After last month’s column on the strong leadership qualities of Abraham Lincoln, I received several responses asking me to identify a corporate leader for whom I might have the same degree of respect. Sadly, no name flashed immediately to mind, so I thought it would be appropriate to revisit the issue of corporate leadership just to ascertain this apparent void.

Eight years ago L. William Seidman, the publisher of the quarterly magazine, Bank Director, wrote an editorial entitled “The Era of Bad Apples.” Seidman’s credentials -- former chair of the FDIC and RTC, and chief commentator of CNBC Cable News -- give extra weight to his thoughts on the troubling nature of corporate leadership. He lists very specifically by venue the multiple “bad fruit” in our national economic bushel which led him to call the past decade the “age of fraud”: Big Business (Enron, WorldCom, Global Crossings); Professional Services (Arthur Andersen and other CPA firms); Wall Street (Smith Barney, Merrill Lynch); Regulatory (the oversight failures of the SEC); Mutual Funds (Putnam, Alliance, and Strong, all failing to prevent unethical trading); Health Care (Health South and its manufactured-income fraud); Government GSEs (the ostensible accounting failures at Freddie Mac); and Market Exchanges (the failure of the New York Stock Exchange to regulate members and to control its CEO’s salary). That litany does suggest a serious shortfall in leadership integrity, ethical values, and sense of service to others. 

In several of these columns in The Four Corners Business Journal over the past decades, I have brought to our readers’ attention some of the books which recognize and address the increasing evidence of this epidemic of self-serving, short-sighted behavior in our corporate culture. As we all realize, such behavior, characterized by unchecked greed and solipsism, has surfaced periodically in our economic history for over two hundred years -- but rarely with the endemic nature and excessive number of the cases in the past decade. One must worry, too, what the impact of such escapades will be on the minds of our business school students, enterprising entrepreneurs, or small business operators. The depth and impact of this ethical malaise will remain difficult to measure. Hence, the need to highlight and broadcast those books which both hit the issue head-on and proffer creative, constructive modalities and methodologies for reinventing and reinvigorating ethical corporate leadership.

First on the list would be Framebreak: The Radical Redesign of American Business by Richard Mason and colleagues, followed by The Politics of Fortune: A New Agenda for Business Leaders by Jeffrey E. Garten. The authors of Framebreak articulate a leadership style predicated upon the “principle of total ethical management,” a perspective which insists that “organizations exist fundamentally to serve people -- if not all of humanity -- and not the other way around.” They propose that organizations and their leaders should have “a fundamental moral and ethical responsibility … to treat employees as whole human beings; to make quality products and deliver quality services; to control technology in the service of the social and environmental good; to aid and serve future generations.”

Garten, former Dean of the Yale School of Management, agrees wholeheartedly. In The Politics of Fortune he insists, “Americans need no less than a new paradigm for leadership in their society.” He continues, “ For business leaders in particular, the new paradigm of leadership must go beyond pleasing Wall Street and delivering ever-higher profits on a quarterly basis.” In Garten’s ideal world, business leaders will not only care about the stakeholders of a company, but, recognizing the interconnectedness of all the players in a global economy, leaders will “also consider the concerns of society, such as a cleaner environment and a higher level of integrity in business dealings.”

Now we come to an even more recent voice, one which echoes the call for absolute integrity in business leadership, and one which speaks from the hard-core crucible of corporate leadership - Bill George’s Authentic Leadership: Rediscovering the Secrets to Creating Lasting Values. George, a former chairman and CEO of Medtronic (the world’s leading medical technology company), posits his concept of leadership on the dictionary definition of the word “authentic” - “genuine, worthy of trust, reliance, or belief.”

In the foreword to Authentic Leadership, Warren Bennis, perhaps the scholarly guru of gurus on leadership, states: “Timeless leadership is always about character, and it is always about authenticity.” Bennis then quotes (from one hundred years ago, and still, I think, this nation’s most original and important voice) William James: “I have often thought that the best way to define a man’s character is to seek out the particular mental or moral attitude in which, when it came upon him, he felt himself most deeply and intensively active and alive. At such moments, there is a voice inside which speaks and says, ‘This is the real me.’”

As we listen to and share with Bill George his travails and travels, both professionally and personally, toward his “ real self” -- a self of passion, compassion, intelligence, and integrity - we witness a viable model for any man or woman who might aspire to be an authentic and influential leader in our world. Speaking very pointedly, George insists, “We do not need executives running corporations into the ground in search of personal gain. We do not need celebrities to lead our companies. We do not need more laws. We need new leadership.”

He states repeatedly that the best and strongest leaders “genuinely desire to serve others through their leadership,” being “as guided by qualities of the heart, by passion and compassion, as they are by qualities of the mind.” Authenticity, then, that is being true to one’s self and true to others, breeds trust -- and as the readers of this column have heard so often, trust must be the bedrock, the means and the measure of effective leadership.

Dr. Joel Jones is President Emeritus of Fort Lewis College in Durango, Colorado. He can be reached at jones_joel@fortlewis.edu.