Cult Following

Last month’s editorial, “Curtain Call,” which questioned how useful industry conferences really are, brought more comments and letters to the editors than Operations & Fulfillment has received in a long time. The single strong feeling that these people shared was betrayal — by the seminar organizers, by empty promises, by misleading promotional materials.

Betrayal lies at the core of another issue central to our times: leadership. As we enter a new century trapped in our electronic shackles and bereft of guidance, it’s no coincidence that we evince a sudden resurgence of interest in the intrepid adventurers of times past. Witness the recent avalanche of books and museum exhibitions that revisit the heroic sagas of early twentieth-century polar exploration. Almost a hundred years later, Sir Ernest Shackleton’s extraordinary sojourn on the ice floes of Antarctica, and Captain Robert Bartlett’s death-defying walk across seven hundred miles of Arctic ice to bring help for his shipwrecked men, have the power to rivet and move us. The shenanigans of today’s leaders, corporate, political, and social, do not. We are routinely betrayed. Will anyone ever cross the ice for us?

Not that the business world doesn’t recognize (albeit dimly) the importance of leadership. AT&T, for example, reportedly cited lack of intellectual leadership as the reason for not promoting president and COO John Walter three years ago. We don’t know what cerebral fireworks AT&T expected from Walter, or if indeed leadership, often prescribed to salvage troubled companies, can be defined at all. These days, it’s taken for granted that an effective leader turns in a sterling financial performance quarter after quarter. It’s what’s outside the job that counts, and in that respect, the best leaders are different. Not kooky or weird — just different. Ranging far beyond the confines of the job, they bring insights from a whole range of interests and activities (folk music, archeology, boat building, needlepoint) to bear on the business, inspiring creativity, connecting things in fresh, unexpected ways.

Of course, behind the childlike exuberance lies danger. As every historian of cults knows, a charismatic leader’s uncanny ability to inspire a slavish fan following stems from larger-than-life histrionics. Daring exploits and grandiose acts inspire so much goodwill among the legions of followers that brutalities (such as massive layoffs) or serious misjudgments are tolerated, even admired. AT&T’s Walter wasn’t punished for his supposed lack of intelligence. On the contrary, he took home $26 million in severance pay.

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