Saturday, November 21, 2009

The Sobering Reality Is, Leadership Today is Not that Funny

To celebrate the upcoming holiday, I chose to take some time to catch up on one of my favorite shows, 30 Rock. Ready for a night of laughter, I picked a random episode to watch online. That’s when it happened. Leadership theory, in all its glory, reminded me that its presence is everywhere. In a previous episode the fictional head of the NBC network, Jack Donaghy (Alec Baldwin), asked Liz Lemon (Tina Fey) to add a new cast member to her show, TGS. He wanted someone who could attract “real American” viewers because NBC needed a boost in revenue. Liz, resentful of Jack for his elitist perspective, conspires with a co-worker to rig the audition. Feeling torn about this decision, the following dialogue ensued:

Liz: “Come on guys, these are people up here with feelings and mothers who worry about them.”

Jack: “Lemon, stop right there. You are on top of the pyramid…you can’t let emotions distract you from making decisions about the slaves who built the pyramid”.

Liz: “Geez, sorry I’m not a robot.”

Jack: “We all are. But we are getting there. In ten years, this entire network will be all but the size of a microchip. Until then, you’re in charge. Think like a robot—be logical and dispassionate.”

And with those words, my night of non-academic fun time went down the drain. My mind couldn’t help but drift from the humor this show normally brings to the startling reality it was commenting on. Is that how followers in the business world see their leaders? As non-empathetic individuals who brush aside the needs of their followers for ratings and a fattened profit margin? Yet 30 Rock, in its comedic fashion, asserts that this is exactly how business, at least show business, continues to be conducted.

Where, in Jack’s leadership style, is Choi’s (2006) idea of charismatic leaders utilizing empathy to understand the needs of followers so to help them meet their objectives? What about Goleman’s (2000) assertion that “empathy allows the affiliative leader to respond in a way that is highly congruent with that person’s emotions, thus building rapport”? And characterizing followers as “slaves”? Whew, what a way to show complete disinterest in fostering a positive leader-follower relationship many theorists describe as inherently important in leading others(Burns, Selznick, Stogdill, Geneen, Goleman, Choi, Rost, Kelly, Goodpastor, Sendjaya, Greenleaf, Smith et al.)?

The absence of such leadership characteristics as positive regard for followers, utilization of empathy, and acknowledgement of an ethical responsibility to society is exactly what the show criticizes. Indeed, the approach Jack takes to leadership is one that Milton Friedman (1970) would be proud of. Rather than caring about the needs of society, the only responsibility corporate executives have is “to make as much money as possible”. If this is a metric for assessing Jack’s leadership style, then I guess one could say he exceeds expectations. But at what cost to his followers, to society?

To conclude, the underlying implication for this comedic criticism of leadership is really not that funny. If millions of viewers worldwide are laughing at the assertion that today’s business leaders are mere “robots” looking only to expand their bottom line then perhaps there is a real dilemma in how business is conducted. Is this really how society views our leaders, as a punch line to a sick joke on society? Or is the punch line that viewers assume this is how corporate leaders act (and thus tune in to watch)? Regardless, corporate executives are happy. After all, if one’s responsibility is to the profit margin why really worry about what sells at all?