Summer Thoughts on Leadership

By J.F. McKenna

Take me to your leader.

Or any leader, for that matter.

An uncertain NYSE suffers regularly scheduled seizures. Would-be presidents, engaging in tactics banned by most debate teams, add to the uncertainty. Meanwhile, cable pundits gnash their whitened teeth and spit out platitudes as tea party partisans mix it up with coffee klatch social critics. The rest of us are left to wonder, where are our leaders?

The fact is, there are leaders among us. We just don’t recognize them. Often we don’t recognize them because we have forgotten what real leadership is.

Back when I was just starting out as a business journalist, I discovered Peter Drucker and his writings. The father of modern management wrote a lot about leadership then. Unfortunately, just as it is today, many in the business world mistook “star power” and pretentious palaver for leadership.

Professor Peter tried to set that world straight. “It has little to do with ‘leadership qualities’ and even less to do with ‘charisma,’” he wrote in The Wall Street Journal. “It is mundane, unromantic and boring. Its essence is performance.”

The author of Management Challenges for the 21st Century then delivered his payoff pitch: “Leadership is not by itself good or desirable. Leadership is a means. Leadership to what end is thus the crucial question.”

Plain and simple, Drucker wrote, leadership is work toward a goal.

Fast forward from 1988 to today. Lack of leadership is cited as the source of many of our economic and social woes. But to paraphrase Charles Dudley Warner’s aphorism about the weather, everyone talks about leadership but no one does anything about it.

Is that because leadership is a tool, not a magic wand — and that a tool is useful only when properly applied to the task at hand?

Let’s consider that question, starting at the local level. Even before the first-period bell sounds, Ohio has lowered the Cleveland school system’s rating. It’s now at the state’s second-lowest ranking — academic watch. As I have written before in this corner, a low-performing school system is bad for kids, for business development and for northeast Ohio overall. (See “Welcome to the Smaller, Smarter Cleveland, March 11.”)

Schools CEO Eric Gordon reportedly told his school board last week that he was surprised at the drop in the ranking. Cleveland, the new CEO said, had improved in almost 70 percent of the categories the state measures. Sorry, Mr. Gordon, you took on a system with a dismal production record, to use a business expression: when Eugene Saunders bailed out as the Cleveland schools’ CEO in January, the graduation rate was 54 percent. In effect, there is no longer room for relative improvement, nor should there be where tomorrow’s adults are concerned.

But don’t lose heart, Mr. Gordon. As a brand-new executive, paste this Druckeresque advice inside your notebook and look at it every morning: “The foundation of effective leadership is thinking through the organization’s mission. Defining it and establishing it, clearly and visibly. The leader sets the goals, sets the priorities and sets and maintains the standards….The leader’s first task is to be the trumpet that sounds a clear note.”

Start playing your trumpet, Mr. Gordon. Otherwise, move off the stage.

Drucker also pioneered ideas about distinguishing “the leader from the misleader.” That certainly applies to public-sector transactions on the statewide level. Only last week, Ohio union leaders, under the We Are Ohio banner, refused parlay with Gov. John Kasich about Ohio’s new collective bargaining law until the law was repealed.

Some critics are already labeling the unions’ hardline style as misleadership writ large. “Despite the rhetoric, Ohio’s government union bosses have consistently demonstrated their unwillingness to be part of a meaningful solution,” said Building a Better Ohio spokesman Jason Mauk. “Their political allies failed to offer a single amendment to the bill. They walked away from efforts to open a dialogue earlier this summer. Now, they’ve arrogantly refused, once again, to even have a conversation about the possibility of resolving this debate outside of a bitter, costly ballot fight.”

These are times that try men’s souls and tax-burdened voters’ patience. Public-sector union executives would do well to consider this caution from Drucker:

“What distinguishes the leader from the misleader are his goals. Whether the compromises he makes with the constraints of reality – which may involve political, economic, financial or interpersonal problems — are compatible with his missions and goals or lead away from them determines whether he is an effective leader.”

Which brings us to the national stage, marked by Beltway gridlock in general and often-cited examples of executive misleadership in particular. According to the Drucker Scale, POTUS has room for improvement upon returning from summer vacation.

“Obama has been on tour through the Midwest…, trying to remind voters how bad an economy he inherited,” The Los Angeles Times wrote last week. “And it was bad — the credit crunch in 2008 triggered a deep recession and massive job losses, and the resulting weakness in the financial industry made it that much harder for the economy to bounce bank.

“Even though the downturn wasn’t his fault, however, Obama is fully responsible for the efforts to revive the economy. He can (and does) complain about Republicans not supporting his efforts to create jobs — free-trade agreements haven’t been approved, airport construction funds were interrupted, highway funds haven’t been renewed. But he’s clearly in charge of the recovery, and as the public’s pessimism about the economy has grown in recent months, so has its disapproval of Obama’s economic strategy.”

What would Drucker say? A leader sees “leadership as responsibility rather than rank and privilege….[When] things go wrong—and they always do—they do not blame others….Harry Truman’s folksy ‘The buck stops here’ is still a good a definition as any.”

With bucks literally stopping all through the economy, Drucker’s leadership-as-work philosophy is as relevant today as it was when he first committed it to paper.

J.F. McKenna is a veteran business journalist and communications specialist. Reach him at jf_mckenna@yahoo.com .

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