Tuesday, October 6, 2009

What to do with an ineffective leader?

Disclaimer: Technical difficulties still need to be resolved. This post is by Allison Wilder

As an undergrad, I was a leader for the Vanderbilt Danceline and had to follow the main band director. We have discussed if someone can be both leader and follower, and in this experience I was exactly that. Kelley (1988) poses that “effective followers and effective leaders are often the same people playing different parts” (201).

This band director was an extremely ineffective leader. Geneen (1998) states “leadership is the ability to inspire other people to work together as a team following your lead…others must want to follow the leader” (4). Our team worked together, but not as a result of inspiration from the band director and not because we wanted to follow him. Pagonis (1992) explains leaders must possess two vital qualities: expertise and empathy. This leader had neither of these in regards to our team. The two forms of power he consistently used were legitimate and coercive. As explained by Hughes, Ginnet, and Curphy (1993), as a leader this band director should have “taken advantage of all power sources, had strong influence on followers and been open to being influenced by them, and shared power with followers” (347). He never did even one of the three. His ineffectiveness made my job as a Danceline leader much more difficult, and during many of our conversations in class I have asked myself, “What do you do if you don’t believe in your leader and truly see them as ineffective?” Can you still be an effective follower? What if the leader is holding you back? This scenario could generate some interesting discussion and maybe other people in the class can relate to my experience.

As Kelley stated, “But the reality is that most of us are more often followers than leaders”. (194). This is to say that even when we have the opportunity to lead and make a difference, we are still playing multiple roles because we will probably have a boss. So again, what does that mean for an “effective follower” under an ineffective leader? Kelley explains that effective followers differ from ineffective followers by being “self managed, committed, competent, focused, and courageous.” (196-200). The qualities for an effective follower look very similar to an effective leader. So can you be an effective follower by being an effective leader even if your boss is ineffective?

At first, it didn’t make sense to me that you could effectively follow someone if they were not effective to begin with. However, through the above information, I am arguing that you can because to an extent, your job as an “effective follower” can be to work or lead others to some degree independently of the higher leader. From my experience, that is exactly what I had to do.

I now pose this question. How can an “effective follower” work independently from the leader if they are truly in a relationship, a perspective that both McGregor (1966) and Rost (1991) support? I also agree with this perspective, but in this situation when the leader is absolutely ineffective, is it best for the “effective follower” to try to function outside the bounds of a relationship in order to inspire who they are leading? And if so, what that does mean for the perspective of leadership as a relationship?

One final question: So is ineffective leadership “bad” leadership or is leadership not even present? And if not, what then is “bad” leadership?

Leadership, Morality, and The WorldCom Scandal

How the CEO’s Screwed WorldCom!
A Dr. Seuss Inspired Poem About the Collapse of WorldCom

The employees at WORLDCOM were an ethical lot,
But the CEO, a man named Bernard Embers, was NOT!

The CEO had a bit of a problem, one season,
Now, please don’t ask why. No one quite knows the reason.

It could be that his head wasn’t screwed on quite right,
It could be, perhaps that his shoes were too tight.

But I think that the most likely reason of all,
May have been that his heart was two sizes too small.

But, whatever the reason, his heart or his shoes,
He was getting himself into some terrible news.

Ebbers, you see, had a firm business pitch,
He bought tons of WORLDCOM stock, and it got him quite rich.

But from 1998 to the spring of 00,
The telecom industry took a pretty hard blow.

Things weren’t looking good… and if you can’t take a hint,
WORLDCOM even had to abandon its proposed merger with Sprint.

The stock took a nosedive, boy, was it declining!
Top execs complaining, commiserating, and crying…

What to do? What to do? With our once top-notch firm?
Their answer would lead to the end of their term.

Ebbers, he had other businesses, you see,
Timber, yachting, construction… to name just three.

And when WORLDCOM’s future wasn’t looking so bright,
He pleaded the WORLDCOM Board of Directors with all his might.

He wanted more money… more MONEY! He said!
Not to help WORLDCOM, but these other businesses, instead!

But before this blew up in Ebbers’ face… KA-BOOM!
There were some other dodgy things going on in the accounting room.

The CFO, Sullivan, along with Myers and Yates,
Had less than their share of ethical traits.

By inflating revenues and underreporting costs,
These three men contributed to all WORLDCOM lost.

They made the company appear more profitable than it was,
Confusing stockholders, employees, and creating quite a buzz.

Surely someone would notice this… surely they would!
But a man named Jack Grubman was up to no good.

As an analyst for WORLDCOM, and Ebbers’ good friend,
Grubman approved too much money to lend.

Though he lent too much out, and took too little in,
Grubman still recommended WORLDCOM stock to buyers… what a sin!

But for Ebbers, Grubman, Sullivan, Myers, and Yates,
The punishment for their criminal actions awaits…

Just when these guys thought they were too hot to handle,
An internal auditor… Cynthia Cooper… brought forth the whole scandal.

Some key players were sent to jail, others quickly retired,
Some just got the Donald Trump tag line, “You’re fired!”

But no matter the punishment, we can only hope,
It will prevent further scandals of such a wide scope.

The moral of WORLDCOM’s demise is quite clear,
Honest business practices will bring the most cheer.

For business and ethics go together like a bucket and pail,
If you don’t get that, they’ll throw you in jail!

Leadership, Morality, and
The WorldCom Scandal

While studying abroad, my friend and I wrote the poem “How the CEO’s Screwed WorldCom!” as part of a presentation for one of our classes. I have included it in this post in case you are not familiar with the incident. The poem provides a brief, somewhat humorous depiction of the collapse of WorldCom and serves as the foundation upon which I built the following analysis regarding morality and leadership.

The fall of an empire like WorldCom has always been particularly interesting to me because of the number of players involved in the scandal. How were top executives able to continue such corrupt practices for such a long time without public exposure? Surely other employees besides Cynthia Cooper knew of WorldCom executives’ corrupt actions? Why didn’t anyone speak up?

In raising these questions, I started to consider the concept of morality and its role in both leadership and corporations. According to Barnard, executives are responsible for the creative function of leadership, meaning they should apply both personal and organization codes to their leadership style in order to be effective. In theory, if all of a leader’s personal codes reflect moral values, he or she would be able to lead in such a way that enables the transfer of such codes onto the entire organization, creating what Goodpaster and Mathews refer to as a corporation with a conscience. If only that were the case for WorldCom…

In my analysis of morality and the WorldCom incident, none of the executives involved in the scandal led with any sense of morality. Instead, they used legitimate and coercive power to essentially bully knowledgeable employees into “blind” obedience through threat and other fear inducing tactics. It is not until Cynthia Cooper, WorldCom auditor and infamous whistleblower, takes it upon herself to investigate the suspicious practices and expose the scandal that morality even appears.

If, as Barnard, Goodpaster, and Mathews suggest, morals are an integral component of effective leadership, Cynthia Cooper seems to be the only leader who emerged from the WorldCom incident. WorldCom’s’ top executives’ exhibited no morality because their actions were not conducted for the overall good of the organization, and no other WorldCom employees who knew of the underhanded practices did the “right thing” and spoke out against the corruption.

In thinking about morality in regards to the WorldCom scandal, I wonder just how important the possession of moral values is for a leader and/or follower to be effective? Can you be an effective leader and/or follower without morals? Are consequential inducements such as the Sarbanes-Oxley act crucial for the assurance of moral leadership in organizations? Would morality even exist in corporations if such inducements were not in place today?

These are just a few questions that came to mind as I was creating this post, but other interesting things to consider in application to the WorldCom incident include morality and Barnard’s “zone of indifference” and the role of morality in groupthink.

Emoticons & Virtual Board Meetings: The Question of Online Leadership

A recent article in the Wall Street Journal, “Is Telecommuting Here To Stay?,” claims that virtual leadership and management is becoming a permanent fixture of the business world. In our previous readings, Hackman and Johnson claim that “we increase our leadership competence as we increase our communication skills” (429). Virtual business can be ideal for companies trying to reduce costs and employees in areas with limited work opportunities. However, it could also highly impair our leadership and teamwork skills. With this in mind, how do you lead people who are physically separated from you and with whom your interactions are reduced to written digital and virtual communication?

With roughly 5 million U.S. employees telecommuting on a regular basis, this question seems particularly relevant and important in our leadership studies as organizations and leaders increasingly depend on digital communication. Obvious examples include managers overseeing virtual projects or teams, and executives who regularly use e-mail to communicate with their staff. Indeed, several major companies, including Cisco, Apple, & IBM, have recently shifted their training program from a face-to-face format to a “virtual training program.” Moreover, many entrepreneurs and startups are trading the brick-and-mortar office for a virtual one. In tight economic times, new technologies are making digital and virtual communication a less expensive alternative to physical meetings.

Such new technologies include “virtual meeting” software programs that allow virtual employees to “enter” a building that resembles a typical convention center or meeting place. With the simple click of a button, employees can attend digital meetings and conferences, network, learn about new products and market trends, or negotiate a new business deal. These digital meetings and business interactions are very convenient and undoubtedly save companies money. But how should leaders best navigate these digital interactions?

In face-to-face communications, harsh words can be softened by nonverbal communication. For example, an embracing gesture or smile can reduce the blow behind strong words like “disappointing,” “inadequate,” or “insufficient.” But this nonverbal element doesn’t exist in digital interactions. The structure of words in digital communication also can encourage or discourage the receiver. For instance, a message composed of phrases rather than full sentences might be received as abrupt and threatening. A leader who sends a message in all caps and short phrases may be interpreted very differently than if they had sent that same message in full sentences using both uppercase and lowercase letters. The effective virtual leader, then, must acknowledge that they have choices in the words, structure, tone and style of their digital communications and plan accordingly.

If leadership is important for inspiring and mobilizing employees, it’s important that we consider how leadership might function in this digital context and what skills are necessary for effective online leadership. Due to a dependence on digital communication channels, such as e-mail, virtual leaders must expend extra effort on building strong team relationships. Because email tends to be task-oriented (rather than relationship-oriented), the social elements needed for relationship building may get lost through e-mail. Leaders of traditional face-to-face teams generally do not face this challenge because team members usually have a shared social context and familiarity that fosters communication. The virtual leader, on the other hand, must create a shared team context that allows team members to establish common ground and similarities with one another.

Because “leaders and followers are engaged in a common enterprise” (Burns, 426), virtual leaders must also expend extra effort in creating a structure that facilitates teamwork. Unlike the virtual leader, the traditional leader has numerous opportunities for encouraging teamwork, including casual face-to-face encouragement, conversation, and guidance. Interestingly, psychological research conducted by Hoegl & Proserpio reveals that as proximity among team members decreases, the caliber of teamwork decreases as well. The researchers explain that physical distance may reduce pressure on team members to contribute. In order to counter this effect, virtual leaders must consistently encourage team members to contribute and work together. Ultimately, the virtual leader must proactively build a structure that encourages teamwork and helps the team monitor itself.

All in all, leading a virtual team involves unique challenges and may require more effort than leading a traditional face-to-face team. Ultimately, I think leaders must be highly proactive and visible in both their face-to-face & virtual activities. Leaders able to grasp the unique challenges involved in both face-to-face and virtual leadership will ultimately be the leaders of today and tomorrow.


What unique advantages and disadvantages do you think are involved in virtual leadership?




Robin Hood vs MS-13

While doing this weeks reading about morality in leadership I kept thinking about gang structure. To remain as organized and widespread as many gangs today are there must be some kind of strong structure and direction within them, whether you would refer to this as “leadership” or not. To make this less of a black and white, right and wrong issue I decided to take an example that would be easier for us to examine with some distance.

We all know the story of Robin Hood and his gang, steal from the rich and give to the poor. He and his “merry band” traversed Nottingham Forest redistributing the land’s wealth. Imagine Robin Hood and his gang as a modern day organization. In many respects, Robin Hood made an ideal leader; he constructed a gang where each member had the same goal, he never gave an order his followers would not be willing to follow (Barnard, 1938, pp. 167), and he was able to empathize with his followers’ situations (Choi, 2006). Despite all of this, he legally had no right to do what he did. He led his men to commit crimes.

In Nottingham, for most people, Robin Hood’s behavior was seen as a good thing. Barnard (pp. 260) credits society with having a major role to play in designating what behavior is acceptable and what is not. The citizens were profiting from the theft and, therefore, did their part to legitimize the activity. Cadbury (1986, pp. 72) says that the primary purpose of a company is to satisfy the needs of its customers. One could easily argue that in redistributing the monies Robin Hood was indeed meeting needs that were vital to the survival of his people.

Presumably, because there was some “light” to be found in Robin Hood’s direction no one questions his status as a “leader.” He is seen as a great organizer, triumphing over the hurdles placed in front of him at each turn.

So, now I would like to bring this back to gangs of today. Many gangs actually do perform some type of “public service” whether it is policing their own neighborhoods when the legal authorities fail or simply providing lost children with a form of “familial” support. Is it because modern gang leaders may direct their leaders to kill they cannot be accepted in the way Robin Hood is? Does the relative harmlessness of theft in comparison to murder make it okay? We cannot accept leadership that kills but leadership that steals from the wealthy is okay?

What is it that makes us remember Robin Hood as such a great leader? Do we accept that, in some instances, the greater good is more important than the law if it is ultimately “moral” in society’s understanding of the term? If a leader is running an organization that is somehow benefiting society but going about it in a way that is not quite legal can we overlook the infraction to continue reaping the rewards?

(Image from bbc.co.uk)