I’ve worked in Corporate America for over 25 years now and have seen lots of leadership styles. I’ve had a couple of good bosses and some appallingly bad ones, with stories that would make your hair stand on end. Sadly, I know many with shocking stories even worse than mine. I’ve spent my adult life observing and studying leaders, wondering why, too often, horribly flawed people are tolerated in positions of authority over others. Corporate America can suck your joy and even your soul right out of you if you let it.
I’m now thankfully working in the sanest company I’ve ever been in, and I’m reminded of the main lesson I’ve learned about leadership after all these years: it’s all driven from the tone at the top. There is much talk about changing cultures and developing front-line leaders and engaging employees. These are all important, but if it’s rotten at the top, they are lipstick on a pig. If everything is wrong in a business, then only one thing is wrong. Only an extraordinary leader can get extraordinary results from a group over a sustained period. Authoritarians can get short-term results through fear, but I’ve watched those results crumble quickly and the business go backwards once people get numb to the fear, which always happens. For the organization to be better off after the leader’s time is done, the leader must build the people up and inspire them with a positive vision. Leadership through fear and coercion leaves an organization damaged and weaker, with demoralized, checked-out citizens. It’s a tragic thing to watch.
And yet we’re watching exactly this play out on a national scale right now. The world is always changing, and there are always winners and losers with change. It’s tempting to want to turn the clock back to a more comfortable time, but that has never been an option. There is only one direction we can ever go, and that is forward, into the frightening unknown. It is the human condition. We are at a crossroads as a country: will we hunker down in fear, afraid of the future; or will we muster the collective courage of the greatest nation the world has ever known and stare our future down? Leadership matters. It shapes the conversation; it shapes what is acceptable treatment of each other and the most vulnerable among us. This is a fight for our very soul as a nation. Will we embrace the ideals of our history and pass the torch of freedom and opportunity to future generations, or will we sacrifice those ideals in a massive retreat to discrimination and hate? For the first time in my life, I can’t be certain of that answer. But the fight is not yet over. We can still beat the darkness back if every American appalled at this sudden turn stands up against it. We must stand up.
“It is easy to hate and difficult to love. This is how the whole scheme of things works. All good things are difficult to achieve; and bad things are very easy to get.” –Confucius