Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Faith Leadership and Ethical Leadership: Absurd and Ethical Visions

Leadership under religious auspices can be distinguished from ethical leadership. The shift from ethical to religious principles is more involved than merely swapping one kind for another. The dynamics pertaining to faith are distinct. Kierkegaard makes this point very well in his text, Fear and Trembling. In short, an individual of faith must go it alone when the paradox of faith violates ethical principles.

Material from this essay has been incorporated into The Essence of Leadership: A Cross-Cultural Foundation, which is available in print and as an ebook at Amazon. 

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Can ethical leadership be taught?

In the typical business school, this question would be interpreted, or “refurbished.” Can students be trained to become ethical leaders? While often conflated contemporaneously, these two questions are indeed distinct. Instructors, professors and school administrators should first decide which question is more relevant to their purposes. The question chosen should fit with the education, pedagogical method, and philosophy of education of not only the instructor or professor, but also the school itself. In this essay, I distinguish the two questions in order to unpack them with their full significance.

The entire essay is at “Can Ethical Leadership Be Taught?

Monday, September 8, 2014

Toward a Definition for Ethical Leadership: Disabusing the Pessimists

Linda Thornton, a management consultant, suggests that “the definition of leadership ethics is still unclear; its scope is broadening, making it a moving target.”[1] This is not good news for the topic. Fortunately, the field may be making the task of definition unduly arduous. Scholarship is needed to ferret through the debris so a concept of ethical leadership can be constructed that is both academically rigorous and of use to practitioners, whether in advising and “doing” ethical leadership.

Thornton points to the increasing scope of problems that can occur in leadership ethics globally as having broadened the scope of leadership ethics. She assumes that the “widely differing values, rules and laws” in the various cultures (including corporate) mean that the “way we define ‘leadership ethics’ has to be different” (p. 60). She is assuming (erroneously) that the particular context of an application must be part of the concept’s definition. Furthermore, she treats defining leadership ethics as the same as defining “an ethical company.” What happened to leadership? Perhaps we can now see how the problem of definition has been rendered unduly difficult by fallacious assumptions.

Besides distinguishing particular cultural values and principles from ethical leadership as a concept that holds irrespective of the context, the concept can perhaps be further delimited. For example, Thornton includes adhering to legal requirements as part of the definition. However, ethics is not the same as law; something can be unethical without being illegal. For example, Goldman Sachs sold derivative securities that the investment bank was shorting. Not informing the customers of the firm’s own shorting may have been unethical, but it was not illegal at the time. Also, it can be ethical to violate a law deemed as unjust (e.g. apartheid). The requirement of law-keeping is thus a dogmatic interlarding of an extrinsic factor into the definition of ethical leadership.

Thornton also tucks into stakeholder management into her construal of ethical leadership, where she avers that the scope of ethical leadership includes “how what we do in organizations affects profits, people, and the planet” (p. 60). In other words, ethical leadership requires “making choices that do not harm groups not traditionally considered constituents of the organization” (p. 60). However, the validity of the claims even of groups “traditionally considered constituents” is subject to debate ethically, given the property rights of a firm’s stockholders. The term “constituent” alone is problematic in stakeholder management. To refer to an external stakeholder as one is itself to engage in a power-grab. Adding additional groups, as if required as an inherent part of ethical leadership, suggests that the matter of defining is following an ideological or partisan agenda.  In this way, definitional difficulties have been expanded quite unnecessarily. Such ideological or prescriptive agendas, by the way, are admittedly all too salient in the writings of many business ethics scholars; the lapse is not limited to consultants and leaders in the field. Stakeholder management theory, for example, could be an ideological Trojan horse coming in "under the radar" under the subterfuge of scholarship. This practice itself is unethical. Adding one's ideology into the process of defining the concept of ethical leadership is like pouring dirt into clear mountain-stream water. Working toward a definition of ethical leadership thus entails as a first step filtering out the precipitate slug.

More difficult to shave off the definition of ethical leadership—but perhaps no less necessary—are ethical values that are universally-held and maybe even intrinsic to ethics itself. Thornton lists honesty, integrity and fairness. However, it may not to be ethical to be honest, such as in telling a Nazi SS officer that a family of Jews is hiding in the wall between the kitchen and living room. Fairness too might be conditional from an ethical standpoint. Whether integrity, which can be defined as congruence between word and deed, contains substantive ethical principles is itself a matter of dispute (see “Integrity in Strategic Leadership”).

Beyond the unnecessary roadblocks evinced in Thornton’s depiction of the problem in defining ethical leadership, the attitude of some practitioners—whether consultants or leaders—toward knowledge generally (and especially on a construct as potentially ideological as ethical leadership) functions as an obstacle to achieving a definition. Viewing knowledge as “just another perspective” among opinions—essentially treating knowledge as opinion—is to tacitly dismiss defining itself. In other words, treating knowledge as relative or simply as whatever anyone happens to think about a topic effectively eviscerates scholarship, not to mention clearly defined concepts. The meaning of a word becomes whatever the user decides, and this dilutes meaning itself and impairs communication. I suspect that behind practitioners who reject the academic literature of a concept relevant to their own field, or treat a theory or empirical result as simply another perspective among their own opinions is the false presumption of being entitled as scholars without the higher education that is requisite. Whether in raising their own opinions to the status of knowledge or disavowing knowledge as anything more than opinion, the anti-intellectualism is ultimately self-defeating. If the only thing that can go into the definition of a concept is opinion, the project of defining ethical leadership is indeed doomed. Fortunately, knowledge does exist—even in the case of the concept of leadership! Such knowledge is neither opinion nor subject to it. Therefore, in order for the phenomenon of ethical leadership to achieve an a priori conceptual solidity, scholarship is needed. Such scholarship, being oriented to the concept itself, should not be based on empirical surveys, opinions from the field, or even the participating scholars’ own ideological agendas.

See The Essence of Leadership, which is available at Amazon in print and as an ebook.

1. Linda Fisher Thorton, “Leadership Ethics Training: Why Is It So Hard to Get It Right? September 2009. 

Monday, September 1, 2014

Emperors and Generals: On the perspectival Wisdom at Upper-Echelon Leadership

In complex social arrangements, such as exist in governments, business firms, and religious organizations, a person must climb through many levels before reaching persons of sufficient height and occupational breadth that what had been said to be binding requirements suddenly become as though unfettered butterflies. Astoundingly, the mid-level subordinates may even object as the rules are relegated back to their true status as guidelines. Beyond the element of greater authority, a greater perspective in terms of what truly matters is profoundly important in this regard. Having many decades of lived experience, plus a certain maturity in place of pettiness, is also in the mix. A Pope of the Roman Catholic Church, for example, may be more likely to pick up on a sincere heart of the sort Jesus would praise than run through a laundry list of doctrinal requirements.

In the film Emperor (2012), religion and government are intertwined in the Japanese emperor, who was until shortly after World War II also officially a living god. Although his aides attempt to put General MacArthur into a straightjacket of protocol for the meeting with the emperor at the end of the film, both the general and the emperor are off sufficient maturity and perspective to disabuse themselves of the protocols and focus on the truly important stuff. To discern the petty from the profoundly important is a key feature of upper-echelon leadership.

The entire essay is at “The Emperor

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Ethical Leadership: Pruning Off the Debris

As business practitioners grapple with the intangible yet potentially valuable notion of ethical leadership, it is left to scholars to assess whether those practitioners are “coloring within the lines.” It is admittedly all too easy to draw in exogenous material that is pleasing to the eye; it is all too easy to deem such material required for ethical leadership rather than ballast weighing it down, unnecessarily. One business practitioner characterizes ethical leadership as that which “inspires the behaviors in people necessary to create competitive advantage.” As achieving a sustainable competitive advantage is the task of strategy, inspiration alone can be extracted as that which is particular to leadership. Strategy is what is left once one has extracted inspiration from the characterization.

Material from this essay has been incorporated in The Essence of Leadership, which is available at Amazon in print and as an ebook.

Toward a Theory of Ethical Leadership: Exculpating Interlarding Ideologies

Constructing an accurate ethical-leadership concept that is not over-extended by one’s ideological agenda ought to begin with defining leadership itself. That is to say, more attention should be paid to thinking about what leadership is. Beyond its attributes and any contextual artifacts, leadership itself must be identified as a distinct phenomenon before we can go on to highlight the ethical dimension that completes “ethical leadership.” Then what counts as the ethical dimension of leadership can be clipped back to that which is implied in the definition of leadership, which in turn is entailed in the essence of the phenomenon.

Material from this essay has been incorporated in The Essence of Leadership, which is available at Amazon in print and as an ebook.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Religion in Ethical Leadership in the Secular Context of Business

In Peter Berger's terms, the sacred and the profane are like oil and water. In Augustine's terms, the heavenly and earthly kingdoms are two distinct realms, a Christian being only a pilgrim passing through the latter, hence not to be "of it" while in it. I contend that such "white and black" dichotomies are artificial, and thus ill-fitting as paradigms in which to situate religion and ethical business leadership. Perhaps a devoutly religious CEO can unabashedly apply ethical elements of his or her religion without severing them from their theological underpinnings, and therefore without the need for subterfuge. I suspect that the legions of the CEO's subordinates would feel more, rather than less, respected. 

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Sun Tzu's Art of War: A Recipe for Leadership in Business

According to Master Sun in The Art of War, “Leadership is a matter of intelligence, trustworthiness, humaneness, courage, and sternness.”[1] Although Sun Tzu is referring mainly to military (and related political) leadership, lessons can be learned on exercising business leadership by means of a careful adaptation.


1. Sun Tzu, The Art of War: Complete Texts and Commentaries (Boston: Shambhala, 2003), p. 44.
vable variable. 

Material from this essay has been incorporated into The Essence of Leadership: A Cross-Cultural Foundation, which is available in print and as an ebook at Amazon. 

Monday, July 14, 2014

Business Leadership Wading into Partisanship in Politics: Howard Schultz of Starbucks

In 2011, the Huffington Post reported the following. “Howard Schultz is calling on his fellow CEOs—and other would-be donors—to boycott all campaign contributions to either party until the nation's elected leaders put aside their political posturing and find some common ground on long-term fiscal issues. Schultz wrote in a widely distributed email dated Monday that, like ‘so many common-sense Americans,’ he wants elected leaders to consider ‘all options, from entitlement programs to taxes,’ and reach a wide-ranging budget deal ‘long before the deadline arrives this fall.’ Schultz concluded with a promise: ‘We today pledge to withhold any further campaign contributions to the President and all members of Congress until a fair, bipartisan deal is reached that sets our nation on stronger long-term fiscal footing.’”[1] The CEO was essentially preaching his political ideology wherein “partisan and ideological purity” are not permitted to trump the “well-being of the people.” James Madison would have been proud, though perhaps a bit confounded as to why the CEO of a large company would venture out of his daily routine to make a sort of campaign speech. In a positive sense, the business executive’s vision was one of “collective confidence in each other” and “in our ability to solve problems together.”[2] This is a good example of a leadership vision being applied to the societal level by an organizational leader. This intangible asset comes, however, with its own risks and difficulties, which the aspiring business leader is well advised to consider.

This diagram comes out of my dissertation, which formulates the theory and applies it to cases cross-culturally. (Image Source: S. Worden)

Material from this essay has been incorporated into The Essence of Leadership: A Cross-Cultural Foundation, which is available in print and as an ebook at Amazon. 

1. Froomkin, D. “Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz Calls For Boycott on Campaign Contributions,” The Huffington Post, August 15, 2011.
2. Ibid.

Monday, June 2, 2014

Leadership as Influence: Populism for the People

Leadership is influence. This identity sounds innocent enough, even flattering, yet as a definition it is too broad. The application is thus likely to be too broad also. Everyone is reckoned a leader, and no one a follower. Everyone is above average, and everyone is important. For lack of a better label, leadership is modern populism.

Material from this essay has been incorporated into The Essence of Leadership: A Cross-Cultural Foundation, which is available in print and as an ebook at Amazon. 

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Leadership as a Responsibility to Sacrifice

In the world of journalistic and popular writers who double as motivational speakers, leadership is the proverbial rainbow into which practically any ideal can be subsumed. Unfortunately, the enterprise can be likened to a hot-air balloon that has lost its moorings. That is to say, the link between the aspirations and what they can actually deliver typically received little if any real attention, not to mention respect. In some cases, the promises of leadership motivational-speakers, or “coaches,” run up against, or ignoring outright, human nature itself. Ironically, as such leadership preachments are typically (and quite conveniently) oriented to upper-echelon corporate managers, or executives, Communism suffers from the same flaw: contravening human nature. Yet the leadership bubble continues upward, quite unabated by reality.

Simon Sinek, for example, has spoken of leadership in terms of taking care of others. Dismissing the academic literature on visionary and charismatic leadership, he told his Leadercast audience in 2014 that those qualities can be disregarded. As if he were defining leadership itself, he said that it is “sacrificing for others.” It is “a responsibility; not a right,” he insisted as though his insistence made it a fact. What about all those leaders who act out of a right of authority? Are they not really leaders? To reduce leadership to a duty is at the very least to chop off a major limb—that of leadership authority. More to the point, the reductionism is ideological in nature, cloaked as definitional knowledge. Sinek would have been more honest were he to have said, I think leaders should be motived by a sense of responsibility rather than their authority.

Moreover, what about human nature? What would it have to say about putting the well-being of others in front of one’s own on a sustained basis? If such leadership conflicts with how humans are “hard-wired,” we could predict a short trajectory before burnout.

Lastly, what about the realities of power and money in corporate capitalism? Are they safely to be ignored too? Sinek’s promise of “an organization that sacrifices for others” turns the mechanizations of a corporation upside-down; maximizing profit is not typically accomplished by sacrificing for other companies or stakeholders, and yet to lead a CEO must sacrifice himself and his company out of some sense of responsibility?

My point is simply that reflections such as these that could tie down Sinek’s leadership balloon seem to go by the wayside, or in some cases are not even thought of. All too often, the lofty ideological aspirations are swallowed as some kind of new dogma already established as fact, or knowledge. To be sure, Sinek’s declaration that leadership is a responsibility rather than a right looks dogmatic. Underneath, ideology is presumptuously masquerading as knowledge even as the knowledge itself is safely ignored as an inconvenient truth. 

Friday, April 4, 2014

High-Frequency Trading: On Ethical Leadership as a Remedy

Seemingly overnight in late March, 2014, Michael Lewis managed to pierce the public’s strangely high threshold of awareness of societal systemic moral-lapses with "news" of a moral cancer already well-established in the New York stock market system. The well-known financial author did so through the narrative of a moral leader who had managed to expose the problem from the inside. As appealing as such a figure is on account of the self-sacrifice involved, this case raises the question of whether we as a society are best served by relying on moral leaders to bring the sordid antics of elites behind dark windows to light.

In prominent interviews on CBS’s 60 Minutes and PBS’s The Charlie Rose Show, Lewis made galvanizing headlines by claiming that the stock market was rigged in favor of Wall Street insiders able to pay steep fees to use the electronic “super-highway” built and maintained by high-frequency-trading firms. Jumping on the bandwagon, Eric Schneiderman, the NY Attorney General, suggested that such trading may be illegal where it uses speed in order to gain an unfair advantage over other participants in the market. Although his investigation had been ongoing for more than a year, the fortuitous timing of his announcement struck Lewis as suspicious, in that more was to it than met the public’s eye.  Not to be left out of the spotlight, the US Attorney General—Eric Holder—raised the possibility days later in Congressional testimony that high-frequency trading might violate federal insider-trader law.

In his interviews, Lewis suggested that Schneiderman (and presumably Holder) had felt they could come out publically against the trading because some major Wall Street interests had tacitly given him the nod, no longer on the high-frequency “bandwagon.” Goldman Sachs had recently invested in the IEX exchange, whose “speed bumps” maintained a “level playing field.” A $9 billion hedge fund was losing $300 million a year to high-frequency traders.[1] Those traders explicitly wrote institutional clients of investment banks (including Sachs) out of the loop. At least one high-frequency-trading firm limited investment banks’ use of the super-quick fiber-optic line to their own proprietary trading (i.e., the banks’ brokerage client accounts were excluded).[2]  Goldman Sachs’ bankers had no problem with the restriction, in spite of their avowed claim that their bank was a market-maker.[3]

Like other banks, Sachs used “black pools” instead of routing client trades on the wider market, so “investors had to take it on faith that [the bank] had acted in their interests in spite of the obvious financial incentive not to.”[4] That the bank had been selling subprime-mortgage bonds to even its best clients even while shorting the same “crap” held (long) on its own (proprietary, non-counterparty use) books suggests an organizational tendency all too comfortable with exploiting conflicts of interest at the expense of the bank’s own clients.

So why then did Goldman Sachs invest in the IEX exchange? According to Lewis, the bank went to great lengths to keep Sergey Alexnikov, an ex-employee who stole the bank’s high-frequency-trading code, from being released on bail.[5] Yet by April 2014, discussions in the bank had come down in favor of efforts to wean the market off of the relatively risky high-speed trading. Lewis suggests that with Goldman Sachs’ reputational capital running low, the public would blame the bank for continued market volatility such as flash crashes and outages at exchanges and view the bank as behind and the opaqueness that blanketed the high-frequency-trading segment. Plus, Lewis maintains, the best at Goldman Sachs had realized that they were the best at high-frequency trading. Accordingly, switching to an alternative was in the bank’s strategic competitive interest.

Lest the general public feel reassured that the narrow financial interests of some disenfranchised hedge-funds and an already ethically-compromised bank on Wall Street can always be counted on to protect the public interest (the public weal) encouraging  or at least not discouraging the opportunism of governmental authorities, I submit that the public interest is not as protected as the public supposes. Indeed, societal recognition even of the shaky edifice of presumed protection may be lacking—at least until the thing comes crashing down thanks to some brave insider willing to turn the thing inside out, thus rendering it transparent to the rest of us. Why should it take such a dramatic trigger for the public to take notice? Must a moral leader rise to the occasion for the trigger to go off? 

Even though the public awoke in seemingly utter amazement  and immediately started debating whether “beating slower trades to the punch”—essentially seeing that someone is placing an order to buy the one remaining hotel room listed at only $68 on Travelocity and snagging the room first in order to sell it to the person at $74—is inherently unfair, I submit that the public’s retarded recognition of a societal problem (and subsequent over-reaction as the media all-of-a-sudden obsesses on it) is itself a massive problem, particularly in a representative democracy (i.e., Government by the people).  That the general public must be hit squarely on the head before a societal problem is even seen on a societal level suggests that tremendous breaches in accountability are possible, even inevitable, in an extended republic. In other words, wieldy institutional hives and their aggrandizing creatures can easily take advantage of the slack in the people’s attention.

Over at CNBC, Jim Crammer initially seemed underwhelmed, yet came around to openly marvel at the bizarre nature of the all-of-a-suddenness as if the market had only recently been rigged. He first pointed out that day-trading (as distinct from buying and holding a portfolio of diversified stocks over the long term) is not the way for individual investors to make “big money” in the market anyway. As though offering a mere footnote, he lamented that the novel traders had been so secretive about what they were doing. On the morning in which Holder’s statement was broadcast, Crammer was still in his “what’s all the fuss about” mindset.  High-frequency trading had been around for years. Why now, all of a sudden, is everyone taking notice? Crammer seemed to view the watershed as artificial, or at least bizarre. The fact that Michael Lewis had a book to sell was not lost on the neo-realist capitalist at CNBC.

Was Michael Lewis a Moses figure, or Nietzsche’s Zarathustra, descending from a mountain to destroy the false idols or raise all boats with the surfeit of generosity that only a wealthy person can manage? Lewis, who had penned The Great Short to proffer an explanation of the 2008 Financial Crisis, had a financial interest in hyping the story by proclaiming that the market is rigged, for he was selling his just-released book on the topic, Flash Boys. Admittedly, the title sounds a bit like Flash Gordon meeting the Lost Boys. We, the general public, are the lost boys and girls. Even though The New York Times had published excellent reports and analyses of the high-frequency trading whose foundations were being laid as early as 20008—even as foreclosures from liars’ loans almost caused the US financial system to collapse amid a “credit freeze”—it took an interview on 60 Minutes to “blow the cover” of the stealth flash boys.

Actually, as Lewis willingly admits, the credit properly goes to Brad Katsuyama, who left a high-paying job at the Royal Bank of Canada to fix the problem by proffering an alternative, the IEX exchange. Lewis argues that Katsyama recognized that “(t)he deep problem with the system was a kind of moral inertia. So long as it served the narrow self-interests of everyone inside it, no one on the inside would ever seek to change it, no matter how corrupt or sinister it became.[6]  

Brad Katsuyama at his IEX exchange. A moral leader who got very practical in restoring the public's faith in Wall Street. Can we as a society afford to rely on such individuals to fix our problems? 
(Image Source: Stefan Ruiz at NYT)

Being on the inside, in a rather unique position by having learned just how the rigged equity market works, Katsuyama believed that the moral inertia would continue unless he acted on the duty he felt to fix the problem that had harmed many, even among the unknowing financial elite, to the narrow benefit of a relative few.[7] So he set about creating an exchange as a transparent “level playing field” complete with financial incentives capable of restoring the credibility of the financial system in the greater society.  With the mutual funds and pension funds burned by the ultra-exclusivist high-frequency traders as powerful backers, Katsyama sought to restore an equitable and stable infrastructure for the New York stock market. After Lewis managed to galvanize the public’s attention on the highly suspect preferential peaks that high-frequency traders had constructed and profited from as though oligarchs, it is easy to assume that a moral leader of Katsuyama’s fortitude would eventually rise and save Wall Street from itself.

Similarly, Frank Snowden had been an insider whose role in making abuses in the NSA transparent can be reckoned as an instance of moral leadership that few people were in a position (and felt moral inclination) to accomplish. Although former US President Jimmy Carter acknowledged that Snowden had broken the law and should be prosecuted, the elder statesman added, “but I think it’s good for Americans to know the kinds of things that have been revealed by him and others, and that is that since 9/11, we’ve gone too far in intrusion on the privacy that Americans ought to enjoy as a right of citizenship.”[8] With Snowden’s leaks and Obama’s subsequent proposals to restrict the NSA’s access to phone records part of the public lexicon, it is tempting to believe in the inevitability of both the increased transparency and the governmental attention to reform.

Yet the NSA was able to over-reach for years without any insider willing to accept the personal sacrifices necessary to let the rest of us in on what had become the status quo in batch-data collection. Similarly, Katsuyama himself had noticed pricing irregularities strangely dependent on his buy and sell orders as early as 2008—six years before Lewis came along and flooded the problem with transparency on the societal stage. 

Is accountability in a republic retarded at best? Insiders who have managed to accrue enough power can stave off even the eventual "outing" by a moral leader. Just as Lewis was opening the public door on the rigged market, the US Senate Intelligence Committee voted to declassify part of a report on the CIA's use of "interrogation methods" since the attack in 2001 at the World Trade Center in New York. According to Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the report "exposes the brutality that stands in stark contrast to our values as a nation."[9] That such a tale would come almost thirteen years after the attack gives us some indication of how long the public can be kept from knowing even of practices "in stark contrast to" the public's own core values as a people. 

Simply put, relying on moral leaders to make the People aware of systemic ethical lapses going on behind closed doors is severely sub-optimal both in terms of severing the largess to a few at the expense of the many and fixing the systemic problems themselves. This is not to say that such leaders are not heroic, only that republic is ill-served in relying on them to keep the People apprised of what the insiders are up to and fix the problems. We the People, as well as the representatives we elect, are more properly the agents of self-governance, including in the policing of the back rooms in which dangerously powerful interests lie pretty much unfettered from the light of day.

[1] Michael Lewis, Flash Boys: A Wall Street Revolt, p. 77.
[2] Ibid, p. 19.
[3] Ibid., p. 20.
[4] Ibid., p. 87.
[5] Ibid., p. 1.
[6] Ibid., p. 88.
[7] 60 Minutes, March 30, 2014. In terms of ethical theory, Katsuyama’s decision is based on consequentialism generally and utilitarianism (greatest good for the greatest number being the most ethical) in particular.
[8] Susan Page, “Carter: Snowden Good for USA,” USA Today, March 25, 2014. Video: http://www.usatoday.com/videos/news/politics/2014/03/25/6836201/
[9] Susan Davis and Aamer Madhani, "Report Details CIA Tactics," USA Today, April 4, 2014.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Zuckerberg’s Vision: All Eyes on Oculus

The term visionary leadership came into the leadership lexicon in the 1980s; the media would popularize it as “the vision thing,” an expression that President George H.W. Bush used to counter critics who disparaged him as falling short of Ronald Reagan’s anti-government vision. Perhaps the preceding dyspeptic decade, weighted down with OPEC, Watergate, stagflation, and Carter’s micromanagement, fueled not only Reagan’s “government is the problem” vision, but also a thirst for leadership vision (and charisma) itself. From this macro scale, the (mis)appropriation of the term by garden-variety CEOs can easily come off as claiming a bit too much (i.e., a gray lily gilding itself in gold). This claim may become all the more apparent or transparent by demonstrating that the term does indeed apply to a few notable exceptions, including CEOs such as Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg. In this essay, I focus on the Facebook founder in particular.

On March 25, 2014, Facebook bought Oculus VR, a start-up venture specializing in virtual-reality technology, for $2 billion. This included $1.6 billion worth of Facebook shares; hence Zuckerberg was making use of his company’s highly valued stock to expand strategically.[1] The strategic element needs some unpacking here. Unlike Facebook’s announcement a month earlier that the company would purchase WhatsApp for about $15 billion in equity and $4 billion in cash, Zuckerberg’s vision of social-media experience in virtual reality laid beyond the sights of Wall Street. John Shinal lays out the problem well. “Wall Street didn’t mind when Facebook gave away that huge chuck of equity because a possible future payoff from acquiring WhatsApp was at least in view—something that can’t be said of the Oculus deal.”[2] Accordingly, Facebook shares fell 7 percent on the Oculus announcement, whereas the stock had risen almost 3 percent on the WhatsApp announcement.

One day, Facebook may offer an expanded virtual social element.
(Image Source: pcgamer.com)

To virtually no avail in relaying concerns that social experience in virtual reality could not become a revenue engine for his company, Zuckerberg claimed that the Oculus deal would enable Facebook to proffer “a network where people can communicate and buy things.”[3] In other words, strategy was indeed on Zuckerberg’s mind even as he formulated his vision of internet-extended social experience. That a vision is not necessarily realizable in the existing infrastructure does not mean that the idyllic picture is cordoned off from business strategy; in fact, such vision may distinguish visionary leadership from the term’s quotidian or common use as jargon by the typical CEO while not necessarily sacrificing strategic leadership

Zuckerberg’s vision stands out in that it applies virtual reality to the social element of social media rather than as typically done at the time to video games. For all the "value added" in this vision, it is not as "far out there" as Wall Street analysts may suppose. 

As a sort of a "vision on vision" move, I submit movies and video games could fuse with the social element of social reality in social media. Imagine "sitting" in a virtual living room with a few Facebook friends. After chatting for a while, you all watch a movie, only rather than watching it on a virtual screen, the film itself is shot and edited to be viewed in virtual reality so you and your friends are virtually surrounded by the world of the film. That is, you are all immersed in the visual story-world, watching the characters interact. In such a way, the suspension of disbelief gets a boost as you and your friends loose yourselves in the film's world. Finally, at the conclusion of the film you and your friends are in a virtual coffee shop at a table chatting about the film. Perhaps the film's director or an actor "stops by" the "chat room" to join in. Imagine discussing the innovative computer technology used to film Avatar with James Cameron while in virtual reality! 

Even such a vision on top of vision need not be assumed to be totally disparate with strategic leadership and thus too futuristic to be relevant to business and have a discounted (present) value today. Zuckerberg could take a look at acquiring a content provider such as Netflix or Hulu. Facebook could offer the content seamlessly right away to Facebook users for viewing on a computer or television screen (or ipad). Additionally, the social media company could establish some relationship with a person (e.g., James Cameron) or a company in the film industry to develop content oriented to being viewed on Oculus virtual reality. 

In short, real visionary leadership in business need not be mutually exclusive with strategic leadership (and thus with monetized value today). From the standpoint of Zuckerberg's vision and my ideational extension above, we can see just how much “the vision thing” has been conveniently misappropriated by pedestrian CEOs and their epigones to puff up, or distend, their own importance. In other words, real visionary leadership in business lies within the rubric of transformative rather than transactional leadership. While I’m not sure if the needs of followers are necessarily transformed as a result of a business leader's vision, as in Burns’ notion of transformational leadership, I submit that for vision to apply to business, the content must be sufficient to intimate or imply a transformed company, industry, and even society.[4]

1. John Shinal, “Tech Bull’s Run Stirs Up Some Froth,” USA Today, March 31, 2014.
2. Ibid.
3. Jon Swartz and Brett Molina, “Facebook Snaps Up Oculus,” USA Today, March 26, 2014.
4. How such a societal transformative impact differs from that which a political vision (e.g., Reagan’s) can have is an interesting question. I suspect the respective impact ‘types” differ qualitatively.