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The Cult of the Leader

By Christopher Bones

Jossey-Bass, 286 pages, $35.95

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It is impossible to be a perfect leader. All leaders are flawed. Saints are rare. Yet British academic Christopher Bones says we still have built a cult around leadership that is dangerous, not only for business but for society as a whole.

Prof. Bones is not that well known on this side of the Atlantic, but he is an acerbic and thoughtful critic of modern business. He worked at companies such as Cadbury Schweppes, Shell and Diageo before turning to academia, where he served for many years as dean of the prestigious Henley Business School at the University of Reading before becoming a professor of creativity and leadership at Manchester Business School. In his new book, The Cult of the Leader, he attacks the top executives who have destroyed or badly injured prominent companies in recent years, aided in their pursuit of glory before their fall by image consultants, spin doctors and media puff pieces.

"The modern leader is egotistic, blind to their own faults, surrounded by people created in their own image and committed to actions driven more by the need to enhance their self-image than by anything else. We moved from ranking companies and their performance to personalizing such comparative exercises by focusing on their CEOs, as though the CEO was the defining differentiator without which the organization would have not achieved their success," he writes.

We have worshipped these leaders, and they have worshipped themselves. They have also grabbed considerable lucre. These business titans are part of what Prof. Bones dubs the "L'Oréal Generation" - playing off the cosmetic company's old slogan, "Because I'm worth it." Indeed, the executives set the example for millions of others with their excessive lifestyle of grand restaurants, cosmetic enhancements, and instant gratifications. They had it all - sucking up huge fortunes in remuneration - but then they crashed, and took us with them. "The L'Oréal Generation has just found out that it will have to work longer, save harder, pay more to the state in taxation and suffer more natural disasters than any generation in history," he warns.

Prof. Bones discusses how that happened at length, offering a searing indictment of the prevailing notion of "a talent war," which bid up the salaries of top executives beyond reason and obscured us to the fact the talent that drives our companies comes from all workers, not just a few.

He asks us to reconsider the link between motivation and money, and for directors of companies to cleanse their minds of the "Lake Wobegon" impulse, which has led them to keep hiking CEO salaries so that no chief executive officer could ever be below average for that rarefied group, since it would reflect badly on the company.

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He argues that public policy intervention might help, but ultimately change must come from business leaders. "The only people who can curb the excess for good are those who benefit from it. That is the real test of leadership: It will be interesting to see who really steps up and braves the cold shower for the greater good," Prof. Bones notes. Beyond that, he recommends:

Stop developing leaders and start developing organizational leadership: The best leadership programs he has been involved in were those that focused on developing a consistent and commonly understood leadership approach across the organization, not on helping a few people supposedly become outstanding leaders. The programs were linked to a major strategic objective that was associated with a corporate goal, and introduced new ways of doing things and placed new demands on leadership throughout the organization. "They built a collective not an individual expectation. They were about the organization, not the individual," Prof. Bones stresses.

Build a leadership expectation for boards of directors:They have to stop leaving decisions to management, and become more involved in details and policy thrusts, acting for shareholders.

Reinforce collective accountability in companies: Establish team goals, and team accountability, and team rewards in performance management processes as powerful antidotes to the cult of individuality in organizations. As well, ensure the organization has institutionalized dissent. "Welcome all contributions, take seriously those that are constructive, note those that are not and ask for solutions as well as criticisms," he advises.

Cap earnings potential for senior executives by introducing a relativity principle: The CEO's salary, for example, could be no more than 20 to 60 times the average pay in the organization, excluding the chief executive and direct reports (other senior officers). In the past, 20 times might have been the reasonable target, but today top salaries have soared and it might have to be higher.

Prof. Bones urges us accept that sometimes, and in some things, we are all below average. Accept that spending time working with the imperfect people in your company is far more likely to deliver value than searching for leadership nirvana. "We have to dismantle the cult of the leader," he concludes.

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