Where's the Leadership Fad?
Throughout the history of business, there have been leadership fads. You know the ones that all employees in all organizations must read and receive training in order to implement new ways of doing things. These fads may also be known by the child game known as Follow the Leader. In the last few years, there has been a dearth of business leadership books or training. I am not sure if this is a product of the economy, political climate or just that we ran out of ideas to write about. But the fact remains; there are no leadership fads to rally employees around right now. It could be because the previous fads turned into utter disasters and no one wants to take the leap into the brave new world of leadership.
In the 1980's, Tom Peters appeared on the scene. Fresh out of McKinsey & Company (no relation to me – they spell their name wrong), he published what is probably the most famous of his books, In Search of Excellence in 1982. This book became a national bestseller and required reading for business people. All companies were searching for excellence in their organizations. At the time the book was written, the excellent companies he noted included such stalwarts as Digital Equipment Corporation, ROLM, Tandem Computers, Wang and Delta Airlines. They may have been excellent in 1982, but where are they now?
Total Quality Management (TQM) sprung up in the 1990's was the next phase of management initiatives. We had to start studying Deming, Juran and Phil Crosby. Good stuff and a lot of fun implementing process improvement within the organizations we worked. Corporations joined the TQM bandwagon like crazy. These great TQM tools would streamline operations. As the processes were streamlined, the next obvious thing to do was to downsize the organization. Employees who worked on TQM projects started putting two and two together and saw their TQM efforts resulting in the loss of co-workers' jobs – or worse yet, losing their own jobs. So, TQM suffered a slow and agonizing death in the workplace. Sad but true.
TQM gave rise to Six Sigma at the turn of the century. Six Sigma was started by Motorola Corporation in 1988 when they won the Malcolm Baldrige Quality Award. Six Sigma worked wonderfully in manufacturing, but when service organizations tried to implement Six Sigma concepts, something got lost in the translation. With Six Sigma, employees could be certified as Green Belts, Black Belts and later added the certification known as a Master Black Belt. Six Sigma also utilized such things as statistical process control and measuring everything you do. The thought is that you cannot make improvements to business processes if you cannot measure such things as quality, quantity, timeliness and cost. There is validity to this. However, when the Six Sigma teams started measuring the number of green belts and black belts who were certified in the organization without a thought of business improvements, the credibility of the Six Sigma crew became suspect. In fact, in many organizations, it was mentioned that Six Sigma kind of developed a life of its own with Black Belts often found meandering the halls mumbling something unintelligible.
Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, by Stephen Covey, became a must read for every business person. So many aha moments in the book that – ok there was one that was actually stolen from St. Francis of Assisi, "Seek first to understand and then to be understood." Think about it – it makes sense. However, it was also described as the one habit that leaders had the most trouble grasping.
Other management fads on the new millennium included books such as Who Moved My Cheese, by Spencer Johnson with a forward by Ken Blanchard. This book became the training sensation of the year in 2000 and 2001. It is amazing that a simple book that should take no more than 15 minutes to read on change resulted in so many different training courses. It got to the point that employees who were tired of the common sense message of the multiple sessions, they started calling it, Who Cut the Cheese. What a shame.
Then there was FISH!, The national bestseller, By Stephen C. Lundin, Ph.D., Harry Paul and John Christensen. This is another relatively short book - a little over 100 pages that tells of the depressing tale of a bank executive who hates her job in one of the tower office buildings in Seattle. She gets depressed about her job until she goes to the Fish Market where employees throw fish to each other to fulfill customer orders. The reason it is depressing is there is no way to excite bankers in the same way as the fish throwers. First, throwing things around the office can be dangerous – especially with bankers. The second thing is it is hard to get excited about a customer opening a new bank account or CD. Again, it is an amazing thing that Fish now has a whole school of new products including Fish Culture, Fish for Leaders, Fish for Schools and, of course, Fish gear and apparel. Interestingly enough, if you look for this book on Amazon, you get the message that people who bought this book have also bought Who Moved My Cheese.
The greatest business books of all time were also published right after the turn of the century (that's 2000). These include, Good the Great, by John Collins. A great, great business book to read and was also required reading in the 2001 through 2004 time frame. Many executive were so enthralled by the book that they held weekly meetings with their staff to read the book out loud. Kind of like story time in kindergarten. In one firm, the managers had to listen to the CEO while on the telephone. A few were caught snoring until they found out how to use the mute button.
Too much of a good thing can turn bad. Instead of using the precepts in the book to improve their companies – like getting the right people on the bus before we decide where the bus is going*, many executives stretched the point and started preaching the common sense part of it by stating something to the effect, "We have to get the right people on the bus to do the right things at the right time with the right customers at the right price. If we accomplish this, we will be successful."
The only answer to this is, "Duh!"
Fads come and go. Good companies with great leadership thrive through the good times and the bad times. They keep up with the trends and change their business model to meet the demands and technology. A prime example is Blockbuster, who filed for bankruptcy because they did not keep up with customer demands and technology, while Netflix has already changed their business model to include movies on your computer.
Great leaders watch what is going on while others get complacent. Be that great leader.
Maybe it is time for me to write a book.
*The get the right people on bus concept was attributed to David Maxwell who was the CEO of Fannie Mae from 1982 to 1991. During that time Fannie Mae went from losing $1million a day to making $4,000,000 a day. Mr. Maxwell must have been the driver of the bus. The new driver must have gotten lost?