . . . were critical” to her being able to perpetuate the lie that the company had a device that could do blood tests with just a scant amount of blood, obviating the unpleasant experience of having blood drawn by needle.[2] Although Jack Welsh, Bill Gates, and Steve Jobs accomplished enough to warrant their fame, I submit that companies are too prone to create “champions”—even strangely calling them “rock stars.” In other words, even though charismatic vision is of value to a business, neither such a leader nor his or her vision itself should be overplayed. Business, I submit, has a marked tendency to do just that, and often with impunity.
At 19, Elizabeth Holmes dropped out of Stanford University because she had an idea of how blood tests could be done without the need of so much blood that a needle is required. She was “determined to create a company that would help anyone who, like herself, was afraid of needles and dreaded taking blood tests.”[3] Where the school Northern Illinois University or the University of Arizona, her decision to drop out for such a reason could be reasonable, but to give up a Stanford education so people wouldn’t have to feel a needle for “blood work” indicates a flawed judgment. Where were her parents? She was 19! Finish college then start your company. That it took her a decade of work before she debuted her company—and even then without the requisite technology—suggests that there was no rush. Simply out, it is very odd that she dropped out of Stanford. Yet this point was somehow missed by investors such as Rupert Murdock, Cox Enterprises, and Walgreens, and board members including George Schultz and Henry Kissinger, former U.S. Secretaries of State,  former U.S. Senator Sam Nunn, former Secretary of Defense William Perry, and the current Defense Secretary James Mattis. Did they all show up drunk at board meetings? Was there even an audit committee that reported directly to the board?
Clearly, we can be dazzled by celebrity, and the famous can cash in on their reputations. That no flags were raised concerning the founder raises larger questions in business related to the troublesome transfer of power and position from charismatic founders to managers. Investors should not rely on the charisma of founders; even the promises of Bill Gates and Steve Jobs warranted being independently checked out. CPA firms should not have to rely on founders, or even managers, for renewals. Business, in other words, can easily get too cozy, leaving investors out in the dark.
In terms of leadership, charismatic vision should be distinguished from the implementation of strategy. I’m not even sure “avoiding needles” is big enough to warrant being reckoned as a vision. Founders and managers alike may distend what are actually good ideas into charismatic vision.[4]
In conclusion, the background of Theranos, including that of its founder, should have raised red flags. Likening her to Steve Jobs because she wore black turtle-neck shirts borders on the ridiculous, and yet a self-aggrandizing company can easily get on that band-wagon, ignoring the hypertrophy. Leadership vision is valuable, but in a business context the vision thing must be related to concrete strategies, with realizable benchmarks. This is not to say that leadership vision should collapse into strategic interests, for such reductionism rids the vision of its own integrity and coherence.[5] The point is not to get carried away with charismatic vision in business even as such vision should not reduce to strategy.

[1] Marco della Cava, “Behind the Scenes of Theranos’ Dramatic Rise, Fall,” USA Today, March 16, 2018.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Ibid.
[4] On leadership vision, see Skip Worden, The Essence of Leadership: A Cross-Cultural Foundation
[5] Skip Worden, “The Role of Integrity as a Mediator in Strategic Leadership: A Recipe for Reputational Capital,” Journal of Business Ethics, 48 (August, 2003) No. 1, 31-44.