Rot at the Top

Is All Corporate Leadership Rotten?

When I taught leadership, I always discussed Manfred Kets de Vries’ (see his book, The Leadership Mystique)  theory that  when organizations go down the drain, it is usually because of rot that started at the top.  Many (most? all?) of my students took this out of context and seemed to think that corporate leadership = rot at the top.  This is troubling on two levels–first, it is very distressing that my students  have enough evidence of misbehavior of folks at the tops of organizations to generalize to all corporate leadership.  Just as troubling, though, is that if you think that corporate leadership is immoral and corrupt in general, then you don’t strive to be a corporate leader.  Or, worse, you sabotage your career when it gets close to where you start to see yourself in a leadership role.

There certainly are lots of examples of organizations whose leadership has behaved corruptly and immorally.  There are also examples of organizations where the behavior may not go all the way to corrupt, but certainly isn’t admirable or something to aspire to.  There are hundreds of thousands of organizations, however, where the top leadership is genuinely trying to do a good job and trying to help the organization to succeed.

Leaders Are People, Too.

These leaders are people too.  They used to be middle managers and before that they were college students and before that, they were fifth graders.  They do things right and they do things wrong.  They have crises and families and flaws and strengths.  They aren’t perfect.  But neither are they perfectly bad.  These leaders can be influenced by leadership at all levels of the organization.

Informal leadership at all levels

Step Up to Be a Leader

Organizations that have leadership at all levels of the organization are far less likely to have bad leadership at the top.  Leadership doesn’t require a title.  It requires stepping up, doing and saying the right thing.  It requires not going along, when it would be easier to do so.  It requires asking questions, and listening to people who are closer to the issue.  Leadership doesn’t require positional power.  It requires personal power.  Personal power comes from being respected–because you are very knowledgeable about things that the organization needs (expert power), or because you have the ability to influence others (referent power) or because you are connected to the “right” people (connection power).

Organizations are becoming more aware of the power of informal leadership.  An organization called Keyhubs helps organization evaluate and leverage informal leadership networks.  Work on becoming a leader–wherever you are on the org chart–so that when your organization realizes they need to care about informal leadership, you are sitting there,  leading.

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Filed under Career Development, Executive Development, Leadership

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