I don’t know about you, but I like to think I’m a pretty level-headed guy. You almost have to be to survive in the corporate world for as long as I did. I may indulge in the occasional fantasy but, for the most part, I know where my feet are. Planted firmly on the ground.
I’ve never been one to get all worked up over conspiracy theories, either. I know Google and the federal government know far more about us than they should, but I don’t believe there’s an alien cover-up in Area 51. I know that “Men In Black” and the “X-Files” aren’t real. They’re fiction.
That’s precisely why, if you’d told me years ago, say back in the ‘90s, that someday the IRS would solicit confidential information and use it to target Americans that leaned a certain way, and that same agency that already strikes fear into the heart of every working American would also be privy to our confidential health information and police the nation’s entire health care system, I would have said, “You’ve got to lay off the Kool-Aid, Mulder [or Scully].”
Likewise, if you’d told me that the White House would spin a violent and coordinated al Qaeda led terrorist attack that killed four Americans – including an ambassador – as demonstrations over an offensive YouTube video, and that our President would months later with a straight face claim that never happened when every American knows it did, I would have said, “Sure, and Newt Gingrich, Al Roker, and Danny Devito are ‘known aliens’ … right.”
And if you told me that, in a Senatorial investigation determined to wade through all the BS and figure out what the heck actually happened and maybe who should be held accountable for the whole Benghazi mess, the U.S. Secretary of State would shout, “What difference at this point does it make?” I would have thought – no, I would have known – you were putting me on.
So here I sit, in the present day, with my feet planted firmly on the ground, wondering how any organization can operate effectively with all the dysfunction, the scandal, the distrust, the lack of accountability, the cronyism, and the outright lies we’ve seen in Washington. The truth is it can’t. No organization can. That’s something every executive learns, sometimes the hard way.
A turf war here and there, some sugarcoating of the facts, a little finger pointing, that sort of thing happens in every company. It may be annoying and damaging, but it’s not the end of the world. It is, however, interesting to note that in the corporate world, we call that sort of thing “politics.”
But when dysfunctional behavior infects the executive ranks, when it ripples down through the organization, when it becomes the norm, that organization is doomed. We’ve seen that happen time and again at companies like Enron, WorldCom, Adelphia, Tyco, and Computer Associates (now CA Technologies), to name a few.
The sad part is, those are just the famous ones, the ones the media had a field day covering. I’ve personally seen the same sort of thing happen at dozens of companies, big and small. Some you’ve definitely heard of and many you haven’t, but every single one of those companies went down the tubes. Some even went down in flames. And always for the same reason. Their leaders were dysfunctional.
Their executives were selfish, self-enriching, self-serving narcissists who used the power and authority granted by their stakeholders to act in appalling ways that undermined the strength and stability of those they served. And when they finally self-destructed, those executives took their companies, their shareholders, and theirs employees down with them.
Don’t get me wrong. These are far and away the exceptions, not the rule. Despite some dysfunctional executives and business leaders, corporate America has thrived over the years. That’s a tribute to a capitalistic system that has stood the test of time longer and better than any economy in history. It’s a tribute to the millions of executives and companies that have each played a role in helping to build this great nation.
But there is only one federal government. The law of averages doesn’t apply. More importantly, that government – its executive branch, its department heads, its lawmakers, and its regulators – have a remarkable impact on the health and wellbeing of every American, every American company, and our nation’s economy.
And here’s the thing. What we’re seeing today in Washington, what none of us would have believed if we hadn’t see it with our own eyes, is the same sort of dysfunctional executive behavior we’ve seen in the most appallingly egregious disasters in corporate history.
I don’t just know that from reading all the reports on all those famous corporate scandals and the executives who perpetrated them. I know that from direct experience. I know it from sitting in executive staff meetings and boardrooms for years and years. I know it from working with companies struggling with the same sort of dysfunctions we’re seeing in Washington.
I know it from the backstabbing and finger-pointing, from the warring factions and power struggles, from the gridlock and analysis paralysis, from the ivory tower and bunker mentality, from the silo and passive aggressive behavior, from the sacred cows and pet projects, from everyone protecting their turf and covering their you-know-what.
Anyone who’s been around the business world as long as I have knows that, when leaders behave that way on a consistent basis, when that sort of dysfunction becomes pervasive and systemic throughout an organization, that organization is doomed. And when the leaders of that organization self-destruct, as they inevitably do, they will take everyone down with them.
And that goes for entire nations, too.
Now, I get lots of emails from people who see America as a nation in decline. A decline they say is similar to the fall of the Roman Empire. Given everything I’ve said so far, as hard as it may be to believe, I’m not buying that theory.
Don’t get me wrong. I am deeply concerned about our sluggish economy, our ballooning debt, our broken tax code, our bankrupt entitlements, our evaporating family values, our shrinking work ethic, our growing entitlement culture, and the political correctness that’s spreading like an epidemic.
But I’ve got a lot of experience with leadership dysfunction and organizational change and one thing I can tell you with absolute certainty is this. Pendulums swing both ways. Any change can be reversed. Any company can be turned around, and so can any nation. As in the corporate world, it always comes down to the same thing. The people in charge.
Great leaders know how to turn things around. They know how to get everyone working together toward common goals that make common sense. They know how to hold themselves and others accountable. They know how to drive cultural change. That much is true. That much I know. But it’s going to take the faith, the courage, and the will of the people to elect those leaders.
Steve Tobak is a management consultant, columnist, former senior executive and author of the upcoming book, "Real Leaders Don't Follow: Being Extraordinary in the Age of the Entrepreneur." Learn more, contact Tobak or follow his new blog at stevetobak.com. Any opinions expressed are those of the columnist.